Monday, December 31, 2007

Reader's Diary #320- Douglas Smith: New Year's Eve

Short Story Monday


I have a confession to make: almost 8 years ago, I was secretly hoping the Y2K Bug was going to throw a major wrench into the system. I've never longed for war or famine or anything of that nature, but a computer-based catastrophe? Yeah, I was all for it. Perhaps I was bored. I really just wanted to see what would happen.

That New Year's Eve is the same one Douglas Smith references in the title to his short story found here.

Early into the story, I was enjoying the over-the-top nerdiness; a chess game at Rick's Cafe Americaine is quickly revealed to be a virtual reality scenario (akin to Star Trek's Holodeck). I appreciated the unapologetic way that many of the computer terms weren't defined for the non-nerds amongst us.

Alas, I made one crucial mistake while reading it: I assumed the stereotypes were tongue-in-cheek. I thought, perhaps, it was all purposeful, to show that beneath the cliched character there was as a more complex being-- a prime opportunity to use a virtual reality program as a metaphor for our personalities.

Instead, John programs a character that resembles his hot ex-girlfriend, and has increasing difficultly distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Is it just me or does this premise seem somehow older than computers themselves?

Also, while I thought adding in aspects of the business side of computer programming was a nice touch, the attempts to balance out the story with artistic merit fell short with tired references to black and white as a measure of truth:

"The important stuff in life is black and white, kid. Good guys, bad guys. Winners, losers. Us, them. Ones and zeroes. Everything else is just shades of grey. You'll be happier when you learn that."

On the positive side, I did enjoy the pacing and lead up the dreaded 2000-- especially with the dates written numerically. It certainly complemented the plot.

But, while the Y2K glitch does affect the outcome of Smith's tale (unlike the real turn of the century) both still turned out to be duds. At least the actual one had an exploding Eiffel tower.

July 14th Eiffel Tower Fireworks by Mqrko_, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Mqrko_ 

Friday, December 28, 2007

Poetry Friday- John Dryden: All, All of a Piece


For the New Year-

All, All of a Piece

All, all of a piece throughout:
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
'Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

--John Dryden (The Secular Masque)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare- Charles Dickens VERSUS Virginia Woolf

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Charles Dickens Vs. Mark Twain), with a final score of 10-9, was Charles Dickens. This is thanks to a tie-breaking vote from yours truly. I can't say I feel strongly either way, but I did enjoy A Christmas Carol more than either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn (though those are great too). Plus Rush wrote one of the most annoying songs ever about Tom Sawyer, so blame them if you like.

I'm not spending a great deal trying to connect the next contender to Christmas, but hey there was that old newspaper headline that read "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" that really had nothing to with her. Excuse me. Too much eggnog.

Who's better?





Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Charlie Browniest Parents

I hope this picture of my parents' Christmas tree (2006) puts a smile on your face!




Merry Christmas!!!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #319- O Henry: The Gift of the Magi

Short Story Monday

My first exposure to this classic tale was a screen version. I don't remember a whole lot of the details except that the watch was replaced with a violin. Otherwise most details were the same.

I loved it and immediately found the short story to read. It's now been years since I first read it, but I thought it was time to see if it still held the same magic.

Yes. I still love the twist. The couple, so down on their luck, sacrifice their most valued possessions in order to present the other with a Christmas present, only to find out...well, you know the rest (if not you can read it here or download an mp3 here). Despite the unfortunate irony, it doesn't seem to get the main characters down and that's why it's such a classic tale.

This time around I also appreciated a few other details I hadn't before. I especially loved the detailed preoccupation with money (the figure $1.27 is pretty predominate). I think getting so specific, right down to the penny, really pressed the idea of how desperate and broke they were.

If you've never read it, you're probably still familiar with it through the endless number of parodies. In any case, it's a perfect Christmas read or reread. So go ahead.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Reader's Diary #318- Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockinbird (FINISHED)

Sigh of relief!

As the last person on Earth to read To Kill A Mockingbird, it was more than a little intimidating-- especially when I've not heard one single bad thing about it.

All I'd known was that it had something to do with the black/white divide and usually gets listed as one of (if not the) best American novels.

First off. I absolutely loved it. It's not often that a book compels me to edit my favourite books on my profile page.

