Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reader's Diary #196- Diana Brebner: The Golden Lotus (up to "Head of a Girl")

If you're like me, switching immediately from one book to the next is never an easy transition. Just as I get used to one author's style, I switch and have to begin all over again.

I suspected that was the case with "The Golden Lotus". I just could not get into it at all. Sadly, with the exception of one poem, I still can't. Goodbye "bad transition" theory.

My major problem with her work is her rigid style. For a poet, she wasn't all that adventurous. Three major issues stick out:

1. She overrelies on couplets. There are occasional branches, but for the most part she tends to use two lines-break-two lines-break-and so forth. Actually, they're pseudo-couplets at that. Often she used an ABAB rhyme scheme, more commonly known in quatrains, but with a break between the two sets of lines. Furthermore, each line is most often continuous, flowing into the next, even across the line breaks. In one or two of these poems an argument can be made as to why the form she's chosen fits the theme. However, for the most part, it feels arbitrary, as if written simply to look like a poem.

2. She repeats herself WAY too much. You can be sure if the title is "Fallen" for example, you're going to see the word "fallen" or some variant at least half a dozen times. Like the couplet problem, the repetition could be defended in some instances, but in others it's just an annoyance that distracts from any good qualities the poem might have had.

3. Too often the poems seem like cliches of poetry. Even the title feels overdone. Furthermore, there are occasional attempts at transcendentalism (there's that word again) which just remind me of the hippy connotations people have with the word. In "The Walls- Thrall" Brebner writes, "...the stars are swimming, dipping/ like porpoises, or angels, in and out". I was expecting a unicorn to show up at any second.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Canada Reads 2007 is Announced!

Thanks to Barbara for pointing this out to me (Barbara, whom I met through my blogs about Canada Reads last year, btw):

Canada Reads 2007 has been announced! I checked last week and saw the site hadn't been updated, but I wasn't been checking it out regularly. I misunderstood last year that the championship this year would be the winning panelists and their books from the past five years. Instead, only the panelists will be returning! Even though I was looking forward to hearing which book would have been picked (I was hoping Rockbound) it will be nice to hear all new arguments and get new books for Christmas.

Canada Reads 2007 will air Feb. 26- March 2.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Reader's Diary #195- Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (up to p. 50)

I have to admit, when my bookclub voted on Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, I thought I was surrounded by a bunch of pretentious snobs. If they are, this book was not the proof I was looking for.

I also have to admit, I hadn't heard of it. In hindsight, that would explain my ignorant thoughts. So when I got home, I wikipedia'd (have we made that a verb yet?)Irene Nemirovsky. If the author's own life, including the time when she wrote the novel, is any indication, the book should be interesting.

So far, it is. Apparently, Nemirovsky set out to write a 20th century version of War and Peace. Certainly, there are similarities. Switching back and forth between characters, focusing on society's layers (class, religion, even different occupations) it seems as if she was trying to touch upon all the varieties of people that would be affected by the War (i.e., World War II). The war itself, and the exodus of characters from Paris, again is reminiscent of Tolstoy's classic. It's been a while since I read War and Peace, but I do remember that, while liking the book, I was overwhelmed with the number of characters. I've heard a few people say that they found that to be the case here as well, but so far I've been able to keep track. However, I am only 50 pages in...

One of the more compelling facets of the book is the tragic irony. As in Kevin Major's No Man's Land, the outcome is known by the reader. As I read Major's book about Newfoundlanders fighting in France during World War I, I remember wishing I could have read about the French people themselves, to get their perspective in the whole tragedy. While this is a different war, I'm finally getting to see those whose country is being torn apart. In that essence, it's a little more like Ordeal in Cambodia. In that book, while escaping the Khmer Rouge, Vek Huong Taing and his wife were strengthened in their identity (Christians) while in Suite Francaise there are already signs of people shedding their former identities as they are coming to realize they had been defining themselves by material possessions. A contrast yes, but both fascinating, and I'm sure accurate possibilities of the effect of war and of forced exodus on individual people. In both cases, (arguably) people keep their good traits and discard the bad ones in time of crisis. However, I'm sure that a person's personality can change for the worse as well- extreme cynicism, despair, and so on. I haven't encountered that in Nemirovsky's novel yet, but with such an array of characters I hope I do. Not that I have a sadistic desire to see people suffer, I just think some representation of the darker side of the effect of war might be necessary- like that of Elijah in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, only with civilians rather than soldiers.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #194- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (FINISHED)

For this, my last posting about Sounds New, I'm going to avoid talking of transcendence. I'm afraid I've been selling the book short by focusing only on that aspect. Instead I'm going to focus on one poet in particular, Emanuel Lowi.

