Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Every time i move a McNally closes.

Two McNally Robinsons are closing. The Canadian bookseller only has two locations left--one in Winnipeg, one is Saskatoon, and its website will continue to operate. The McNally closing in Don Mills, Toronto, was around the corner from my old place; it opened right after I left. That means it's been open less than a year. The first time I visited Calgary was when I heard about McNally; the Calgary location had just closed. I actually visited a McNally when I was in Winnipeg, and I was impressed by the selection of Canadian writers--they had a Canadian section, and then a more specific Prairie writers section. It was wonderful--the Chapters/Indigo conglomerate doesn't always bother to mark Canadian authors, and often doesn't contain local writers in their selection (in Coles, particularly, I've noticed this problem). Maybe it's time to browse their website, and see if I can support the remaining pieces of the closest thing to competition Chapters has got in Canada.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

i hope the drinks are flowing, the food is piled high, and everyone is cozy and warm.

My partner was kind enough to get me presents from Anansi Press (they came wrapped! i wasn't expecting to get to unwrap anything this year! Anansi has won my heart forever).

The loot:

Pasha Malla's The Withdrawal Method
Daphne Marlatt's Taken
Gil Adamson's Help Me, Jacques Cousteau

I also got a big package from Amazon yesterday with a bunch of school books. While I'd rather support local booksellers, as a poor student I can't help but go with amazon's prices for big purchases like this. i'm excited about one anthology in particular: Prismatic Publics. It's an anthology of experimental Canadian women writers. i might review it, once i've had a chance to peruse a bit further. The exclusion i am most surprised at is Dionne Brand, perhaps because I had No Language is Neutral next to me while checking out Prismatic Publics. But it is great to see two of my favourite poets--Margaret Christakos and M. NourbeSe Philip--included in the collection.

Happy Holidays, everyone. i hope your bookshelf grew three sizes this year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New sidebar link

i added the link for the Online bpNichol Archive. i can't believe i didn't have it on here before. bpNichol was one of the most influential experimental Canadian poets, and if you haven't heard of him, this website is a great place to start.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

online lectures on practically everything

i recently stumbled onto academicearth.org, an online collection of university lectures & courses. A cursory glance makes it look like they are primarily from Harvard and Yale, so an American-centric site, perhaps, but there is a lot of potential here.

i begun watching Professor Paul Fry's Introduction to Literary Theory because i never managed to take a theory class during my undergraduate career. Some theory came up in various courses, sure, but i would like to expand my knowledge, and this seems like a good starting point. If the site contained a reading list to go along with the course, that would be even better.

After i finish these videos, i'm going to watch a set that have nothing to do with literature. Maybe something to do with biology, or physics. i think i'm definitely going to enjoy using this resource.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

women using male pen names

it's not new. but few people think about why it continues to be necessary or attractive for women to use male (or gender ambiguous) authorial pseudonyms.  A female blogger who writes under the name James Chartrand has just explained her case here.  She has earned more money and respect writing under a pseudonym than she ever did writing under her own name.  Once she adopted the pen name, she says

Instantly, jobs became easier to get.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.


Taking a man’s name opened up a new world. It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, with the same work and service.

No hassles. Higher acceptance. And gratifying respect for my talents and round-the-clock work ethic.

Salon.com writer Kate Harding has written a good analysis of why we might find the use of a male pseudonym surprising, and why we really shouldn't, saying

The most embarrassing thing about my initial surprise is that I know it's all of a piece -- that the constant threats and insults directed at female writers are meant to silence us and reinforce our inferiority when employment discrimination and crap pay aren't doing that fast enough. I get furious when people insist that western women have achieved full equality, feminism is no longer necessary, the wage gap is imaginary or the lack of women in positions of power is unrelated to sexism. But even I've bought into the myth of meritocracy enough that my first thought upon learning a female writer massively increased her success by adopting a male pseudonym was, "Wow, how retro! How Brontë, how Eliot, how Sand." Certainly not "how Rowling." [emphasis added]

How do we break the glass ceiling? By acknowledging there still is one. By getting young women active in feminist politics, and continuing to insist that feminism is necessary--not only for women, but for men as well (i read an article some time ago by a male author with a gender ambiguous first name, who was told his male character was too "feminine" and that women shouldn't try to write male characters . . . i can't find it now, unfortunately. but sexism hurts everyone by creating false binaries and ridiculous expectations of what a person should or should not be, say, write, and do based on gender and/or sexual preference).

Now i imagine that people are shouting "what about Atwood? what about Munro?" and it's true, that there are many amazingly successful female writers. Perhaps it depends what genre you write, perhaps it depends on where you publish, i don't know. But the fact remains that inequalities exist in terms of opportunities, pay scale, and marketing.  This needs to be addressed by publishers, by readers, by critics, and by writers.  We must insist that gender plays no role in ability. 

Thanks, James Chartrand, for being courageous enough to open up a public discourse on this issue.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

thoughts on A Walk Through the Memory Palace

Pamela Johnson Parker's A Walk Through the Memory Palace is a somewhat disappointing collection of poetry from qarrtsiluni press. The language is often bland and cliché, such as in "Tattoos": "I want you / so much it hurts to / breathe" (5) or "Talking a Walk With You": "Now as we thread / our way through cattails / in gauzy light" (15). The poems also suffer from a lack of form matching content; while the three-line wave form works in "Engendering: For Two Voices," as it matches the movement of water, and the patterns of the fish swimming through the water, elsewhere the same form is used to little effect. Also, some poems capitalize the first words of every line, which certainly is traditional, but seems unnecessary here. There is excessive use of italics throughout the book; a disrupting stylistic choice particularly when used as explanation--it gives the impression that readers are not trusted to make the connection between "the willow's dreadlocks" and "some girl / hiding her face beneath / her heavy hair" (this inevitably brought to mind the willow tree from Disney's film Pocahontas - not a particularly new or effectively used image of a tree/woman).

The most problematic poem in the text is "Some Yellow Tulips" which deals with the theme of Holocaust survivor's guilt. The use of end-rhyme is particularly disruptive; it distracts the reader from the subject. Ken Babstock (link goes to a video of Babstock reading) uses rhyme in powerfully emotive ways; this poem did bring his work to mind ("Steady brown hand on a Stanley Knife She cut me--expertly--out of her life" is a line that sticks with me). But rhyme still has a tendency to associate itself with trite content in English poetry, or feel like an affectation. Here, it reduces the impact of the poem's content, about a Holocaust survivor labouring in her garden being reminded of her past, and finally crying over it.

The most interesting fragment in A Walk Through the Memory Palace is "Narcissus: Narke" from a longer piece called "Archaic Fragments." It is crisp, short, and has a delightful twist of language ("how fish / school into your dead / calm") that manipulates the cliche of underwater skeletons in a clever way. Parker is clearly capable of very good writing; unfortunately most of the chapbook is too vague to have meaningful impact on the reader. Even when dealing with subjects that are by nature emotional (the Holocaust and breast cancer), the poems tend to fall flat because of a lack of specificity and a plethora of overused idioms and images.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

what google wave could mean for writers

Ok, i'm excited about wave. i'll admit that right up front. It contains a possibility for collaboration between writers that just wasn't quite there before. Google docs can't track changes, or differentiate between different user's input. Word can track changes, but you can't work with it online -- everything needs to be sent and downloaded. But wave allows you to work in real time, to see what the other person/people are typing as they type it. Plus the capabilities to delete and edit are great for people composing a joint document through wave.

The playback function means that even if you delete something, it's not completely lost. Users can see what changes were made at what point in the construction of a document. The ability to send content like images and videos means that collaborations have the potential to work in multiple mediums.