Second, I was surprised how well I could relate to Maycomb, the small town Alabama setting. As I've said many times, outport Newfoundland, where I grew up, must be one of the whitest places in the world. We didn't have a history of slavery (though our track record with the Beothuks is appalling), and because there always seemed to be more people moving out than in, it was only the occasional doctor that let us know that different races didn't just exist on t.v.. So, while I anticipated a tale of troubled race relations, I didn't really think I'd connect to it.

I think Lee's story is as about how we, as human beings, tend to look for ways to distance ourselves from others; making trivial differences more important than they actually are. While most of us may have been the same colour in my hometown, people still found ways to divide-- some of which is also explored in To Kill A Mockingbird (i.e., class, gender, age, religion, etc). While it's true colour wasn't much of an issue where I lived, Lee made me believe it was just a matter of circumstance.

I'm not going to embarrass myself or waste my time further by reviewing a book that practically everyone else has already studied and praised, but I do want to end by saying how impressed I was that such a philosophical book could have been packaged into such a simple story. I know "deceptively simple" is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but when a writer is able to make me question humanity without relying on gimmickry or experimental devices, there's a lot to be said for her talent. I am in awe.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Poetry Friday- Tom Waits: Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis

Hope is more handy than belief. Hope is the friend that acknowledges times are tough, but helps you get your mind off them for just a little while. Belief is an expensive shrink.

A little while ago I wrote about a co-worker who lamented the loss of magic in adult Christmases. I agreed at the time, but in retrospect, maybe the loss is just in the lead-up. Come Christmas Day, everything still feels right. Maybe it's a residual feeling from the original Christmas story, but I'm always more hopeful on December 25th. For a day at least, all is calm, all is bright.

Lately I've noticed there's a lot of depressing Christmas songs out there (ever listen to Sarah McLaughlin's Wintersong cd?) Sure people are entitled to bemoan commercialism, express pain that's compounded when everyone else seems so dang cheerful, or just rant about phoniness. But to me, Christmas Day is about hope.

On the surface, Tom Waits' Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis is one of the depressing tunes. Opening with "Hey Charlie, I'm pregnant" surely sets many listeners on guard- a pregnant hooker isn't the most hopeful of images is it? But quickly the verse changes expectations...

Hey Charlie, I'm pregnant and living on 9th Street
Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue
And I stopped takin' dope and I quit drinkin' whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone and works out at the track

I love how firmly Waits asserts the change. Doesn't get more clear than "stopped" or "quit" does it? Yet it's a realistic tale- no fairytale Pretty Woman scenarios here.

He says that he loves me, even though it's not his baby
He says that he'll raise him up like he would his own son
And he gave me a ring that was worn by his mother
And he takes me out dancin' every Saturday night

Now I'm not trying to offend a million Catholics (mostly because I won't get a million Catholics visiting this blog), but a pregnant woman, and a man sticking by her even though he's not the father, seems to allude to the virgin Mary. No, I'm not comparing Mary to a prostitute, but I think Waits subtly conjures up the same hope one feels upon first hearing the story of the first Christmas. But the parallels end there.

And hey Charlie, I think about you everytime I pass a fillin' station On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair
And I still have that record of Little Anthony and the Imperials
But someone stole my record player, now how do you like that?

I know Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell get most of the credit as singer-poets, but Waits deserves as much credit. I love the imagery of "the grease" and "the fillin' station." Charlie gets so much more identity in just two short lines. And the latter two lines perfectly capture the injustice the prostitute feels in the loss of their relationship.

Hey Charlie, I almost went crazy after Mario got busted
I went back to Omaha to live with my folks
But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison
So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay

Hey Charlie, I think I'm happy for the first time since my accident
And I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope
I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of 'em
I'd just drive a different car every day dependin' on how I feel

I really appreciate the voice of this poem. She's so consistent with the vernacular (busted, dope, etc) that by the end of it, she has an identity that sticks with the reader. As a song, I really appreciate that it's able to be sung by both genders without the characters of Charlie and the prostitute being lost. When Tom Waits performs it, he's Charlie reading the letter. When Neko Case covers it, she's the writing prostitute. Both performances are brilliant and complement each other wonderfully.