Lowi is represented here with three poems: "stone point", "At The Great Whale River Social Club" and "What I keep in my kitchen." The first of these poems really caught my eye. Written to look like steps, "stone point" is written as from an Inuk perspective, and has mystic elements. Yet despite having such elements, it feels more like a traditional poem than many of the others in the collection. Like traditional poetry (and other art forms for that matter), I think that "stone point" looks through reality to find the truth. Despite talking about "spirit-songs" and "amniotic dawn", Lowi reminds us that these "truths" are derived from nature and first-hand experiences. "Stiff as antlers", "animal stomach" and "cliffsides and slopes" are just a few of the hard, nature-based images. Compared to many of the others poets in the collection, who seemed to look away from reality to find the truth, I found "stone point" oddly traditional and refreshing at the same time.

"At the Great Whale River Social Club" was similar. Somewhat of a short story, it felt like an Al Purdy poem. Quickly I was becoming a fan of Lowi.

Then came "What I keep in my kitchen". My first reaction was that it was some sort of joke. With the previous couple of poems, it was apparent that Lowi had talent. I initially suspected that he had tried to see if it would get published, or maybe that it was a way to prove the cluelessness and sycophantic nature of his supporters. Basically, the poem does what the title suggests, it gives an inventory of items in his kitchen. I've read a similar poems in the past; one that itemized the contents of a purse. Poems such as these seem like jokes at best, arrogant self-centeredness at worst. However... I read and reread "What I keep in my kitchen." I liked the first two so much, I just had to get at the bottom of it. Certain facts started to become apparent; it was told through an apparent vegetarian's voice. Mostly, he listed herbs, a few fruits and vegetables, lentils, tofu and a couple condiments. Still, this didn't solve the mystery as to why he decided to let the reader into his kitchen (or think a reader would be interested). Then I noticed the one and only poetic element. The only non-nouns in the entire poem, come right at the end as an eggplant is described as "one gentle eggplant". It's amazing how a little adjective can haunt me so much. Why weren't the peanuts, for instance, gentle? Why wasn't the saffron say, seductive? The mystery has gotten to me. Perhaps even more than William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." And for that I give credit to Lowi. Even if it was a gag poem, it's caused me to think.

Writer's Diary #13- Untitled (or Conclusion) editted

When    I    lived
up North
I saw snow
mounds as dead;
corpses quilted
in heavy white.

Down South
these graves (and mine) would go
unmarked
if not for the footprints
of millions.


Just a small change. "In the North" was changed to "up North". Primarily, this is to keep the two stanzas more cohesive. But I also like how up/down fits more with the message I'm trying to convey.

As you can tell, I'm considering the title, "Conclusion" as well.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Writer's Diary #12: Untitled

I hate publishing my poetry immediately after a write the first draft, yet for some masochistic reason I can't stop myself. At least I always remember to add the disclaimer that it's a first draft. That way, if there are major problems, or if I look back later and roll my eyes, at least I can take comfort in the fact that it needed a lot more work. Anyway...

When    I    lived
in the North
I saw snow
mounds as dead;
corpses quilted
in heavy white.

Down South
these graves (and mine) would go
unmarked
if not for the footprints
of millions.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Reader's Diary #193- J.D.Salinger: Franny and Zooey (FINISHED)


Twice this week I've liked something, yet am unable to recommend it. First I went to see Running With Scissors and now I've finished Franny and Zooey. For different reasons, I can understand someone not liking either. Running With Scissors, while very wacky, is dark and arguably depressing. Franny and Zooey is very short on plot.

While I don't want to compare every book to a movie, one aspect of Franny and Zooey reminded me of Before Sunrise. No, it wasn't a love story, but both works were almost completely comprised of talking. In its entirety, Franny and Zooey is made up of three conversations; Franny and her boyfriend Lane, Zooey and his mother Bessie, and Franny and Zooey. Some would undoubtedly consider it boring, but I personally liked it. I loved (and yet hated) the characters, and it inspired a lot of moments of self-reflection.

Like Franny, I've wrestled with selflessness versus selfishness, I've struggled with religion, and I'm still trying to balance my condemnation of phoniness with being overly judgmental. Usually I make my peace by telling myself how such philosophical pursuits are a product of an affluent society; we have clothes, hamburgers and DVD players so we waste our time worrying about the higher order crap. As a species, we seem to require a certain amount of stress in our life.

Yet somehow, it's hard to stay focused on what truly matters. And for the times that we don't, Franny and Zooey just might be the perfect book. I didn't always agree with the philosophy of the characters, but it was nice to have something to consider. For instance, as Zooey talks with Franny about her dedication to the Jesus Prayer (a la The Way of The Pilgrim), he criticizes her for not getting to know Jesus first. I've agreed with such arguments in the past. In fact, it's the primary reason that I don't often vote. I feel terribly irresponsible voting when I don't know every single issue and each party's stance. The problem with the voting scenario, of course, is that most of those that do vote, aren't completely informed either! And the problem with Zooey's argument, is similar. Who really knows Jesus? People spend their entire lives studying the man and still don't have all the answers. But does that mean no one should have faith? Maybe it comes down to moderation again. As I get older, I realize that moderation is my answer to everything. In this case, some knowledge is necessary to make informed decisions of whom (or what) one is dedicating their lives, but if one is to wait to know everything, they'll be waiting forever.