The ability to see data as it is typed excites the linguist in me. i wrote a paper about language online; previous chat interfaces have not allowed the same type of real-time communication that wave allows--it was turn-taking conversation rather than the fluid type of conversation we use orally. Wave comes closer to this because it allows simultaneous output, which means you don't disrupt the stream of the conversation if you make a point relating to something said a few text-boxes ago. It may require some development of new manners -- what constitutes interrupting, for instance.

i'm really excited for the joint-writing possibilities. i want to try writing a group poem, a group novel, a new online multimedia text through wave. i want to experiment with the possibilities of using the playback function AS art. Wave is a tool that could be a real boon. Right now the biggest problem is the limited usership. i don't know anyone currently on there who would be interested in working on a project with me.

Who else is on wave? Anyone see potential downfalls? Bugs? Problems?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

teaching/learning the dramatic

i know very little about canadian drama. actually, i know very little about contemporary drama at all. the theatre of the absurd is where my knowledge seems to drop off the map. i read Ionesco's Rhinocéros in a french course, and thoroughly enjoyed his humour. So where do you start when trying to familiarize yourself with such a huge genre as theatre?  Especially when you are being asked to compose a curriculum to introduce first-year undergraduates to playwriting? i tend not to start with the "canon" but that means i might miss references to popular, current work. And i wonder, do new readers want to learn the canon? Do they expect it? Would they be disappointed if i began with outsider theatre? avant-garde theatre? unknown theatre?  What is the canon anyway, and where do i find out who belongs and who doesn't?

the problems of the canon extend beyond drama, to any literary genre. i distrust it, even as i study the writers considered great. Many of them are great. But why do some writers enter this mainstream discourse and others fade away?  Lack of time and resources?  The need for a similar foundation of material across academia? Some of each of these, probably, not to mention the politics of the time determining why some writing is relevant and other writing not.

What if i taught drama using a combination of film, stage, video game, and graphic novel?  All these combine the visual & the word.  They are narratives most students may be familiar with.  But it becomes a scriptwriting course, rather than a playwriting course.  This is all theoretical right now, i'm not actually teaching drama to anybody. But when I do?

More questions than answers. Suggestions welcome.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

poetactics reads

You can now hear me read here!  i highly recommend checking out some of the other poetry on the Calgary Spoken Word podcast - there is a good variety of stuff.

Any comments on the reading can be left on this post.  Criticism welcome.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

terrible poetry jokes

"Kenneth Goldsmith walks into a bar. He orders a menu."

From here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

graphic narration - pictures without words

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a beautiful graphic novel that explores the immigrant experience. Set in a whimsical version of New York, where strange devices abound and helpful little creatures roam, the reader follows one man as he tries to make sense of his new home. The fantastic setting places the reader in the same defamiliarized position as the arrival himself, and the complete lack of narrative text or dialogue (the story is told completely without words) conveys the experience of landing in a place with an unfamiliar language.

The narration itself is well done; completely without words the author is able to convey dialogue and shifts in focalization--the arrival is told stories by the people he meets, and not once was i confused as to who was "speaking." Amazing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Check out the awesomeness that is this short film based on Jordon Scott reading from blert.

Yes! What a fantastic collaboration--i love seeing poetry incorporated into other forms of artistry, of media. It doesn't always work well (see: The Four Horsemen Project, an dance interpretation of The Four Horsemen sound poetry group . . . it seemed to miss the spontaneity and play of the poetry).  But when it works, it gets me so excited.

Why are you still here? Go watch the video!

Calgary Event

At 7:30 tomorrow, i will be reading at the Flywheel Reading Series at Pages alongside Martin Sutcliffe, Mark Hopkins & Matthew McGuigan, and John Barton. It should be a good time.

If you're in Calgary, please come and say hi!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Essentials

A sense of play, of humour. Or nonsense. Language assembling, dissembling, describing, distorting. Lines, or words, or letters.  Absence.       Space.

Response. Replay. Revision. reVision. Conversation. Textual intercourse.

Patterns. Rhythms. Repetitions. Construction. Deconstruction. Reconstruction. Vacancies. Architecture. Archeology.

Signifiers. Signifieds. Economy. Abundance.

Either/Or/Both/And. Whatever.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Spike, creator of the alternative history webcomic Templar, Az is asking for support for her next project. The project is Poorcraft: A Comic Book Guide to Frugal Urban and Suburban Living. The book is a good idea for artists, students, writers -- anyone who might need to reduce expenses, really.

What really interests me is that this project is being done through a website called Kickstarter. For those who don't know, Kickstarter is a website where artists pitch their projects and collect donations from backers. The artist sets a goal - Spike's is $6000 - and offer rewards for donations offered. With Poorcraft, $1 gets access to a behind-the-scenes blog on the making of the book, $5 gets a pdf of the book, $10 a hardcopy, and so on, all the way to $500 securing the donor a spot on the cover of the book. If the goal is not met, no one's donations are deducted from their credit cards, and the artist can try again with a lower goal, or scrap the project.

The idea of Kickstarter is a good one; artists get funded by the public, rather than having to break through the industry doors. It enables a DIY artistry by opening avenues of promotion, allowing an artist to attract people who are interested in their art; once they donate, this public becomes vested in the project. Now, Kickstarter does require a certain amount of self-promotion; time and energy spent looking for the right audiences to pitch to, amassing patrons who care enough to throw a few dollars at a project. However, I really like the idea of having art publicly funded by interested parties, especially when the project is something that might not be possible to market through the traditional channels. The patron of arts is no longer someone rich, or some corporation trying to look community-minded, but the individual who can spare a few dollars here and there, or someone who pays for a book up-front, before it is completed. There are many artists on the internet finding new ways to support their craft; the singer Amanda Palmer wrote a long, but interesting blog post called "Virtual Crowdsurfing" about how she has made more money from self-promoting through the internet than through her record label. Amanda Palmer uses Twitter and her blog to connect with fans, to offer them conversations and performances, to arrange meetings and flash gigs, to get places to stay and pianos to practice on, and to ask for money, hold auctions, sell DVDs and t-shirts, etc.

People want to get behind art, I think. While the type of art still makes a real difference (would a book of my poetry ever be able to amass the same kind of following as music or comics? probably not, but that's okay.) all artists who spend time building or joining online communities can potentially use the medium of the internet not only to create art, but to profit from it. And that is a beautiful thing.

I await the day when Kickstarter (or a competitor) offers this kind of service to artists outside the U.S.A. I am itching to try it out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

State of Sci-Fi

An interesting rant on io9: "Is Science Fiction Feminized Or Is It Sexist? Both."

The author writes that while many commercial venues of SF are "feminizing" their content (i won't get into the ugliness of the word "feminizing" [what the hell does that even mean?!] i don't know why there's a move away from showing SF on SF channels - cost of production maybe? - and i don't see why it's necessarily got anything to do with appealing to women), female authors are not being properly represented in anthologies and other publishing venues because the idea persists that women are not interested in science fiction. It remains a boys club because the idea continues to be bought into by corporate entities and fangroups. Women writers tend to wind up in fantasy circles, because men still dominate sci-fi.  Apparently it is easier for women to publish in fantasy/paranormal genres, and so they ultimately do.  i loved Sci-Fi growing up; but many SF authors I read ALSO wrote fantasy. Anne McCaffery is the first author that comes to mind (she was my favourite for years). I never saw the two genres as exclusive until i was older, mostly because both were regulated to the same small sections of my local library and bookstore.  So i thought that there were a great number of women writing SF; i didn't realize i wasn't supposed to like it.

