Monday, November 28, 2005

New Toronto Reading Series

This week marks the launch of a new reading series in Toronto co-organized and co-hosted by Stuart Ross and me. We surveyed Toronto’s literary landscape and noted that while there is an abundance of poetry reading series, there are fewer opportunities for fiction writers to present their work in person. So, The Fictitious Reading Series was born.

Our first event will take place on Sunday, December 4th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t The Rosedale Library (483 Church Street). The featured readers are Heather Birrell and Harold Johnson.

Heather Birrell is the author of the excellent short story collection I know you are but what am I? which was lauded in Books in Canada as “a series of witty, well wrought, yet deliberately off-kilter stories that […] shed far more light on the absurd conundrums of Canadian-ness than your average award-winning intergenerational family saga.”

Harold Johnson’s first book, Billy Tinker, was praised in the University of Toronto Quarterly in the following terms: “Johnson delivers a fully realized life in the earnest depiction of Billy, a large angry labourer who confronts the world with an oddly endearing mix of grace and rage. […] Billy Tinker bears not a trace of sentimentality or cliché, and I hope Johnson continues to write him more fully into a world of longer fictions.” Johnson's new novel Back Track takes place in the same northern Saskatchewan setting but introduces a new cast of characters. The novel is an original blend of social realism, Cree mythology, and murder mystery.

If you are in the Toronto area, please come out to see these fabulous writers on Sunday night. And please spread the word to anyone who you think might like to attend. If you are not able to attend, I highly recommend that you read these writers’ books.

Beginning in January, readings in The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on the last Sunday of each month at a location soon to be announced. Let me know if you would like to be included in an e-mail list for notification of future events.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

O'Hara on Poetry and Form

From Frank O'Hara's "Personism: A Manifesto":

As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.

(The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen, Vintage Books, 1974 at p. xiii.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Modern Myth

In the introduction to A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong asserts:

Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented. In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. It was an early form of psychology. The stories of gods or heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters, brought to light the mysterious workings of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their own interior crises.

A few sentences on, she follows with this:

There is never a single orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.

I wonder, are we truly experiencing an unprecedented alienation from myth in the modern world? Or are we simply “tell[ing] our stories differently,” perhaps using new mediums to do so thereby making it difficult to recognize them as akin to traditional myths?

This train of thought brought to mind one of my favourite episodes of Northern Exposure. In it, Native American shaman Leonard Quinhagak embarks on a research project. He seeks to expand his practice by learning some of the healing stories of white culture. He wants to tap into the “white unconscious.” He interviews several residents of the town of Cicely but when he asks for stories all that his interviewees can come up with are urban myths: a beehive hairdo infested with spiders, or an amorous couple in a parked car set upon by an assailant with a hook for a hand. Stories, Leonard says, which are for teenagers and which don’t appear to have any healing properties at all. He nearly abandons his project. But then he happens on Ed Chigliak (shaman-in-training and aspiring filmmaker). Ed describes a recent crises in his life with reference to the plot of the movie Citizen Kane. When pressed by Leonard, Ed reveals that he has watched the movie several times and he articulates things that he has learned from it that he has been able to apply in his own life. Leonard concludes that perhaps the healing stories of mainstream American culture can be found in movies.

I don’t think of movies as the sole repository of modern myth, but some seem to serve the functions that Armstrong associates with myth. Perhaps modern myths are disseminated in a myriad of ways and different people are able to access them in different guises.

Then again, perhaps this fragmentation (within cultures, not just across them) undermines the sense of universality required to elevate particular stories to myths. It has been argued that the proliferation of television channels has made it difficult for us even to come together over water cooler conversation. On the day that the most recent Harry Potter book was released, I remember feeling quite awed at the idea of millions of people reading the same book at the same moment. There seemed to me to be some magic in that. But that is a very rare occurrence. If we seldom share cultural touchstones in fragmented modern societies, what are the prospects for enduring myths?

What do you think? Are we hopelessly alienated from myth? If not, where would you locate modern myths?