In the end, Zooey makes a bizarre case for Jesus being a metaphorical fat lady that lives in everyone outside ourselves, and for a second I thought I was reading a new age poem from Sounds New. (It's funny how random book choices often overlap with one another, isn't it?) I'm not sure I get his point yet, unlike Franny, who finally found innerpeace with Zooey's theory. Still, it's one of those books that will stick with me and make me think. For the next day or so anyway. Unless I see a World Vision ad before then.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #192- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (up to Phil Muscovitch's "Water")

The title of this particular collection is Sounds New not Sounds New Age. In my last posting however, I implied that it was full of new age nuances. I still hold that a number of these poems fit under a new age umbrella, just as much as they fit under a "transcendental" label. At first that made me a little squeamish about the poems. To me, the term "new age" conjures up images of flaky fad followers looking for the next cereal box religion. Yet when I read the "new age" wikipedia article, I realized that I'm not all that far from new age beliefs my own self! Don't worry, I won't be ordering any Yanni cds yet, but I realized that my mind needs some opening.

I also realized that as I'm reading through this book, I've caught myself thinking, "Oh geez, what would Robert Frost think of these?" and I have no idea why I do this. I'm not a huge Robert Frost fan (though I do like his work) so why I use him as a benchmark for poetry, I have no idea. Ingrained snobbery I guess. New and Used Records blogger, Will posted about the liberating aspect of the "art is dead" opinion. The argument is that a definition of art no longer exists, and basically it now belongs to anyone. While Will waxed philosophical about how all this applies to punk music, I think poets have benefited from the approach as well.

Since the 1800s Walt Whitman and others have opened poetry up to freestyle to much debate, yet the freedom has now become the norm rather than the exception. Recently there's been a resurgence in form poetry, and like music, poetry finally seems to embracing variety. There's a value to both, just as there's value to rock and jazz and punk and polka. Okay, so maybe not polka.

So if free form poetry isn't new, what makes the poems in this particular book new? Certainly there's a bigger insistence on transcendence and there's a much more obvious attempt from these poets to mesh the material world with the spiritual world, yet the underlying theme isn't new. I'd argue that poets have been doing that from the get go. Only this time, the transparency of the endevour gets annoying. I try and try to open my mind, but again I come up against my "new age" prejudice. One exception to this is Michael Anderson's "The music of the spheres is jazz". In this couplet poem, Anderson uses the stars and jazz to create a magic, romance-filled night. He doesn't beat the reader over the head with his point as many of the others do in this collection, yet I still feel he manages to make the connections between the spheres, as it were. Jazz as a representation of love and maybe even the creation of the universe? It follows complex rules, yet relies on improvisation. Sounds in line with my theory.

But it's not all transcendence which makes these poems "sound new". There's also the occasional burst of vulgarity and cheap shock tactics. Shock art, or rather what is labeled as "shocking" rarely is. Usually it's a slow news day and some brainless entertainment show is telling us how shocked we should be that Britney has kissed Madonna or that some South American artist has painted a picture of Jesus shooting heroin. Unfortunately, we sometimes judge dated material by today's standards and end up thinking works like Cohen's Beautiful Losers is boring in its lame attempts to electrify our mundane existence. Yet, we need to remember context. Back in the 60's Cohen was breaking taboos. Sounds New however, was first published in 1990, and if memory serves Jane's Addiction had declared Nothing's Shocking a few years earlier. So when I read poets like Ian Stephens write "I pull out my cock/ I tie a boot-lace around my balls" or William Scott Neale write "I am the tongue on your ass-hole" I immediately yawn and walk away. Actually that's not true. I am offended. I am not offended by the content (or imagery), I'm offended by the smug attitude that shouts in my face, "I'm more open minded and liberal than you, conservative pig!" Why the hell do they always seem to make that assumption? They're writing, for the most part, for poets! Generally a pretty liberal group anyway. Most likely it'll never be read at the next Pentecostal convention, so why bother? Heck, even if it was, why bother? Is shocking someone you obviously feel morally superior over really all that of a kick?

Anyway, I've rambled, I've ranted, I've gotten a little off topic. I should go.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Reader's Diary #191- J.D.Salinger: Fran and Zooey (up to p. 105)

The basic moral behind Daniel Keyes' Flowers For Algernon is "ignorance is bliss". The fact that such an adage even exists says that this is not a novel idea (pardon the pun).