Admittedly, i adore fantasy books as well. But the premises of SF novels always get me because i love science. There was a time when i thought i would pursue biology as a career (as a geneticist, or a veterinarian - i was 12 or so). Now that i study books, i've noticed that far fewer female SF writers tend to come to my attention; even Octavia Butler, who wrote SF, i'm more familiar with her fantasy work. Maybe it's time for me to look into more female SF writers - suggestions welcome in comments, if you have them.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Poet Laureate of Toronto

is Dionne Brand.  i love No Language is Neutral, a book of poetry that deals with the institutionalized racism/classism that exists within the English language, or rather, within English-speaking Canada.  Her book is often cited in linguistics textbooks that deal with varieties of English, or the idea of English as a world/international language.  It is a beautiful book. Brand is a fantastic writer.  And there's something very pleasing about the fact that a poet who has been critical of Canadian systems can still be honoured by Canadians and their institutions.

News item stolen from Bookninja.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A bit of this, a bit of that

Attention is fragmented, lately.

Currently reading:

Stephen Henighan When Words Deny the World - it says everything about CanLit that others are afraid to say. And then says a bit for, for good measure. Internal contradictions: write what you know; write the local; there is no such thing as appropriation of voice. (One of these things is not like the others . . .). Not that I necessarily disagree: authors should not be afraid to explore perspectives outside their own, but there is a particular ethical problem posed by using the voice of an ethnicity or gender other than your own. Here is where research becomes a wonderful tool for overcoming the impulse to write in stereotypes. Here is where the internet, with its multiplicity of voices, becomes an ideal forum for research.

Daphne Marlatt Ana Historic - am enjoying this book. It will probably need at least two full read-throughs in order to do it any kind of justice. Right now, i love the poetic non-linear novel. The careful cultivation of words into sentences, paragraphs, chapters. The prominence of female voices.

(right now blogger has a bright red ERROR bar across the top of my page. it seems to be disagreeing.)

Neil Gaiman The Graveyard Book - am reading online, but have reached the end of the sample. i will admit to having a prejudice against Gaiman because of the Beowulf movie; but when i began exploring his website and twitter accounts, rethought my position. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a writer based on a Hollywood production. Perhaps I was overly influenced by my academic peers/professors ranting about the inaccuracies of the film (and the first-years writing Beowulf essays based on said film rather than reading the text). Might just go to the library to reach the conclusion of The Graveyard Book - it's very endearing.

A pile of books about Creative Writing Pedagogy also are being perused, but i won't get into that.

Still need to read more of the issue of Open Letter that deals with feminism & poetics. This is where I miss my old commute - it was perfect for reading articles. i haven't quite figured out where to fit them into my new schedule, yet.

There's also The Story Of O, written by Pauline Réage (a pen name of Anne Desclos) which i'm thinking of as literary pornography (which is a loaded, but accurate, term). Although a feminist reading of the text is deeply problematic, the story itself is pretty compelling. The text deals with the idea of complete (willing?) sexual submission of a woman, and consent seems to be a ritual more than a necessity. That gives me chills; informed consent is the most important aspect of sexual freedom. So i'm slowly making my way through this book, trying to figure out how much fiction owes to reality; sure O seems content in her role, but if she were a real woman this would be wrong. Not the sex or the mutilation, but the lack of specific permission, and the cursory way in which consent is treated. It raises the question of whether it's okay to enjoy a book, knowing that it is ethically deficient. i also wonder how many people read this book as some kind of bdsm 101, and then go to an event expecting to have an experience like O, or like the men she belongs to. Then i wonder whether i have the same problem with books that are more clearly "fantasy" - if these were vampires and/or were-creatures (à la Laurell K. Hamilton) would i find it so troubling? Probably not. Should i? Maybe. i've read some reviews that call Story of O anti-woman, and O's musings on women are troubling - she sees herself as superior to other women, and men as superior to them all. The dominant women in the text only ever have control over other women. But is that because in the world of the text, the activities are financed by a club of rich men? Or is the text trying to say something about all women? If it is, i strongly disagree with the idea that all women essentially want to be dominated, or want to serve. Anything that essentialist is reducing human complexity to a ridiculous level of simplicity. In any case, i'll finish the book. i'm waiting for a moment that reveals that O was giving informed consent all along. i have a feeling i'll be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Words building the writing world

Halfway through Stephen Henighan's collection of essays on Canadian Literature, When Words Deny the World, i am struck by his idea that an increasingly globalized/americanized world has led to the end of a national Canadian literary community. Maybe i've been particularly blessed, or maybe poetry is working differently than other types of literature, but i've found that there are vibrant regional communities that often reach out to one another. Generally, each one of these communities has a few organizers at the center, who foster dialogue both internally and externally. The Toronto Influency salon is one of those centers; people from all over the country pass in and out of its sphere. Influency West is starting up in Vancouver, and i would love to see similar classes establish themselves in other major cities. It's an ideal of community that i hold very dear, and i've been lucky to meet other writers who feel the same way. Inclusive, rather than exclusive. Grassroots, rather than industrialized. Poets on the ground interacting with one another, and with texts. It's dynamic. It's productive. It's sometimes tenuous, and not at all perfect. But it's not as bleak as Henighan makes out. But his book makes some very salient points about the way non-writers perceive Canadian writers: government sponsored elitists, backwards, boring. Many people (at one point in my life, this included me) buy into the idea that Canada has no culture of its own, and doesn't really need one. The Americans do it better, they say. Its been said so many times, I'm sure lots of people believe it. But it's just not true.

So how do we translate writing communities into broader audiences? There must be a way.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Influency 7

If you're in Toronto, you should sign up RIGHT NOW. It's a very cozy way to learn about, and discuss, poetry.
It will be a great time, i promise.

i'm not dead yet

But i also haven't been reading a lot of poetry, despite the abundance of books waiting to be read. Regular schedules just aren't something i'm good at, so although i say i want to read a book of poetry a week, it just hasn't been happening.

Lately i've been reading about writing. Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott's guide to writing, was an interesting enough read, although rather too prescriptivist for my taste (a holdover from my linguistics training, probably). She seems, often, to assume that people experience things in the exact same way she does -- she makes a point about everyone has the same school-lunch phenomenon of having foods placed into a hierarchy by schoolchildren. My school lunches weren't like that; half the class bought lunch, the other half brought it from home. i was the latter (when i was allowed to buy, it was such a treat!). My class had a habit of trading, and one of the most popular kids was a Portuguese boy with a mother who must have spent hours cooking every day. Actually, we were a fairly multicultural group, and the best lunches were usually "foreign". Sandwiches were pretty boring. Yet Lamott doesn't seem to conceptualize much outside her own experience -- i wonder if she's ever read the blog Stuff White People Like.

Some of her advice is very good though. She suggests setting small tasks (such as a page a day) to avoid getting overwhelmed by a large project. She advocates "shitty first drafts" followed by an editing process, rather than editing as you go. Now, personally, i find revision one of the most fruitful processes for pushing a text forward; i write a small section, and editing it sometimes gives me a better picture of where the text is going. But Lamott's book is interesting enough, even if it is occasionally dominated by personal anecdotes rather than writing advice. i was going to make some bitter comment about how i don't want to hear about her kid, but i'll blame the third glass of wine for that kind of snark. i do like the idea of writing books that you want to read, but can't find, as Lamott seems to do.

i intend to read Marlatt's Ana Historic soon. There may be a post. Or maybe i'll conduct a study on the ratio of wine consumed to comments in parentheses.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cheers, Alice Munro!

A class act by Alice Munro, who has withdrawn her book from consideration for the Giller Prize. It is very hard for young(er) writers to get publicity, or to compete with heavyweight names like Munro or Atwood. Hopefully, this opens up the field rather than setting up Atwood for another win, which would either make Munro's gesture seem futile, or make Atwood look like a gloryhound. Possibly, it will draw some additional attention, both nationally and internationally, to the Giller Prize nominees (or maybe i'm being optimistic).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Canadian Literature is shitty.

i mean that in the most literal way. In the past year, i seem to encounter a lot of poop in CanLit. Leonard Cohen's experimental novel Beautiful Losers and Rohinton Mistry's short story collection Tales from Firozsha Baag come to mind (mostly because TfFB is on a course reading list for my upcoming semester). In both works, constipation is a metaphor for Canadian identity. Canadian identity is often expressed as absence: we are not x or y, we are not Britain or the United States, we are not a starting point or a destination. In TfFB, Mistry explores pluralism; he shows that Canadians must negotiate between old world and new, cultural heritage and assimilation. Constipation is associated with tradition, with the inability to let go, with the desire to keep something pure or singular. Cohen's narrator experiences similar constipation: he tries to keep everything organized, he cannot break out of his structured (imperialist?) mindset.