I'm curious to see how Armstrong addresses this question in the final chapter of A Short History of Myth (“The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)”). I will read on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ashbery on O'Hara

Tonight I arrived home to the happy sight of a parcel of books awaiting me on the porch. The one among them that I anticipated most eagerly was John Ashbery’s Selected Prose which I ordered after reading a tantalizing review of it in the Guardian. In the Preface, Ashbery describes the collection as “the assembled results of an activity that has always been something more than a hobby, if less than a calling.” The book is comprised of an array of short pieces that span several decades and cover a broad range of subjects. I expect to zigzag through it in random fashion rather than to methodically read it cover to cover. I turned first to a piece that Ashbery wrote on Frank O’Hara shortly after O’Hara’s death in 1966. Here's an excerpt:

Like most truly original artists today, when tradition menaces the individual talent in ways undreamed of by T.S. Eliot, O’Hara and his achievement are caught between opposing power blocs. “Too hip for the squares and too square for the hips” is a category of oblivion which increasingly threatens any artist who dares to take his own way, regardless of mass public and journalistic approval. And how could it be otherwise in a supremely tribal civilization like ours, where even artists feel compelled to band together in marauding packs, where the loyalty-oath mentality has pervaded outer Bohemia, and where Grove Press subway posters invite the lumpenproletariat to “join the Underground Generation,” as though this were as simple a matter as joining the Pepsi Generation, which it probably is. Whatever it is, join it; you can examine it later and neutralize it, if necessary, from within.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age: in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.

(John Ashbery, Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press, 2004 at p. 81.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Reading Writers' Lives

Ella at Box of Books recently wrote:

It should probably be mentioned that I have a bad habit of avoiding facts about my favorite authors’ lives. For instance, I adore Agatha Christie, but reading about her mental breakdown just made me sad. I dig Shakespeare, but have no desire to argue about whether or not he squinted. In short, I am an all-fiction, no-biography kind of reader.

I don’t think it’s a bad habit to avoid facts about favourite writers’ lives. The work is the most important thing. But I am very much a biography kind of reader, and Ella’s post got me thinking about what it is that I seek in biographies of writers.

The primary reason that I read biographies of writers is to gain new insight into their work. I don’t expect to gain such insight by identifying sources of their material in the details of their lives. I believe that most writers incorporate aspects of their experience into their work, but where it came from is much less important than what they do with it. It’s the “what they do with it” part that interests me or, more broadly, how they do it. I want to learn as much as I can about writers’ creative processes. Who were their influences? How did they approach their work? Under what conditions was the work produced? I’m more interested in who they were reading than in who they were sleeping with. Of course, they may have been reading the same people they were sleeping with, and who they were sleeping with may well have had an impact on the conditions under which they worked. There’s plenty of overlap. But the bottom line for me is that a good biography of a writer maintains a focus on the work.

Of course I’m often disappointed. One example that stands out for me as an acute disappointment is James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence published in 1997. It was the first full-length biography of Laurence and as a long-time admirer of her work I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Alas it proved telling that King titled his book “the life of” rather than “the life and work of” Margaret Laurence. King’s grand revelation was that Laurence’s death in January 1987 had been a result of suicide rather than lung cancer as was reported at the time. She had terminal cancer but chose to end her life rather than put herself and her family through the final stages of the disease. King begins and ends his book with the suicide and in between tells an unremitting story of loss and suffering. He dwells on Laurence’s insecurity and on her alcoholism. His analysis is unabashedly psychological and his tone often struck me as condescending. He sought to reveal the real woman behind the literary icon but in so doing I felt that he diminished her work rather than illuminating it. I’m not suggesting that the facts of her alcoholism and her suicide should have been suppressed, but I don’t think that they should have been foregrounded in a way that consigned her work to the shadows. Frankly, the book made me angry.

But King’s book on Laurence is a rare example of a biography that I would rather not have read. I get something of value out of most of the biographies of writers that I read even when I don’t consider them unremitting successes. And over the years I've encountered many fabulous biographies full of insights in which I have revelled.