While perhaps not quite as cleverly executed as Keyes' book, Franny and Zooey explores this theme as well. Yet while not living up to the Keyes' masterpiece, Salinger does add an extra element; religion.

Only halfway in, I'm a little unsure as to what point he is trying to make but I do have a few theories:

1. Faith in a higher power doesn't assure happiness either (and if this is the point, I'm left thinking that if money, intelligence and religion can't deliver happiness, what can? Oh right, sex.)

2. Faith is the answer to happiness. While completely opposite to my first theory, I don't know how the book is going to turn out. Perhaps this religion-induced depression Franny is going through will turn around.

3. Faith can lead to happiness, if chosen wisely, slowly and personally.

The mystery is one of the appealing qualities of this novel. The characters, too, are holding my attention. Zooey, could be a modern character, as a single 25 year old still living at home. Oddly, the best thing about his character is his cruelty. It's not often you get a protagonist this unlikeable, but the more he berates his mom like an ungrateful (but intellectual) brat, the more involved I become. Obviously his meanness is a symptom of his issues, and he seems to blame his older brothers for creating his smart and bitter persona. It's a page turner to see if he will end up helping his troubled sister Franny, or will instead fall deeper into his own misery-plagued existence.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Writer's Diary #11: Found in a Twillingate Pamphlet

At the last writer's club we left with the challenge to write a travel article. I haven't written an "article" as such, but it did inspire this poem about my home town:

When you go to Twillingate
                 you should
take a boat tour
you should take Cec's, no
you should take Sterling's, no
you should take that new one
                 you should
see a show
you should see Eleanor's, no
you should see The Split Peas, no
you should see my mom's
                 you should
shop at Stuckless's
eat at R and J's
quickly notice a familial theme
                 you should
stay at the Anchor Inn, no
at the HarbourLight'sCrewe'sHeritageHomeSeaBreezeParkTouliquetInn...
                 you should
come for the Fish, Fun, and Folk Festival
                 (you should
spend a lot of money)
*******************************************
                you should
know that at the end you will
know as much about them as they
know about you
and what you want
from a vacation

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reader's Diary #190- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (up to Dwayne Perreault's "Acid Rain")

Transcendence. The word didn't strike fear in me, but I had assumed it would be too convoluted for me to ever understand.

Yet suddenly, the word is popping up everywhere. Mentioned in Franny and Zooey, in a recent wikipedia article I read, and now in Sounds New. Not one to go running from a word, I've tried to get a handle on it. From what I gather, it's about there being more than meets the eye and coming to terms with the fact that there are some things we might never be able to understand. I don't mind the term so much anymore (but it does make me think of New Age, and that ain't cool).

In the introduction to Sounds New, editor Peter Van Toorn discusses the idea of transcendence quite eloquently. He seems to suggest that we are at a golden age whereby artists and scientists have not only declared a truce, but have also become strange bedfellows. Artists, despite accusations of doing the opposite, seek truth. So do scientists. But now people are beginning to see that maybe their versions of the truth are not diametrically opposed. Mysticism? Maybe. I remember reading Stephen Hawking and looking back now, I think his theories fall into the category of scientific transcendence. In Sounds New, a bunch of poets from Quebec (circa late 80s) lead the trend.

My biggest challenge in reading this collection is in differentiating between the poets. It's not that they aren't different, but my initial bias sees them all as one voice: a late 80s, Montreal poet who focuses on transcendentalism. Van Toorn is as much to blame for this as I am, due to his introduction (however eloquent it might be) which tends to categorize the poets a little too narrowly. When I shake my head free of this skew, I can appreciate (or not) each poet for their individual styles and approaches.

One (unique) poet which has stood out for me so far is Ruth Taylor. Taylor had quite a large collection of her work represented here. I'm still a little undecided about her poems. Initially, I found her poems fun. Then they became whimsical. Then they became grating. More so than the other poets (in this book) I have read so far, she seemed to enjoy sounds, and lines like "O ominous oms of omniscience!" are not uncommon. Like Christian Bok, she experimented with the language. Before long though, her poems seem gimmicky and to me, seemed to sacrifice any point for the sake of a little alliteration. There's also smatterings of pop-culture references (ex. "Space. The Final Frontier.") and contemporary slang (ex. "Can you dig it?") that smacks of someone trying to be hip. It is only through occasional poems such as "Cabane Fever" in which Taylor seemed to actually think outside the turtleneck, and it is only then that her true talent showed through.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #189- J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey (up to "Zooey")


People who take themselves too seriously are easy to criticize. There are at least two ways to go about this; satire and cynicism. The only difference between the two is humour. Mordecai Richler's novels and the A Mighty Wind movie, are two of my favourite examples of satire. What's yours?