Poop, then, is the ideal Canadian state. At least, that's what the lit seems to say.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Virginia Woolf on Words

i saw this video on the feminist website jezebel.com

"Our business is to see what we can do with ... the English language as it is." According to Woolf, it is not the position of writers to produce new words, but to arrange existing ones in new ways. But this is apparently the only recording of Woolf speaking, so it is well worth listening to although the audio quality isn't great.

(also, if you don't read Jezebel, you should. i'm not a fan of many of the celeb articles, but there are very intelligent commenters, which is rare for the internet; and some very thought provoking articles about women in the workplace and women in pop culture)

EDIT: aha! there is a transcript of the recording here

Monday, August 10, 2009

the women must die

have you ever read a book that is so good it makes you think i could never write like that, not in a million years? Ann-Marie MacDonald does that to me. Her novels are so intricate, her characters so compelling, so tragic, it makes me want to give up writing fiction. i just can't do it the way she does. her novels are long, full of recurring symbolism, historic events - a kind of realism that exposes itself as romance.

Before i had heard of Ann-Marie MacDonald, i noticed a play at the library where i worked. The title intrigued me: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). i didn't realize it was by the same author as a novel i was reading for class, Fall On Your Knees. really, i should find the play and read it.

MacDonald's novels are huge, physically imposing books. They are masterpieces of feminism; i would venture to label FOYK as a female epic. The books question Canada, Canadian nationalism, history, official versions of things, memory and remembering. The truth, these novels suggest, will come to light, despite official attempts to erradicate or white-wash events. (at least, i'm assuming that The Way the Crow Flies will do this; i am almost finished the book but not quite). These novels are beautiful, haunting tales of sexual abuse of children, of girls growing up into women, of women asserting their place in history. They are dark, but FOYK resolves itself with hope; hope that "the truth shall set us free". i'm not sure that TWTCF can do the same because it questions truth on a deeper level; "the truth lies".

i wrote an essay about FOYK, comparing it with Jenny Sampirsi's is/was; my prof gave a name to what i was doing: exploring death-writing. Figures of dead girls and dead women permeate these novels. i am considering writing another paper adding TWTCF to the mix. Death-writing, the opposite of life-writing.

The novel i'm writing now is beginning to feel very bland to me. Perhaps because i am steering so clear of the death-writing that i love to explore academically, but am afraid to approach creatively. Why are the corridors of literature strewn with dead females? Desdemona and Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth . . . they were not the beginnning of this trope, but i feel i haven't delved nearly deep enough into the ladies of Shakespearean tragedy. There is something here, something that says "the woman must die". Why? So that her body can serve as a screen for anxieties: sexual, social, racial; the collective anxieties that plague every culture. The female body is a screen. On that screen, fear is projected by men, by other women, by family, by strangers. The women must die. The girls must die, before they become women.

Murdered. There is something disturbingly sacrificial here. An open wound that begs to be probed.

Eventually, i hope i will feel up to the task. i'm sure someone else, someone more qualified, will (or maybe has already) explore the dead women of CanLit. But i'm conducting a seperate, private investigation. i have to. the literature, the characters, they deserve it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Singlish in comics

So i was pleasantly surprised when i was reading Birds of Prey, and came across Singlish; a variety of English used in Singapore. Representations of varieties of English are often limited to British/North American dialects, and seldom do one of the "New Englishes" appear in North American mainstream media (in my experience). So i was delighted to see Singlish appear in DC comics. Comics, like literature, are becoming increasingly diverse, and often multilingual. This is good; it represents the realities of a global culture. However, there are still some issues with how Singlish was portrayed.

The man speaking Singlish was pretending to be an idiot to get in with a crime lord. He used Singlish when in disguise, and standard English when being himself. Singlish, then, is associated with stupidity and a lack of education. Many non-standard dialects of English suffer this stereotype, because standard English is often considered "proper", best for education, or "correct". It is none of these things. A standard variety is useful for many reasons - communicating across varieties, writing academic papers that are meant for as broad an audience as possible, etc. - but non-standard varieties should not be considered inferior, nor indicative of intellegence or education. In fact, in future, i believe that most speakers of English will be able to operate across spectrums of English; using local varieties for everyday conversation, standard English for formal or international settings, and varieties in the middle as the situation requires. Regional varieties are tailored to suit life in the regions they develop in; they often can express things standard English is not suited for. Yet the stereotype remains that non-standard is somehow inferior.

It is great that DC used Singlish in one of its comics. Heck, i'm sure many, if not most, readers were previously unaware of Singlish, and this exposure is wonderful. However, what i'd really love to see are representations that show Singlish is not only the language of goons and that varieties are not something for standard-English speakers to mock or look down on.

i really would like to be pointed towards works of literature written in non-standard Englishes from around the world. suggestions are welcome in comments.

(i have read rather extensively on global/world Englishes. if interested in further reading, David Crystal is an author i'd reccommend as a starting point.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

interactive fiction

i found this lovely game by Emily Short:Galatea

It is a very beautiful, interactive text game; a conversation between the player - an art critic - with Galatea.  There are many endings, many routes to take.  The level of responsiveness is very cool; the way Galatea reacts depends on how you treat her and which subjects you bring up.  I had some trouble with it at first, wanting to ask questions that the program can't answer, but overall it is a very comprehensive game.  i will admit, i only found 5 endings on my own, then played through the various walkthroughs available on the site because i had reached the limit of my own imaginings.  i dare you to find more without consulting the cheats.

i really think this is an interesting game - there is a brief mention of feminism, and i think that exploring that topic within the context of the game would be very interesting.  If woman exists for (a) man, what happens when that man is gone?

now i'm thinking about it, i don't believe any gendered pronouns are used to refer to the player/critic. So depending on the user, that can really change how the game reads; if the critic is male, then in some scenarios Galatea transfers her affections from one male to another. In others, the male gaze is returned by a female. In yet others, she liberates herself, or is liberated with male assistance. If the critic is female, it becomes a scenario of woman helping woman - but in all the same scenarios. Hmm. i wonder if the critic is intended to be read as one gender or another. i did really picture the critic not as myself, but as a male character; to be fair, i play a lot of games, and with some exceptions (Oblivion, Fable II) usually am thrust into a male role. i wonder if i automatically read all 1st person game characters as male?  Time to rexamine my own assumptions.  While i do that, go play Galatea.

father death blues

Saw this over at Silliman's Blog, and thought it was pretty neat:

Allen Ginsberg - Father Death Blues

The sounds brings to mind the band Neutral Milk Hotel - so if you like this check them out. i love Allen Ginsberg, i really really do.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Over the past couple of days, i've been catching up with DC Comics - Wonder Woman and The Flash specifically - as well as reading a few older series: Static and Birds of Prey. It is very hard to get into a comic universe, like DC, these days. The stories all cross-reference each other so that you have to know the history of character x before you can read about character y. Wikipedia is about the only cure for this.