Hey Charlie, for chrissakes, if you want to know the truth of it
I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone
I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, and Charlie, hey
I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's day

And so here we are, the truth is revealed; it's Boxing Day and we're all coming down. But for a moment we had hope that things were changing for the better. Maybe some of that hope will even linger. Yes, the last stanza might be depressing but no more than the last line of "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare- Charles Dickens VERSUS Mark Twain

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (George Orwell Vs. Charles Dickens), with a final score of 14-4, was Charles Dickens.

A couple weeks ago, Chris mentioned that "Orwellian" has entered into our lexicon. How did I miss that so had "Dickensian"? I should have really milked that angle. Oh well. Can you think of more examples?

Anyway, Dickens was the winner. I've only read A Christmas Carol. Shame on me, I know. But his connection with the holiday did perhaps give him the unfair advantage over Orwell last week, according to some of the comments (though I'm more than sure that Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, etc played a small role as well.)

But since Christmas is still a week away, who in the world could possibly compete with him at this time of the year? I considered Clement Moore (for Twas The Night Before Christmas) and O Henry (for the Gift of the Magi), but as respectable as they might be, I don't really think stand a chance against Dickens (not if exclamation marks from last week are any indication). So, I've gone instead with Mark Twain. But before you think he's nothing to do with Christmas, read this.

Who's better?



Monday, December 17, 2007

Short Story Monday- Writer's Diary #39

Short Story Monday

Okay, so the picture has nothing to do with today's short story, but since I usually post a picture of the author on Short Story Mondays, and today's author is me, there you go. And if I really wanted to make a case for it (besides the honest reason- that I'm just being a goof), I'd say it had something to do with exposing myself as a writer, feeling vulnerable, and all that jazz (er...yeah).

Anyway, since I've been writing about short stories for such a long time now, I guess it was inevitable that I'd give it a try of my own. So without further adieu, here's my flash fiction piece (not a final draft, I'm sure):

Bliss

by John Mutford

The teenager at the back of the bus was the sole rider. He didn’t know her name but she was a familiar face on this route, often the last person off, just like today. Black nails, black rimmed eyes, black jeans, shoes, hair and shirt-- always the same goth get-up. He’d often heard the 20-somethings remarking they knew the type: attention-seeking brats. Those 30 and above seemed to not to care about melodrama.

When the ding came, he’d been startled-- she was two stops too early. Only as she was offloading did he catch the difference. Today a sequined word sprawled across her chest: BLISS. That a teenager would appreciate irony haunted him for the rest of the evening.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

Often the last passenger aboard, she’d been accustomed to the driver’s glances in the rearview mirror. They weren’t the perverse ogles of other men his age, but they irked her just the same: applying his big fat mystery all over her. She’d get off early and walk the rest of the way home.
………………………………………………………………………………………………

Her boyfriend had deflated: out of pot and interesting theories. As he slew another zombie on the screen, she’d actually found herself wishing his mom would come home. This morning she discovered her shirt had been BeDazzled with the word “BLISS.” She wasn’t upset, but she didn’t understand. If the nut-job was around, at least she could try for an explanation. At 30, his mom seemed convinced of being their age.
………………………………………………………………………………………………

Most mornings she’d found herself alone on the bus for a good three or four stops. Not surprising considering her insane hours. Oddly- and she knew it was oddly- she didn’t mind. There was a certain bliss at this hour of the morning, a world the sleeping people didn’t see. Of those people, the only one she cared to care about was her son. She’d checked in on him this morning, arm draped around his pasty-faced girlfriend and drooling just as he’d always done. The girlfriend’d probably have a stiff neck. Probably hate what she’d done to her shirt, too. “Ah, the pleasures in life,” she thought.

A few seats ahead, the busdriver yawned and looked out his side window.


(Head on over to Geranium Cat's to check out links to other Short Story Monday posts, including reviews of real authors!)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Poetry Friday- Famous Opening Lines


Just for fun, here are 10 of the most recognized opening lines in poetry. Without Googling, how many of the poets can you identify? I'm asking that readers, even those of you that know all 10, just pick one each to identify in the comments.

1. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

2. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

3. O, my luve is like a red, red rose

4. 'Twas brillig and the slithy toves

5. Whose woods these are I think I know

6. Do not go gentle into that good night

7. Because I could not stop for death

8. anyone lived in a pretty how town

9. The Northern Lights have seen queer sights

10. I saw the best minds of my generations, destroyed by madness

Easy? Any more notable openers you can think of?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #27- George Orwell VERSUS Charles Dickens

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (George Orwell Vs. Leonard Cohen), with a final score of 9-8, was George Orwell... I think. Some of the votes were a little ambiguous, but I'm not going to get all carried away with hanging chads here.

Actually Cohen put up a better fight than I had thought. While I'm a big fan of his music, somewhat a fan of his poetry, and still confused over Beautiful Losers, I still suspected he wouldn't fare well in this competition. I certainly didn't expect all the votes for his sex appeal. Cohen? Really?

To each her own, I guess.

Getting more in the spirit of the season...

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose (including sex appeal if you want!), voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (Dec. 18), and please spread the word!

Who's better?



Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Reader's Diary #317- Markoosie: Harpoon of the Hunter (FINISHED)

According to McGill-Queen's University Press, Harpoon of the Hunter is "the first novel by an Inuit written in English."

First off, it's not a novel. At only 81 pages, written in large font and scattered with illustrations, it probably fits the definition of novella much better. Second, it should be Inuk, not Inuit. "Inuit" is the plural form.

But these are issues with the publishers, not Markoosie's writing. The book itself, isn't a bad read. It's certainly an exciting tale of survival: a group of hunters decide to track a rabid polar bear and before long, Kamik, the hero finds himself all alone.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects for me was the scarcity of figurative language. I counted only three or four similes in the entire book, one of which was used twice ("the little sack on his back seems to weigh a hundred seals"). Likewise for metaphors. Oddly, this isn't a criticism of the book- in fact, I think it lent itself well to the urgency of the story and the setting.

And there were plenty of other literary merits. The imagery was quite strong and I enjoyed the balanced changes in perspective (at one point even getting in the mind of the bear).

It wasn't a flawless book, however. Sometimes the dialogue felt overly rigid and fake (ex. "There are many people and much meat in Kikitajoak. They will not go hungry.") Plus, there's a love story at the end which feels as tacked on and unbelievable as any Hollywood tripe.

Fortunately, the fast pace and excitement of the story easily overshadows any issues I had and I enjoyed it a lot.

Markoosie was born in Inukjuak (aka Port Harrison) on the Northern shore of Quebec. This marks my 6th book read for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Short Story Monday- Stuart MacLean: Polly Anderson's Christmas Party

Short Story Monday

Until now all of my short story Monday posts have referred to stories I've been able to find online. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find a free version of this one anywhere. But, the good news is, I did find it here at Zunior.com for a mere $4.88 as an mp3.

Yes, it's another audio story, but it is a good one. In fact, it's become another one of those holiday traditions for me. Odd since it took me two Christmases to even give it a chance.

My first exposure to the track was on a fantastic little Christmas album originally released back in 2000 by Nettwerk simply entitled Christmas Songs (I love Matthew Ryan's "Little Drummer Boy" and Kendall Payne's "O Come O Come Emmanuel"). However, even the simple name of that cd was a bit of a misnomer, as the last track wasn't even a song at all: it was Stuart Maclean's 23 minute long tale, "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party."

I can't tell you how many times I got through just the first three or four minutes of Maclean's story only to skip back to the first song, bored almost completely out of my Christmas tree. Looking back, I had a couple misconceptions about Maclean: 1. That he was smug. 2. That he wasn't funny.

I think I drew much of the first impression from the audience on the track (yes, it's recorded live). At first I wasn't finding him at all funny, yet the audience seemed to be in polite stitches throughout. And after each burst Maclean seemed to stammer and get just a little bit louder, almost sounding proud of his story-telling prowess. To be honest I found the whole thing a little nauseating- Maclean throwing lame jokes about some poor old saps named Dave and Morley, while the audience chuckled on, familiar with the characters through listening to their precious CBC Radio- which at the time I thought was too highbrow, have since enjoyed, and am now disappointed in for a slew of brand new reasons, but that's for another post. Anyway, I felt like an outsider and proud of it.