Salinger is a great example of the cynic. Who could forget Holden Caulfield's "phonies" from Catcher In The Rye? Franny and Zooey continues on with that theme, but instead of being critical of adults and the establishment, Franny and Zooey seems to narrow its focus to the educated. No, it's not an attack on the intellectual, but it does seem to differentiate between being wise and being well-schooled, sincere with phoney. (It reminded me of the chapter on "Credentialing Versus Educating" in Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead).

The first story, "Franny", may not be the thrill a page that some people go in for, but it's entertaining nonetheless. Basically set around a dinner conversation between a young university-aged couple, it could be easy to pass off the work as "philosophy-lite". But it's so much more than that. Yes, Franny rants about her professors, the shallowness of actors, and generally anyone she feels who puts on airs, while wrestling with the frivolity of life, but behind it all, what makes the story interesting is the character herself, and the mystery of her mental condition.

Initially the story appeared to be about Lane, Franny's boyfriend. It opened with Lane waiting at a train station for Franny to arrive. The first glimpse of Franny is through a letter she had written to Lane, and my impression of her wasn't great. Full of grammatical errors and allusions to Lane's education suggestions, Franny came across as less intelligent than Lane to say the least. But then the story began to turn 180 and it suddenly revolved around the newly arrived Franny. Furthermore, I could see her growth (still in progress) as a thinker, and more importantly how she had surpassed Lane (who appeared stalled and shallow as the story went on).

As Franny and Lane began eating, it quickly became apparent that all wasn't right between them. Lane initially monopolized the conversation by bragging about a paper he had written, but Franny quickly moved from showing disinterest, to challenging and insulting him, to taking over. Their relationship came into question for me, but then it started to seem more about Franny herself. Not only was she outgrowing Lane, she seemed to be outgrowing her former self.

At least that's my conclusion. Salinger is clever to make Franny's frame of mind a mystery. Clearly she is stressed (even taking a moment to cry in the bathroom), but whether it be about Lane or herself is never spelled out. Added to the mystery is when her development had taken place. I'm under the impression that the reader is witnessing a person grow at that very moment (i.e., that she didn't have conclusions prior to the meeting with Lane). She comes to some mighty revelations and wrestles with some pretty hefty thoughts in a short time frame, and towards the end appears to have a nervous breakdown. Personally, I believe Salinger simply condensed what many of us go through over a longer time frame into the course of a meal. Distancing herself from Lane may just be a symbol of our resistance to change, whether that resistance comes from inside or outside sources. And maybe the breakdown at the end is Salinger's way of suggesting that we should take philosophy slow.

Looking at it now, it reminds me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When you look at the way Franny wrote to Lane in her letter, it is clear her esteem needs weren't met. When you look at the way she judged people with prejudice, it is clear her self-actualization needs weren't met, yet she is trying to meet her self-transcendence needs, the one at the very top of the hierarchy, the one that some people never meet. Skipping the lower needs was a recipe for disaster, putting those at the very bottom, her psychological and safety needs, in jeopardy.

(Sorry about this)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #188- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (FINISHED)

In the afterword, Sullivan reveals that the Dying Days came out of a break-up, just as Christopher was going through one in the book. Just as Sullivan is working on his math doctorate, so is Christopher. So some elements were not a big stretch from reality. Who cares? The book was great. It's hardly the first cathartic piece to be created out of a failed relationship. And while I doubt there'll be any comparisons to the Rumours album, the idea of creating a fantasy world to escape the crud going on in the real one is still intriguing.

My suggestion to Sullivan is to keep a journal. Already a published author, game show contestant (much more of a rarity in Canada), and maybe a doctor of mathematics- I'd say he already has a few great chapters for a future memoir. And if he keeps writing (and I sincerely hope he does), it could only get more interesting.

True, I'm getting away from the book at hand but I've very little left to say. I enjoyed it immensely. I had a few minor problems as I've delved into earlier. The ending- what doesn't happen to Christopher- is a bit of let down for me, but reading was never supposed to be like eating at Burger King. The burger was great, even without the dill pickle.

All in all, a solid piece of work, but keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who rarely reads fantasy...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Writer's Diary #10- Alex Colville's Horse and Train Painting (Edited)

Despite my initial reservations with last week's Writer's Club, I woke up this morning feeling better about the whole thing. In fact, some of the more constructive criticisms came back to me and I think I was able to salvage something. Here is an edited version of a poem I posted a while back...