Last week I bought two biographies for which I have high hopes. The first, not incidentally, is another biography of Laurence. It's written by Donez Xiques and is promisingly titled Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. I don’t expect this biography to serve as a corrective to King’s as Xiques has opted not to treat the whole life but rather to focus on the early years of Laurence’s writing career. But given that I know very little about Laurence's life or her work during that period, I anticipate learning something new about one of my favourite writers. And the following passage from the preface leads me to believe that I will find Xiques’s approach to her subject congenial:

[Previous biographies] have not focused exclusively on telling the remarkable story of Margaret Laurence’s efforts to develop her voice as a writer and of her dedication to the craft of writing, as this one does. I have not appropriated scenes or characters from Laurence’s novels. I do not attempt to construct the story of her life from the fragments of her fiction, as if that were some sort of semi-transparent account of her personal life. Although it is a truism that all literature is in some sense autobiographical, in my opinion, searching for a one-to-one correspondence is merely a distraction. I believe that with creative people, such as artists, writers, and composers, the source of their creativity, whether inspired by real events or persons, frequently transcends and transforms any purely personal material.

The second is Julia Briggs new biography of Virginia Woolf, titled Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I have confidence in Briggs as biographer based on her excellent biography of E. Nesbit titled A Woman of Passion. And, in the preface to her new book on Woolf, Briggs makes clear that her emphasis is squarely on the work:

My account is inspired by Woolf’s own interest in the process of writing, as well as by a corresponding unease with accounts that (like Orlando’s biographer) concentrate too narrowly on her social life, and so underestimate the centrality of her art -- the main source of her interest for us. Woolf was evidently a highly sociable person, with a fascinating and gifted circle of family and friends, an engaging companion, and an entrancing aunt, yet it was what she did when she was alone, walking or sitting at her desk, for which we now remember her. While the story of her inner life cannot be told (except as another fiction), it is possible to track down a number of the factors that brought her books into being, by following the genesis and process of their writing as reflected in the surviving drafts, and supplementing these with the accounts she gave to friends, or confided to her diary as aids to reconstruction. My aim, ultimately, is to lead readers back to her work with a fresh sense of what they might find there.

It will likely be some time before I get to either of these books but, when I do, I will report back on whether or not my hopes for them were warranted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How I Read Poetry

When flipping back through my book journal recently, I noted that there isn’t a single poetry title in my list of books read so far in 2005. This is not because I don’t read poetry. I can tell you, just off the top of my head, that this year I’ve read poems by Sandra Alland, W.H. Auden, Ken Babstock, Jonathan Bennett, Roo Borson, Raymond Carver, Kevin Connolly, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, H.D., August Kleinzahler, Dennis Lee, Philip Levine, Tim Lilburn, Jennifer LoveGrove, Frank O’Hara, Theodore Roethke, Stuart Ross, Stevie Smith, Paul Vermeersch, and William Carlos Williams.

But I only list books that I’ve read cover to cover in my book journal. And, for me, with a book of poetry there’s no identifiable beginning or end point. I dip into a collection wherever I like. With a brand new book, I’ll look at the table of contents and flip first to the poems with titles that intrigue me. If I’ve heard the author read from the book, I’ll start with poems that I recognize, to see if I experience them differently on the page. With old favourites, I gravitate towards old favourites. I treat my shelves of poetry books like one big anthology. I read most of the poetry books that I buy in their entirety eventually, but it could take years. And with the ones I borrow from the library, I may never make my way all the way through.

This has always seemed a reasonable approach to me, particularly with “selected” and “collected” works. But it has occurred to me that with many poetry books I’m likely missing something by not paying attention to the overall structure. After all, I pay close attention to the structure of novels and short story collections, not just to their component parts. And I have an idea from conversations with poet friends of how much time and thought they and their editors put into decisions about what goes in and what is left out, what order the poems appear in, whether the book will be divided into sections and what sections, and so on. It’s a shame to think of all that effort being wasted on me. So, before the year is out, I resolve to give a few poetry collections the cover to cover treatment, and see what difference it makes to my understanding and appreciation of the poems.

Fellow readers, how do you approach a book of poems?

And poets, how would you like your books to be read?

Monday, November 14, 2005

It's Raining Books

SFP at Pages Turned asked today why the books one puts on hold at the library always seem to arrive all at once. I found myself pondering the same question when I wandered into the library this afternoon and found ten (!) books waiting for me on the hold shelf:

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong;
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes;
Death in the Age of Steam by Mel Bradshaw;
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis;
Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb;
Making It Up by Penelope Lively;
Open: Stories by Lisa Moore;
13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley;
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit; and,
Golden Apples by Eudora Welty.