Static is different; he doesn't really belong to the DCU (at least in the original issues i'm reading - DC made a cartoon, Static Shock, where he teams up with Batman, Green Lantern, etc.). He is a part of the Milestone universe, a wonderfully diverse place that resembles a modern city. Static, when he's not a hero, is a high schooler. He, and his friends, deal with issues that are refreshingly real: gang violence, gay slurs, racism, etc. This is no Spiderman-style angst over not getting the girl (though there is some of that too). What i like most is that it doesn't feel like tokenism; there are black characters, latino/a characters, white characters, gay characters, straight characters because those are the people, not because someone decided to introduce a demographic for the express purpose of representing that demographic.

i'm enjoying Birds of Prey so much i've bought a bunch more of the compendiums. Yes, i get annoyed that the women all have the same rail-thin waists and giant round boobs, and that they are soft and curvy while the male superheroes are over-muscled. And the fan service pictures of tna are ridiculous. But at least here the females aren't working as sidekicks to a central male hero. And Oracle - wheelchair bound genius former Batgirl Barbara Gorden - is awesome. So awesome that i'm resisting reading Batman's Battle for the Cowl and Oracle: The Cure because i'm afraid they're going to do exactly that - "fix" Barbara. Who is more interesting as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl, honestly. i especially enjoy Birds of Prey for what it is not: a Sex and the City of comics (as Marvel has advertised their new female superhero comic; fuck "bubbly fun").

The "Who is Wonder Woman?" stuff was pretty good (some of it written by novelist Jodi Picoult, some written by Gail Simone, who also wrote Birds of Prey for a while). Unfortunately she still has that dumbass costume, but the references to her influence in pop culture are pretty cool. Wonder Woman is more kickass than ever.

What i'm really waiting for, though, is a comic where superheroes - both male and female - have real bodies of different shapes and sizes. Because a gymnist like Nighthawk should look like a gymnist, not a weightlifter. And a fighter like Black Canary should have a different build than the more acrobatic and weapon inclined Huntress.

And not all superheroines need manicures, thank-you-very-much.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

fantasy and me

First thing, a comment on the new Harry Potter film. i'm beginning to believe that the time between films is a good thing - i remembered the plot only in a vague way, and appreciated the movie more for it. One thing i miss, however, is the ambient magic; there were no moving staircases and fewer background enchantments (such as moving pictures) in this film. Although when i think of it, the last film might have also had less of that as well. Which is too bad, because that's part of what made me really appreciate these movies; they provide a continual detail that the books lack, simply because after the first few books the focus becomes more on Potter and plot, and less on the amazing Hogwarts environment.

Secondly, upon finishing Butler's Kindred I felt a great deal of satisfaction with the book. i liked that it was very clear that the Rufus, the white boy who grows into a slaveowner, is not miraculously turned into an empathetic abolitionist becuase of Dana's influence; he is kinder than his father, but still intensely selfish. The book didn't have a happy ending, and that was appropriate. History never has a neat, happy ending. And Dana was such a strong, admirable woman; she is the heroine that Margarat Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale lacks. The type of female character, the type of black woman, that we need in literature.

The Canadian school system currently teaches a number of fictional slave narratives, some focusing on a young girl, others on a young boy. i fail to remember specific titles, unfortunately. These novels typically feature a child making their way to freedom; and usually end with that objective achieved--and they live happily ever after in the North. It is a very different thing to read about slavery from the perspective of a modern, adult woman, because adults are much more cognisant of danger and of mortality, and because a modern person is unable to see slavery through the lense of normalcy (at least at first; one of the points of the novel is that one can become accustomed to almost anything). Kindred was a very worthwhile read, and i will be finding more Octavia E. Butler novels in future.

There is a lot more that could be said about Kindred, and i'm sure there's a great deal of literature out there about the novel. It blends fantasy and fiction, it brings together that which is impossible and that which should have been impossible. In the way that the best science fiction does, it makes the reader question what it means to be human, and what it means to have a connection to a violent and tragic history. In the most literal way, Dana is damaged by her time travel; she looses an arm on her final trip home to the present. The absense of her arm will assert the presence of the past for the rest of her life. The scars of history are indelible.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Currently reading Octavia E. Butler's book Kindred, which was first published in 1979. It reminds me a lot of The Time Traveler's Wife - same kind of being uncontrollably pulled through time, same kind of danger inherent to time travel - the traveler might appear anywhere, might get trapped in walls, might get hurt, etc. Except here the time traveler is an African American woman being drawn back to antebellum Maryland. And her husband even manages to hitch a ride with her, creating a situation where she needs to pretend to be his slave. It's a good read so far; exciting and slightly suspenseful. I've read a few of Butler's short stories in the past (which was why i picked up this novel), and find her writing very engaging. Maybe i'll post a more thorough examination of the book when i'm done. It is a great change of pace from The Tombs of Atuan, that's for sure.

Things might be more focused on fiction here for a while, because i'm trying to get into my prose-head for school. Although i do have my lovely bookthug editions of Tender Buttons and Every Way Oakley to read, so those might be some upcoming poetry-centered posts to look forward to.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

the females of fantasy

i was away longer than i thought i would be. my books got mispacked during my move, so i only just got them back.

a few words on Ursula K. LeGuin's Tombs of Atuan. i love LeGuin's writing; it's imaginative and immersive. This, the second in her Earthsea Cycle series, left me wondering why exactly i needed to read another fantasy book where a girl is rescued from her evil destiny by a man, with only the barest nod to her participation through a choice--between her current life as an instrument of darkness, or a difficult future of freedom. For some reason, in books like this, it is always because a girl is good at heart or has the right nature that she is worthy of attention. Why does the hero of the first book of the series, a boy named Sparrowhawk, get to adventure, cause his own downfall, and redeem himself, when here, Tenar gets no say in her initial destany, complies with her training, feels some moral compunction about her duties involving human sacrifice, and then is rescued and depandant on Sparrowhawk for her future plans.

i don't like the "girl as passive instrument" trope, i don't like that the herione needs rescuing when she never really wanted a new life until meeting Sparrowhawk. i don't like that her positive attributes are inate traits rather than the result of personal development. i did enjoy the book, i will admit. but it raises my hackles a little bit. i really hope that in one of the sequals, Tenar gets to be a more active participant. The Tombs of Atuan was like going over all the gender stereotypes that i hated about a lot of children's novels.

Someone doing it right? Tamara Pierce. i loved her books as a girl. i loved Alanna, a girl who disguised herself as a boy to be a knight, and grew up to be the king's champion; a person who didn't let the world dictate who she could be. i loved Dianne, a wildmage who could talk to animals, learning to use her powers. These women had the support of men, but had their own adventures and did most of the rescuing themselves. The books also had really awesome male characters - George, the king of theives, for instance - but were so valuable for their levelling influence. This wasn't Narnia, where the boys got swords and the girls got weapons to use in emergencies (or distance weapons so their hands wouldn't be diritied).

i believe that until assertive literary women become unremarkable, it is imporatant to remain critical of characters, of books, of conventions. Until there are more Alannas, the Tenars cannot be left alone. Because it is easy to say that authors need freedom to write. It is not easy to find females who openly defy gender expectations and succeed. Particularly in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, worlds that are supposed to be representative of ideals. Worlds that might reflect on this one, but are not bound by the same prejudices that this one is.

Give me more heroes that i can look up to; give me something that i would love to see but don't really expect anymore. Give me more Alannas.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

tip of the day

Head over to Lemon Hound for a poem by Margaret Christakos about birds, wanking, and a Woody Allen film.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Oxford Poetry Kerfuffle

Well it's more than a kerfuffle. There's much maligning going on, and this is the most media attention i've seen for poetry in a good long while. Nothing like a scandal for publicity; but the public already has an image of poets as pretentious, self-absorbed elitists, and this isn't helping any.

But i came across this article about an anonymous poem called "Smear" about Ruth Padel and her campaign against Derek Walcott, which is worth reading, if only for the comments. My favourite is from poster DomC, who writes:
Poets, smears
Such a fuss
Shove them all
Under a bus.
i'm not entirely sure what to think about this whole debacle. If Ruth Padel had brought the complaints about sexual harrassment up without sneaking them to the media, there probably wouldn't be a problem now. But would a man have lost the position for such a political manoeuvre? Hard to say.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

off topic again

a quick (tangential) rant, written, admittedly, in anger and frustration.