(THEY FORGET ME-
THEY RENDER MY
ESSENCE INTO
VILE GREASE)
TRAIN AGAINST HORSE
AGAINST ME AND
THEY WILL REGRET
THIS.
Someone who had done some riding before pointed out that the rhythm I had chosen initially matched a horse's canter rather than a gallop, as the picture would suggest. Knowing nothing about horse gaits, I checked it up and sure enough, she was right. So I worked on changing this and liked where it took me. Now I think the four syllables per line (with two exceptions) also more closely matches the "chuga chuga" of a train as well.
You'll also notice a few other changes. The most obvious of these is the caps. I told the group that I had wanted to keep the voice slightly ambiguous, and open to several interpretations- the horse, Alex Colville, and God to name but three. The God scenario, as one person pointed out, seemed inconsistent with the initial opening lines, "They do not/ respect me", with "me" being lowercase. However, switching it to a capital "Me" destroyed any other interpretations. So I tried all caps, and liked the urgency it put into the poem. More importantly it left all interpretations in tact.
There are a few more changes as well. "Distill" for instance, was changed to "rendering". I felt it fit better with "grease" and "rendering" of course, has the other connotation of being an artist's work (as in Alex Colville's "Horse and Train" rendering.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #187- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (FINISHED)

A common theme running through most of the poems in the latter sections of this book is isolation. Many of these are self exploratory as Rich seems to list off reasons (real or imagined depends on your degree of cynicism) as to why she feels separate from others in her country (including men, non-Jews, the healthy, and the straight).

I'm not usually a fan of political poems, but I do like these. Rather than the preachy, holier-than-though, patronizing political poems of someone like Milton Acorn, Rich is more reflective in the process. Her humility towards these issues are probably a little surprising to those who would paint her as a "militant feminist". In fact, the strongest poems in this entire collection are those which show Rich's reluctance as a hero. In "North American Time" Rich writes, "Everything we write/ will be used against us." personally, I find this approach more effective in relaying a political message. I find it hard to trust anyone who is too set in their convictions.

My favourite section is the third, "Contradictions: Tracking Poems". Here Rich's sense of separation seems to jump to the next logical conclusion, loneliness. You know how people talk about money- that it doesn't buy happiness? Rich, in my mind, delivers a similar message about success. Few poets make it to her level, yet she can start poems with "You who think I find words for everything" indicating so much: that she's somewhat resentful of the expectations, of her own illusion, and of the challenge of maintaining that image. Yet, far from depressing me, I actually think I find it all a little hopeful. I remarked in a recent poem about my own feelings of isolation as a poet. It's nice to see that I am not alone. Rich creates her own camaraderie when she writes directly to the reader (in this case, me), "You for whom I write this". No, I'm not that deranged fan who thinks he's being spoken to, but I do feel Rich was reaching out to her reader's with such a singular wording. Poetry, while isolating, can also have the opposite effect. Maybe even more so- because when you make a connection, it's very personal. Salvation through poetry? Maybe, maybe not. But for the time being, that works for me.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #186- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to ch. 18)

The benefit to writing in individual chunks about a novel I'm reading is that it gives me time to reflect on said chunks, instead of the novel as a whole. I find that it's made me a much more critical reader.

The drawback is that I'm giving certain impressions of a book without yet having read the whole thing. I can only hope that the people (all 3 of you) checking out my blog realize that these are not final assessments unless it says "FINISHED" at the top.

So, when I wrote earlier that I wished Christopher would reflect more upon his ex, I had no way of knowing that would happen in due time. By holding off with that part, Sullivan was able to let the issue ferment and come to a superbly written climax that ties into Christopher's newly discovered world.

And when I implied that there were a few cheesy moments, I would have added the endings of certain chapters. For example, "And this time, there was nothing he could do to save himself." It's very similar to the tactics Dan Brown used in The Davinci Code. I know some people go in for such a thing, but I personally don't need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to maintain my interest.

But I really, REALLY need to end this entry on a positive note. Because, despite the occasional slice of cheese, Sullivan's writing has impressed me. A lot. It's not only the great vocab (I admit, I've had to look up more than one of his words), it's also the risks. Far from the straightforward narrative told in the third person, Sullivan takes a lot of chances that he executes expertly. It's not just the occasional jump to another character's perspective, it's also things like in Chapter 10, when the chapter is broken up into "flashes" as Christopher wrestles with consciousness. It's also Chapter 14 with brief glances into St. John's and a handful of the inhabitants, some that don't play an overly significant part in the story, but still add to Sullivan's attempt to take a panoramic view of the the time and place. My favourite of these is the gender-switching child in Bowring Park. It is the perfect embodiment of the city's memories that Sullivan has tried to reinforce as an essential part of his tale.

Then there's Chapter 15. It is ingenious. There's something so classical about his "Gan Aireactail" challenging Christopher to betray his true self, by portraying his ex-girlfriend in various scenarios. Not only does it tie Christopher's two world's together, it is also the perfect psychology of a break-up. These are not just challenges by a fantasy-world demon, these are interpersonal demons as well. It's a very clever section.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #185- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (up to "Contradictions: Tracking Poems")

Rich's "Poetry: II, Chicago" could almost as easily be titled "Poets". I read it as a gift from one poet to another, and I needed it right about now.