I’m not sure where to begin. Probably with Arthur and George as a courtesy to the 512 library patrons that are still waiting for it in the hold queue...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Savouring the Sunday Reviews

I thoroughly enjoyed my ritual Sunday morning perusal of The New York Times Book Review today. A few of the reviews even made me laugh out loud. I’ve said before that given a choice between “a fair review of a worthy book” and “a good piece,” I’d opt for the former every time. But each of these reviews demonstrates to me that it’s possible to be both funny and fair, to be entertaining and critically astute at the same time. Here are some excerpts.

David Orr on Good Poems for Hard Times (Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor, Viking, 2005): "The most obvious problem with Good Poems for Hard Times is that it proposes that 'the meaning of poetry is to give courage.' That is not the meaning of poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch. The meaning of poetry is poetry." For the full review click here.

Ada Calhoun on Diana Souhami’s Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (St. Martin’s Press, 2005): "Reading about [Natalie Barney’s] insatiable appetite for culture and sex is enough to make even a prolific and promiscuous woman reader wonder if she should get out more." For the full review click here.

Gary Kamiya on Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story) (Greystone Books, 2005): "Chong, who fell under Young’s spell at age 13 or 14, proclaims, with atypical grandiosity, that 'Neil Young saved my life.' Yet it seems more like Young saved him from being a dork which is not exactly the same thing." For the full review click here.

There wasn’t much danger that I’d pick up Good Poems for Hard Times regardless of what Orr had to say about it. I gather that it does indeed include some good poems. But the organizing concept has a chicken-soup-for-the-soul quality about it that makes me cringe. I have already ordered a copy of Wild Girls. Given my longstanding interest in literary Paris in the twenties, I would likely have done so without Calhoun’s endorsement. However, though the book has apparently been available in Canada for some time, I hadn’t heard about it until I read Calhoun’s review. On the potential of Neil Young Nation I remain ambivalent. I'm a fan of unusual travelogues and also of Neil Young but I’m not convinced that Chong’s book is one I would enjoy.

All in all, my lazy morning with the newspaper feels like time well spent.

[For those who are not regular readers of Sarah Weinman's excellent blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, she does a "Weekend Update" every Sunday in which she provides a round up of the contents of the weekend book pages from various newspapers around the world. Her primary focus is on crime fiction, but even if your literary interests lie elsewhere, she casts a wide net. It's well worth checking out. Here's the link to this week's "Weekend Update."]

Saturday, November 12, 2005

James Salter on Short Stories

I bought a copy of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (edited by Vendela Vida, Believer Books, 2005) today. It contains a series of lengthy interviews "between much admired writers and the writers they admire," several which have previously appeared in the Believer magazine, others which appear in print here for the first time. Since I’m not a regular reader of Believer, they’re all new to me. A quick scan of the table of contents was all it took to convince me to snap it up. Among others, I look forward to reading Zadie Smith in conversation with Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem in conversation with Paul Auster, and Dave Eggers in conversation with Joan Didion.

But I began with Dan Pope’s interview of James Salter, since I just finished Salter’s latest collection of short stories, titled Last Night, and was dazzled by it. (I’ll post a full review of Last Night soon.) The Pope-Salter interview is marvellous, though it must have been a rather trying experience for Pope. Salter resisted nearly every question but revealed a great deal all the same. Here’s what he had to say about short stories:

No one I know of has ever been able to definitively say what a short story is or should be, what distinguishes it from an anecdote or an account -- Mishima’s “Patriotism” is an account but with a power that dismisses definitions -- or a piece of description. I like stories that keep you reading until the line that makes it a story, as in, say, Carver’s “Night School” when [the narrator’s wife] says, “That’s only writing…. Being betrayed by somebody in your own family, there’s a real nightmare for you.” Suddenly all of it, solid, with a click like steel, falls into place.

I must note here that Salter's own stories frequently contain similarly perfect and devastating lines.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Pleasure of Chasing After the Story

Alligator is Lisa Moore’s first novel and it follows upon two critically acclaimed short story collections. Alligator has received rave reviews from many but has been criticized by some for lack of a central narrative focus and unresolved storylines. It has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize, often described as Canada’s most prestigious fiction award, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow evening.