A book i'm reading, Images of Women in Literature by David Holbrook, contains this tidbit in the introduction:
"And so it is with woman, who is naturally equipped with special and mysterious powers by which to respond to the many moods and needs of the infant. There is no point in denying that woman has these special powers and that the sanity of the world depends on them."
(the "And so it is" refers to complex fears people have regarding moral and social issues
uh . . . these special powers? A vagina and social conditioning (or what some might call the "maternal instinct")? The author also has a problem with feminist university courses and their agendas. Apparently he doesn't realize that every syllabus contains some kind of bias, some kind of hole, some kind of problem. Instead of criticizing a specific course, he complains about the whole movement. Yes, social movements need criticism, but conflating the parts with the whole is problematic too. He also doesn't appear to think that there might be a reason why some feminists might reject aspects of psychoanalysis. i'm told (i have yet to study this for myself) that Freud's treatment of his female patients is somewhat questionable. And, well, he did put the phallus at the center of pretty much everything.

Another quote:
"Political polarity, with all its bigotry, is no service to the Socratic dialogue by which, we assume, truth may be found"
Okay, this book is obviously dated. Thinking it was from the 70's, i just checked the date. '89. Hm. It still seems like a huge assumption that there is only one truth, or that truth will ever be accessible. Or that his text is free from political polarity and bigotry.

i'd just like to say that i'm waiting for my special and mysterious powers to emerge. i hope they involve super-strength and laser beams that shoot from my eyes, but maybe that's just me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

play a poem

Go play this which i found through Katherine Parrish's fascinating blog imperfect offering.

This is what Katherine says:
"Today I Die is a new digital poetry game thing. It’s a game. It’s a poem. It’s a game-poem.

And it’s delightful"
It really is.

***UPDATE Jan 19 2017: A reader advised me of a broken link, and kindly provided an updated version: http://www.crazygames.com/game/today-i-die
Thanks for the tip, Hannah F!

Friday, May 8, 2009

A quick note

Reading The Tapeworm Foundry by Darren Wershler-Henry right after Christian Bök's Eunoia. The first says "sometimes the letter y emanates a magnetism of its own" while the second avoids that letter completely.

Thoughts still percolating. Read and respond.

P.S. "start a pataphysical software company" (Tapeworm Foundry p. 10) just sounds neat. Hearkens back to bpNichol & Steve McCaffery. Bök also wrote something on 'pataphysics, if i'm not mistaken. Hmmm.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

poetry whores

these people are my heroes. its almost like the punk cabaret / burlesque poetry readings i have been imagining. brothel poetry, oh yes.


more here

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Over the next month or so posting will only happen at irregular intervals. Once June happens, i'll try to return to a multiple-posts-per-week updating schedule, but for now i'm busy writing about dead women in various literatures and preparing for exams. Anyways, here is an excerpt from a presentation i did on Erin Mouré's Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person:

... Mouré describes her textual adventure as “trans-e-lation” rather than “translation”. Critic Sheila Hyland says that “In this case the e=extra. [Mouré] is translating, but she is doing more.” Mouré is adapting the poem into the cityscape of 21st century Toronto, and replacing the experience of Alberto Caeiro with that of Eirin-with-an-extra-I Moure. Charles Barbour explains that Mouré actively and deliberately dislocates the poem’s original context, translating, trans-e-lating, or transcreatingPessoa's lines on a solitary male shepherd living amidst the pastoral simplicity of the Portuguese countryside, from the perspective of a displaced female nomad temporarily residing amidst the historically layered and culturally dense urban landscape of twenty-first century Toronto.” But, “Even while explicitly in the process of "trans-e-lating" the language of another, Moure constantly endeavors to recall the immediacy of experience-its elated, ephemeral, transient, and finally ungraspable quality. Experience is always singular and discrete, specific to particular contexts, and yet, paradoxically, is also always artificial and borrowed, articulated through the voice of another.”

In Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, Mouré reproduces the structure, devices, and atmosphere of the original poem, if not the exact words or situations. Mouré describes this translation as “faithful, but different” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). She further explains that “the idiom in the target language had to be resolutely Canadian but also a little old-fashioned, a little quaint from a 21st-century perspective (as Caeiro's Portuguese, it is said, was a little curious and simple as well)” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). While Mouré calls this her “simple book,” there is a high level of complexity; Barbour points out that she engages many kinds of word games, of which he says “While extremely clever, such word games-repetitions, reversals, recitations, and paradoxes-must, I think, also be taken very seriously. They must be read not merely as rhetorical manoeuvers, but also as tragically doomed efforts to overcome the insuperable divide between language and experience, semiotics and phenomena, words and things. Poetry has the painful task not of completing, but of repeatedly enacting the very impossibility of this gesture.” Language is in a state of flux, and so cannot capture experience in a permanent way. Words can only ever represent the material world, and even then only in a transitory way.

Take, for instance, the translation of the Portuguese word coisa. Throughout the English translation, this word appears as English thing, French chose, or untranslated. On page 73, Mouré writes “I’m stuck with human language / which gives coisas personalities, and imposes names on choses.” And on page 99, “Things have no meaning, they have existence. / Things are the one hidden meaning of things. / It’s kind of fun. / That’s why I call them coisas, or choses.” This multilingual complexity is Mouré’s; it is not present in the original Portuguese text. By using coisa and chose for “thing”, Mouré returns to a focus on language that is emblematic of much of her other poetry; signifier does not equal signified – an object is not its name, it is an object. Caeiro also emphasizes this point, but without the layering of languages that Mouré employs. This multiplicity of languages might also represent the multicultural city of Toronto by capturing some of the non-English sounds that might exist in the poem's neighbourhood.

Mouré explains that her practice of translation is really one of reading: “A practice of reading is always embodied. A translation always translates a reading practice enacted on a text, not simply "an original text." And reading practices are codifications/decodifications that are historically and culturally determined. As such, a work, in the course of translation, provokes an inscription of the reader/translator's embodiment (as site of cultural production but also of resistances: to normative sexual definitions, to contemporary notions of urban life, etc.) into the translated text. Whether or not this is acknowledged” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). Translation is not a precise science; because language and culture both change, the act of translation is located in a specific time and place. Trans-e-lation is about recreating the context, rather than the text.

Barbour, Charles. “Beyond can be our model.” Canadian Literature, 176 (2003): 172 -174. Literature Online. York U Lib., Toronto. 23 April 2009.
Hyland, Sheila. Rev. of Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Eirin Moure. The Antigonish Review, 134. 23 April 2009.
Mouré, Erin. “Hi, Fidelity! or Translating Fernando Pessoa: Felicity was Ever My Aim.” 22 April 2009.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


MoMA has up some neat audio clips of the one hundredth anniversity celebration of the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism which was on Feb. 20, 2009.

This is Charles Bernstein reading excerpts from the Manifesto (note: there is no video, only audio):

He really does a fantastic job.

Now there is a lot from futurism that just scares me. i have been reading a lot of post-WWII lit recently (check out Mavis Gallant's short story "The Latehomecomer"). Much of that literature focuses on the impossibility of forgetting the past, the impossibility of "going back" to a time before the horrors of the Holocaust and the war. History, much of this literature suggests, is a burden we cannot escape. Even if we could escape it, would it be wise? "Those who do not learn from history" etc. Even while some try to deny events, try to rewrite history, it is still influencing the present. The Futurists were extremists and products of their era, I suppose. But burning museums and libraries brings up visions of totalitarian oppression in its many incarnations over the past 100 years, over the past millennium. What knowledge lost?

But there is something kind of appealing about erasing the past through destruction. And something ironic about celebrating the 100th anniversary of Futurism.