Last week I went to my first book club meeting. It went okay but at the end, when it was time to vote on the next book, my poetry selection (P.K. Page's Hand Luggage) wasn't even considered. I can't say I was shocked. Not even when I heard a few mutters that they "never read poetry."

Then on Tuesday I went to my second writer's club meeting. Again there were some mutterings, almost bragging, that they don't read/like/understand poetry. Even amongst the literati, poetry doesn't get respect.

The whole thing has gotten me down. And it's made me question what I'm doing as a poet. I've criticized many poets in the past about their over-reliance on Greek references and words like ephemeral, ethereal and gossamer. I've argued that poets have no right to complain that they aren't reaching the people if they continue to stick to such stereotypical pulp. Yet, when I get "advice" from metrophobes, that my poems aren't coherent after a single read, I get defensive. Can such people really critique a poem? If they can't appreciate Frost, Rich, or Page for example, should I care what they have to say? Basically, I started to question who I want my audience to be; other poets (or at the very least, other poetry lovers), or common-folk? I concluded that I'm writing for myself, for poets and for poetry readers. As for the others, who needs the disrespect? Someone else can bring the poetry to the people. I think people should go to the poetry. Does this mean I'm going to allude to Adonis in my next poem? Definitely not. Poets writing for poets is no excuse for cliches.

Does this mean I'm not able to take constructive criticism? Maybe. But, in my defense, I can appreciate valid comments. At writing club, one man in particular, a non-poetry reader even, reminded me as I wrote about the smell of spruce trees, that "smell" often has connotations of stench, offering up the word "scent" instead. That I can appreciate. That is why I'm not giving up on the writing club. It's the "I just don't understand" said snidely under one's breath that irks me. There's not a lot of poems that I "get" right away, after a quick glance over in 2 minutes or less. This is the fun of poetry. Multiple meanings to words and phrases, instead of just the literal. Inventive ways of expressing an idea rather than a straightforward essay. Different possible interpretations. Basically, all of the reasons people dislike poetry.

It's a lonely existence for a poet and the void has really made it's presence felt this past week.

Fortunately Adrienne Rich came to the rescue. To paraphrase a few lines from the poem linked to above, she let me know I was not alone, that poetry belongs to me, and I have the right.

"Poetry: II, Chicago" isn't Hallmark, and that's precisely why I like it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #184- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to Chapter 14)


To really dumb down your book review, I suggest beginning with a quote from Skid Row's Sebastian Bach. Wait, make that a paraphrase. In a nutshell, he said that since most of the critics who wrote about their shows weren't metal fans anyway, their thoughts were irrelevant.

While it might be easy to pass off the comment as the arrogant whine of a crap hair metal band, it's not entirely stupid. I don't read a lot of fantasy books, and no doubt my reviews reflect that.

I've been pretty positive about The Dying Days to this point. It hasn't been hard, I've been enjoying the book. Would a true fantasy fan think it's good? Ask one.

Over at the Compulsive Overreader blog, Trudy Morgan-Cole writes "once you're reading fantasy you're already suspending disbelief" and goes on to say that she still had some trouble with some of the more unlikely events. I find myself pondering those as well.

I've been trying to keep an open mind. I admit, I've been known to snicker at the Dungeons and Dragons crowd (and for no other reason than snobbery, I guess). Same goes for fantasy novels. But as I say, I've been trying to keep an open mind. Every book doesn't need to be the CanLit "woman comes to terms with her yuppie Toronto upbringing" story to be good, right?

SPOILER ALERT!
With my newly open mind, I've accepted people walking through walls, talking cats, and insect people. So why is it then I have trouble with someone reaching into a man's chest and ripping out his heart? Or dialogue like "Nobody talks that way about a friend of mine." My theory is that there's a fine line between being a fantasy novel and being a caricature of a fantasy novel.
If Sullivan was writing a spoof of the genre, events such as these might be okay. However, the rest of the book doesn't feel like a spoof. In fact, I like how unapologetically Sullivan treats the genre. (There is no trace of shame in Christopher's "role-playing" past- in fact, it's considered an asset rather than a nerdy liability). Fortunately, the cartoonish events are few, and I am finding the story page turning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #183- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (up to "North American Time")


There's a collection of poems I read recently, I don't remember which, which opened several poems with Adrienne Rich quotations. So when I saw a book of hers at the local library I thought I'd give her a shot. In my ongoing goal to read all of the poetry in the local library, I would have gotten to her eventually anyway.

Wikipedia seems to paint her as a militant feminist lesbian poet, but the angry images that handle conjures up are not apparent in the first section, "Sources", of Your Native Land, Your Life. If anything, there's a degree of self-consciousness and introspection that seem askew from the confident warrior image Rich seems to be known for.