In a recent CBC interview, Moore had some very interesting things to say about fiction writing and form. Here's her response to a question about whether she has “an avant-garde streak:”

I want to break the parameters of what the reader expects is coming. So, if we’re talking about any given sentence, I want the sentence to end in a way that the reader is not expecting. I want the paragraph to end and begin and be something the reader is not expecting. But also be inevitable. If there is a golden rule, that’s it. If the reader knows where you’re going, there’s no point in reading that sentence; they’ll just skip it.

It’s not for the sake of being avant-garde that I want it to be unexpected. It’s because I think a real engagement with a book means that the reader has to chase after the story. Their imagination has to be working, and it’s the energy that’s expended by the imagination at work that is the pleasure of reading. If they know what’s happening, then there’s no pleasure.

Another topic addressed in the interview that is a continuing preoccupation of mine is the formal distinction between short stories and novels. Click here for the rest of the interview.

Making Bad Poems Evocative

Here's another intriguing passage from Roethke, this time from an essay titled "Some Remarks on Rhythm:"

It's nonsense, of course, to think that memorableness in poetry comes solely from rhetorical devices, or the following of certain sound patterns, or the contrapunctual rhythmical effects. We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconsciousness, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race. And we know that some words, like hill, plow, mother, window, bird, fish, are so drenched with human association, they sometimes can make even bad poems evocative.

(Theodore Roethke, On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (edited by Ralph J. Mills Jr.), 1965 at 80.)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Heart of a Poet

Last week, the first episode of Heart of a Poet aired on BookTV. If all I’d had to go on was the title, I wouldn’t have bothered to tune in. “Heart of a Poet” suggests syrupy Hallmark verse to me rather than poetry worth reading. However, I know some of the poets to be profiled in the series and I attended a few of the readings that were filmed for it, so I was sure that there would be more to it than the title suggests. I was not disappointed.

The series synopsis indicates that each episode will profile “the life, inspiration and performances of a working Canadian poet.” The first episode focussed on Christian Bök. This is a logical start given his catapult to prominence in 2002 when he won that year’s Griffin Poetry Prize. For those not familiar with the Canadian poetry scene, the Griffin Prize is one of the richest poetry prizes in the world. There is a Canadian component and an international component, and each year $80,000 (raised to $100,000 in 2005) in prize money is split between the two. In 2002, Bök won the Canadian prize for Eunoia, a book containing five chapters each of which employs only one vowel. The book has since gone into several print runs, at last count totalling an astonishing 16,000 copies. (The usual print run for a small press poetry title in Canada is 500 copies, and few require even a second printing.)

I was surprised by Bök’s Griffin win. I heard him read from Eunoia a couple of times while it was in progress and I understood the buzz surrounding it, but it never once occurred to me to think of it as poetry. Confining each chapter to words containing only one of the vowels certainly produces dramatic sonic effects but everything else about the book says prose to me. Are there any poets out there familiar with the work who can help me to understand why it’s categorized as poetry rather than prose? (I know, I know. I'm obsessed with genre boundaries.)

The Bök episode of Heart of a Poet included an interview conducted by series host Angela Rawlings, as well as interviews with his editor and with other writers about his work, and several clips of live performances. I suspect that Rawlings is going to be one of the best things about the series. She’s an accomplished poet herself and her knowledge of, interest in, and enthusiasm for good poetry was evident in her interaction with Bök.

I’m not sure that the episode actually got to the heart of Bök’s work. It did shed some light on the influence that various experimental writers have had on him and on the “technical virtuosity” for which he aims. But I came away feeling that I still hadn’t got past the surface. As ever, I'm fascinated by the ideas behind Bök’s work but I'm not particularly engaged by the final product. However, listening to the clips of what various interviewees had to say about Eunoia did make me wonder again what it is that I’m missing. I’ve resolved to give it another look. So chalk one up for Heart of a Poet as I’m sure that leading viewers to the work of the subjects is chief among the goals of the series.

Tune in to BookTV on Wednesday evening for the next episode of Heart of a Poet, this one devoted to the fabulous Sandra Alland.