More on MoMA's site.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

just a short note on proto-feminism

So this isn't exactly about poetry, but i feel the need to say that Christine de Pizan was an awesome lady. i'm reading The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) for my Medieval Women's Writing course, and it is a nice change from earlier writers who always apologize for being female. Christine, while a woman of her time, believed very firmly that women should be educated and deserved recognition for their work. By "a woman of her time" i mean that she still adhered to notions of women's physical frailty and emphasized virginity as the ideal state of women, closely followed by marriage.

It is this line that really stood out:
... God formed the body of woman from one of [Adam's] ribs, signifying that she should stand at his side as a companion and never lie at his feet like a slave ...
That's a pretty advanced notion for the early 15th century. i'm still reading the first part of the book, but her project thus far has been refuting philosophers and writers who have insisted on women's inherent vice, stupidity, and subordinate position to man. Although she claims a visionary experience, one interesting feature of her writing is that as a woman, she feels she has the authority to write about women (other women writers tended to rely on "heavenly authority" as justification for their texts). She makes no excuse or apology for her knowledge and ability.

It is not always easy to study medieval women writers because of the humility topos; actually i find some of them rather infuriating (i realize that it's unfair of me to feel this way). Christine is refreshing, and i am enjoying her much more than say, Hildegard of Bingen - another very smart lady who was a Christian visionary and wrote as such.

Back to the books.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Please can i have some Mouré?

i'm preparing for a presentation on Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person and stumbled across this video:

i really love how Erin Mouré reads; she's so animated and lively. Enjoy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing with Muse & Drudge

Muse & Drudge was wonderful. Simply. Wonderful. It practically pulsed with rhythm. i felt like it was a really quick read - the text propelled down the page. And Mullen's language is very playful; exuberant even.
tomboy girl with cowboy boots
takes coy bow in prom gown
your orange California suits
you riding into sundown
This has got to be one of my favourite stanzas, mostly because it sounds an awful lot like me (i wore cowboy boots with my prom dress). The language here is fanastic - tomboy/cowboy/coy bow.

Along with the text, i read a couple of critical articles by Mullen. i was struck by her accusation of minority writing being pigeonholed in "Poetry and Identity": there are avant garde writers, and coloured writers, but anthologists and critics tend to ignore avant garde writers of colour. i can understand the problem: anthologies and critics both categorize writing. There is a taxonomy inherent in collections of writing, and people who cross cateogories are difficult to include. When reading a text for the first time, unless its anthologized, i tend not to know much about the author until afterwards. But anthologies have a huge impact on what poets are taught, which are given a place in the cannon. So how can we avoid this kind of rigid separation of "types" of writers? Very few writers are "only" feminist, or experiemental, or anything at all. Do anthologies, by their very nature, undermine our understanding of an author's complexity - both personal & textual?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Matter of Influence

Finished reading misled today, and Harryette Mullen's Muse and Drudge yesterday. Thoughts are forming, and posts will come. Until then, here is a response i wrote to Meredith Quartermain's beautiful book Matter for Influency 5: A Toronto Poetry Salon - a course i took in the fall run by Margaret Christakos. Other writings by some of the brilliant people in the course can be found here.

“Each word, a theory of everything”: the theory of thesauri was alien to me. To be accurate, I was unacquainted with Roget’s organizational principles applied to language. It didn’t matter – Matter still commun(icat)ed: with me, but also with something I read recently: The Ledger by Robert Kroetsch. There is redefinition here.  A revivification of old texts, a re(de)fining of old records. Kroetsch writes about the archaeology of writing: discovery of objects, speculation about said objects, creation of a story, or a multiplicity of stories. The Ledger is a history of a ledger; it is also an interpretation, a dictionary, and a story about some people. Multiplicity of Matter: also an interpretation, a dictionary, and a ledger of sorts? I allege it is (ooh, bad!). I think about this eating cold pizza at three in the morning. Think about my mother saying “pizza at this hour?! What’s the matter with you!?” Mothers matter.

My favorite Matter is 12, which says “Each word, a theory of everything”. Language power. Abstractions. Language as fluid: dynamic, changing, forceful. The ability of language to erode. Also, the power of language to create rivers, birth streams. I picture language as a river system – you can map it, temporarily. The scop (OE) was “shaper”, a power held only by wordsmiths and gods. He “unlocked his word-hoard”, his treasure (thesaurus). The organizing principle (theory). Thesaurus as holy book. Followers of the prophet Roget; dare I say “old-fashioned”? New thesauri claiming better principles, clearer structure. Division into thesaurian sects. My mind roves. Does it matter? This poem clarifies the Matter for me; seeing the fluid in the images – “Ripple of Chinese / in the street. Zag of a saw” – the curve of motion illustrates the connection between the waves of words. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – to know one thing is to not know another.  You can know the position or the momentum of a given particle, never both. You can never completely define matter. Language is matter, clearly. Or maybe it is the space between particles. Theory: to theorize, you need language. Everything is a theory of words.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Permanent constructedness

i finally finished reading My Life yesterday (only a week or so after i was supposed to have read it - not bad). i'm itching to go through it again, though there is certainly not time enough for that.

As i read i was thinking about autobiography, and the decisions an author must make about how to construct their* life story. What events are included? Not included? Does the author try to construct a factual account (through interviews, old home movies, photographs, etc) or rely on personal memory. There is a tendency to construct history as narrative, and that is as true for personal history as for other kinds. Lyn Hejinian explodes that narrative impulse. She also acknowledges the arbitrariness of autobiography (the title of this post is a phrase from the book) by deciding on a structure before writing: the first edition of the book had 37 paragraphs, each with 37 sentences - one for each year of the author's life. The second edition increased those numbers to 45, with the author adding 8 sentences to each of the sections, and then writing 8 more sections. My Life has the potential to be a lifelong poem, constantly being updated and expanded. Yet, like all autobiography, it will never keep up with the writer, can never account for her death. This structure emphasizes that.

Repetition in My Life occurs frequently, and with variations (much like music, actually). As far as i could discern there was nothing mathematical about the repetition, but it pointed towards acts of memory: certain themes would appear frequently, fade into the background, and reappear changed, while other themes would be prominent for a while and then disappear entirely. For instance, a line like "I wrote my name in all of his books" (might not be exact, sorry, i don't have the text with me) would appear in one section to refer to a boyfriend, and in another to refer to the writer's father. This makes the reader question association -- who is the intended recipient of "his"? The ambiguity of reference makes it clear that full understanding, that exact relation, is impossible to achieve. Reality is constructed by the writer; language is the medium of that construction. Hejinian is aware, and makes her reader aware, of the dependence we have on language to explain, and thus shape, experience.

The poetry also refuses to participate in the intense confessional aspect of autobiography. Yes, there are intimate details within the text, but they are not decoded and explained for the reader. How particular events and people contribute to the shape of the author's life is unspecified. Which makes the poetry richer for re-entry; i have a feeling it will read very differently a second time around -- especially when it comes to noticing subtler reoccurring images and phrases.

Hejinian never lets the reader forget that the book is a construction -- its refusal to conform to expectations (linearity! narrative!) and the beauty of the language ("a pause, a rose, something on paper") combine to make an intriguing read.

*i have decided to use plural "their" instead of "his/her", "his or her", "his", or "her". It's how i roll.