I'm quite enjoying her poems so far. Those in "Sources" reveal a personal journey in which Rich explores who and what has shaped the woman she has become. Everything from her country's history, to her father, her Jewish ancestry, and her interpretation of her own past are reviewed under a lens (albeit more of a poet's lens than a scientist). With such personal philosophical pursuits, there was a danger of her poems becoming too esoteric, but Rich masterfully avoids this. Amazing images like "decades of old wallpaper roses/ clinging to certain studs" keeps her poems grounded.

"Sources", as its title suggests, examines a myriad of character and soul building possibilities. While the long poem is subdivided into sections that could work individually, the effect of having them together, creates a chain that probably holds more truth than any on its own. There's a flow from anthropological (if that's a word), to sociological, to psychological that is quite intriguing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #182- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to Chapter 8)


I had lived in St. John's for several years before I got around to taking one of Dale Jarvis' infamous "Haunted Hikes". Every city needs a Dale Jarvis. Basically, what he did was take patrons around to various dark alleys and side streets in the downtown core and entertain them with local ghost stories and folklore. I had even lived in the downtown part, yet I had no idea some of these stories (or even places, in the case of some alleys) existed.

After 7 years of getting to know Memorial University, I thought I knew the place pretty well. But in my final year, I had a student job that gained me access to service tunnels I didn't know existed. Everyone familiar with MUN knows about the MUNnel system, a system of underground tunnels that provides access to each school, the residences, the library and student centre. What most don't realize is that these tunnels pale in comparison to the extensive service tunnels that run parallel and adjacent (crossing underneath the MUNnels in several areas) and even to a greater number of buildings.

These two experiences proved to my paranoid self that yes, indeed there is more going on around me than I am at first aware.

Shannon Patrick Sullivan seems to have had this inkling as well, for it is a definite theme in The Dying Days. It's the revelations that keep the book compelling.

Certainly, Sullivan isn't the first to explore this theme. In fact, he even acknowledges the Harry Potter books in the story. And yes, there is a similar feel, but with the muggles of course, being from St. John's. For that difference alone, it would be enough to keep me interested. Luckily, that isn't the only difference.

I mentioned earlier that I don't read a lot of fantasy books. I also mentioned that I liked the pacing. Now, I'm finding the pacing a little too rushed. While Christopher finds himself deeper and deeper into this alternate version of St. John's, I'm finding I'm losing a little bit of the initial attraction to the plot. I would like to have had a little more character development and have the storyline slowed down slightly, giving him time to realistically adjust to the fantastic events unfolding around him. However, as I say, I don't read a lot of fantasy books, but from those that I have, I gather that the story is the most important part.

A while back I remember Rj blogging about Newfoundland's Fantasy Books. I hadn't read any of those he had mentioned, but was looking forward to checking out some of his suggestions. While The Dying Days wasn't mentioned (I don't think it was published at that point), I'm glad I started with it. It is quickly selling me on the genre.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #181- Margo Button: The Elders' Palace (FINISHED)


Margo Button's The Elders' Palace, at 64 pages, is one of the shortest collections of poetry I've ever read. It's made even shorter due to the fact that every other page is a Inuinnaqtun translation.

However, Button packs a lot of emotion into a very short collection. A lot of raw sadness. While she may be writing about the Inuit, her own pain seems to be the focus. As you read the book synopsis on the back cover you discover that the poet's son committed suicide. It is quite apparent when you start reading that Button used her poetry for catharsis. It's quite depressing at times when most of the images are of death; people and animals. Yet at the same time, there's a positive message underlying the book- that we can find solace in others. Even if they are of a different culture, they still know pain afterall.

In terms of quality, no particular poem sticks out as particularly fantastic, but neither could I pinpoint one that I didn't like. I did have a little concern over one poem entitled "The Children". As Button recounts a discussion with a woman named Ekvana, she recalls pushing Ekvana to admit some pain from giving away her daughter. As Button asks "But didn't it hurt to lose your child?" the poem ends with the line, "Ekvana raises her eyebrows." My concern is that it feels a little irresponsible of her [Button] to not add a footnote explaining the gesture. A reader from Southern Canada, unfamiliar with Inuit customs, would read that entirely different than those who live here. The Inuit raise their eyebrows to say "yes", and scrunch up their noses to mean "no". It's the equivalent of nodding and shaking ones' head in other parts of the globe. But someone unfamiliar with that meaning, could take it to mean Ekvana is asking, "Are you serious?" Or "Are you going to push me on this?". Knowing both interpretations, I like the line. The best poems have lots of phrases that could be taken many ways. However, without a note added, most readers probably would never have gotten the full meaning of that line.