A history lesson

Last Monday, i had a presentation on the troubadours & trouvères for my Medieval Women's Writing course - this Monday, i am supposed to submit a paper on said presentation. Hence my reappearance in the blogosphere. The troubadours and trouvères are really interesting, though. So i'll share some of my thoughts

The troubadours were medieval poets who are perhaps most associated with Southern France, though there were also troubadours in Italy & Spain. They wrote in the language of Old Occitan - a Romance language thought to be closer to vulgar Latin than Old French. These poets were not wandering minstrels, but rather nobles who wrote songs to send to one another; these songs were often picked up by minstrels, and so it is important not to think of the troubadour poetry as private correspondence. Many of the songs were hugely popular, in fact. A rough time frame puts the troubadours working between 1100-1300. The troubadours are widely credited for popularizing fixed forms of poetry in which set patterns of rhyme, length, & stanza composition must be adhered to. Though their subject matter was primarily courtly, troubadours wrote in many different genres, the most common being the canso (love song), the tenso (debate poem about love or ethics), and the sirvènte (satire). These particular genres did not have fixed forms (except the tenso, which required stanzas to alternate between two voices, each presenting one side of an argument), but, to give an indication of the complexity the troubadours were capable of, the sestina was also a troubadour form.

The trouvères were followers of the troubadours, largely based in Northern France and writing in Old French. Perhaps the best known now is Chrètien de Troyes, although he is remembered for his Arthurian Romances rather than for his trouvère poetry. The trouvères also broke out of the nobility, opening the genres up to a bourgeois audience. The poetic forms of the trouvères were much more rigid and codified, because by the point they emerged (slightly after the troubadours) there had been treatises written on the specific genres & structures that "good" poems should follow - the most influential treatise being the "Leys d'amor" ("Laws of Love") setting out the rules for participation in the Floral Games at Toulouse, a poetry competition meant to encourage the writing of troubadour poetry.

For both the troubadours and the trouvères, some manuscripts survive complete with musical notation. Others have room for notation, but it was never filled in, suggesting that one scribe would record the lyrics, another the music. There are some CD recordings of modern ensembles playing troubadour music, but i couldn't find a good link to post (at least, none that didn't require paying a subscription fee for access).

Interestingly enough, while i had an easy time finding books about both the troubadours and the trouvères, it is very hard to find good definitions of the troubadour genres - even in books claiming to be introductions to the troubadours. Authors throw around terms like canso without specifying what a canso is. This was very frustrating, as these Old Occitan terms aren't in English literary dictionaries (i checked 3). Although they are defined on good ol' Wikipedia, that's hardly a source i can cite. So i turned to a French dictionary of poetic terms. Voila! Problem solved - at least for me. It's a good thing i can read French, otherwise i'd be in trouble for this paper.

So although troubadours have had a huge impact on the development of English lit, it is hard to find the really basic information on them needed to enter into their work. Why? Well, my theory is that troubadours were once considered canon, so authors don't feel the need to elaborate on, or even define, key terms because they expect that anyone reading the troubadours will have access to this knowledge - perhaps through a professor. But the troubadours aren't generally taught as part of English literary history - at least not in any course i took. So the literature is lagging behind reality. This really hammers home the necessity of academic writers defining their terms instead of assuming a shared base of common knowledge. Actually, i think most literary critics would benefit from the same lesson; part of the reason why so many people people are so afraid of poetry is that they see words they don't really understand (avant garde! post-modern! parataxis!) and therefore believe that special training is required to access the poetry itself.

Speaking of terms, there is a term for female troubadours - trobairitz - although not one for female trouvères. There are known females working in both traditions, and while the exact numbers are disputed, for the time period it is considerable that the work of more than 20 different trobairitz survives. What i dislike is that some critics claim that while the writing of the male troubadours that dealt with courtly love was intended as a game, the trobairitz are more emotionally honest and their feelings more authentic. Because, you know, women cannot engage in games when love is at stake. Never mind that they are writing in the same forms, and that they use the same conventions. Oh no. Women writers are logging their own experience. Always.

Sometimes i just want to smack the people who write that way. It undermines the intelligence of the female writer, assuming that they cannot participate in a tradition of imaginative creativity, or perhaps that they wouldn't want to. People treat women's literature of most periods this way, although since the confessional poets of the 1950s, the tendency to look for "emotional authenticity" in poetry is pretty universal, regardless of the author's gender. i wonder, though, is it really necessary to tie literature up with its author that way? It would be interesting to do a study of criticism to see a breakdown of how often and in what periods critics look for emotional honesty in the writing of women versus in the writing of men. And really, is "authenticity" or "honesty" even something a reader should try to discover? How much can a text stand apart from its writer?

someone is a Bad, Bad, Blogger...

...and she is me. to make it up to you, the Internet, here is a treat:

Amanda Palmer "Leeds United" Music Video from Amanda Palmer on Vimeo.

Not strictly on topic, i'm aware. But Amanda Fucking Palmer is (one of) my hero(es). <3

More poetry to come.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


So. Turns out i'm busier than i thought. The promised Holbrook/Hejinian post will have to wait while I prepare a talk on the troubadours for tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, if you're looking for something to do, why not listen to some Gertrude Stein?

Ta ta for now, the Internet!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Currently Reading

i began reading Susan Holbrook's misled last week (oh my, is it next week already?), but had to interrupt my reading to start Lyn Hejinian's My Life which needs to be read for my class tomorrow. These two texts play off of each other in interesting ways -- on a surface level, i have noticed both books have are "thirsty". As in, the word "thirsty" seems to arise many times. More fruitful analysis will follow, perhaps this weekend.

i had heard about misled in a lecture by Margaret Christakos, and read more about it in Nicole Markotic's article "To All the (Cow) Girls I've Loved, Before" in Open Letter. Knowing about a text before reading it is often unfair to the text because it creates expectations. From what i had heard about misled i was expecting a text about lesbianism, a non-linear text, a text difficult to enter. Well it is about lesbianism, it is non-linear, but it is also incredibly warm, open, even blunt. And sexy. This is a book of poetry that can make a reader feel all hot and bothered. Not was i was expecting, but better. This is why i often wish that i can come to each book of poetry blank -- no knowledge of author or content or style before i enter the pages. So impressions can be formed freely, without presumptions colouring my perception. Unfortunately, that's just not going to happen. At least not often. And having a bit of info about a book means i'm far more likely to pick it up to read for fun. Random selection from a shelf tends to yeild random results. Which i just don't have time for these days. Back to the books.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Something to think about

This hegemony of content over form in the mind of the critic is at the very heart of the uselessness of mainstream poetry criticism in America; in turn, the reaction to talk about the fact of form without any reference to its possible purposes or effect on a reader is a glaring flaw in much criticism that appears in smaller journals and on blogs, particularly ones that are primarily interested in so-called “experimental” poetry that foregrounds its own formal innovation. --Matthew Zapruder
Form and content. Content and form. i'm trying to think of how i discuss both. Do i fall into this trap? There is a temptation to discuss some poets in terms of form (Olson, for example), and others in terms of content (lyric poets, generally). Some poets intertwine the two: Ron Siliman's Ketjak is a long poem where the content really is the form -- a series of seemingly unrelated sentences placed paratactically that repeat, doubling in number, in each new paragraph. Whew. Siliman's form is meant to draw attention to language, to undercut the desire of the reader to form a continuous narrative when presented with something that looks like prose. The poem is politically motivated: Siliman wanted to distance language from capitalism; to de-commodify it. In other words, the "exchange" of language for meaning is disturbed because the referent of any particular sentence cannot be connected to the ones that comes before it. In short, its disconnected (but in a really fun way). While some readers have a hard time connecting with Ketjak, some knowledge of Siliman's project can really increase the sense of playfulness that comes from the work.

i'm off topic. In terms of criticism, how can a critic (or a reader) overcome this hegemony of content over form without falling into the trap of ignoring or reducing the content of the poem?

What do you think, the Internet?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

bpNichol: kinetic poetic

i found something neat when working on a project a few weeks ago:

bpNichol's computer poems!

i'm so glad these folks managed to make this poetry accessible; it would have been a shame if it were lost because of compatibility issues (the poetry was written in Apple BASIC in 1983/4). The introduction is worth a read - otherwise choose a version to watch in the menu sidebar, and enjoy!