Also, one of the first jokes to come out of the story was a bit of a dud - something about a "galaxy of bureaucratic horror." No, I quickly decided, this guy's humour is just too pretentious. I quickly grew to love Gavin Crawford's impression of him on This Hour Has 22 Minutes (though I'm sure he'll say it was all out of respect- wink, wink).

After many, many complete listens, I'll recant those early prejudices. Stuart Maclean doesn't seem smug at all. In fact, his stammer reminds me a lot of Jimmy Stewart. And as for being too pretentious, when I finally listened a bit further, I realized that the story takes aim at that sort of crowd (Martha Stewart takes a few shots) and how they seem to want others to feel inadequate- especially around the holidays. Living in the North, where alternative methods to store-shopping abound, I can't tell you how many Party-Lite, Princess House, etc parties my wife has been invited to to buy expensive knick-knacks designed for showing-off (under the guise of "I'm your friend, now buy something from me"). Maclean finally hooked me with a reference to Leleike Crystal. I have know idea what that is (or if I'm even spelling it right), but neither did Dave, the hero of the story, and that's what endured him to me.

The plot, in fact, revolves around said crystal. Dave finds himself in charge of the eggnog at Polly Anderson's Christmas party and is to pour the rum into the Leleike crystal for the adult bowl and bring the glass crystal to the kids. And while you might be right about the outcome, it doesn't prevent the story from being hilarious.

While I still feel that the wind-up is unfortunately dull and unnecessary, I've long since forgiven it. I highly recommend downloading it (and being patient).

(What short stories have you read lately? Leave links to your short story posts below...)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

And the winner is...

Congratulations to Nicola, winner of last week's scavenger hunt. Kenneth J. Harvey's Inside will be in the mail shortly. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Also many thanks to Kenneth J. Harvey for supporting the Canadian Book Challenge.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Poetry Friday- Poet Spotlight: Zachariah Wells


Earlier this year I read a glowing review in the Nunatsiaq News of a book of poetry entitled Unsettled by Zachariah Wells. Calling it "refreshing," John Thompson went on to recommend it to those readers who are "interested in the North, the real north, rather than the imaginary place that's so often written about instead." At this point I'd like to say I rushed out and bought it but I still haven't (and at this point I have no excuses!)

Unsettled is not a new book. First published in 2004 it's just now getting my attention- but being out of the loop is one of the detriments (and sometimes pluses) of living in the North. But boy has it gotten my attention. Shortly after I read the review, Wells had picked up on my Canadian Book Challenge and little did I know that I'd soon be having correspondence with the guy. Asides from having a love of poetry in common, he also worked for the same airline right here in Iqaluit.
And while I still haven't bought his book yet, I have been able to read a lot of his work. At both his website and his blog, he's made a lot of his poems available either through links or direct posts. If the glowing review wasn't enough to convince me, the proof was in the proverbial pudding.
This week I asked Wells for an interview. Not only did he agree, he also committed to allowing me to showcase five of his unpublished poems right here! I hope you enjoy...
1. I'm a novice interviewer, so I'll get the predictable question out of the way first (don't worry, it's not "boxers or briefs"): What are your favourite poets or poems?
Boxer briefs, actually. I have a lot of favourite poets and a lot of favourite poems; I'm shamelessly promiscuous. Some poets I have a general interest in or affinity for (including, to name a few in no special order, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Irving Layton, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes), others have written one or a handful of poems that I keep coming back to, but I have no special interest in their work as a whole. Some of my favourite poets didn't write poems as such: Friedrich Nietzsche (he wrote poems, but his best poetry was in aphoristic prose); Joseph Conrad; Fyodor Dostoevsky; Barry Lopez. Again, this only names a few. I'd be at it all day if I tried to be exhaustive. I'll just add that which poems/poets are more or less important to me varies from week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year.
PORTRAIT OF THE NIHILIST AS A YOUNG MAN
by Zachariah Wells
Like those astigmatic pupils,
    Forster und his Frau,
       he has read Nietzsche

obliquely, too early,
    he has read Nietzsche
       as his biography

and like Raskolnikov, miscasts
    his smeared might
       as the clear light

of a new dawn.
    In the chthonic grey
       of his iris

atrocities
    pardon each other
       over and over.
2. At zachariahwells.com you list the many places you've lived in Canada as well as several jobs you've had in the transportation industry. Is it for irony that your blog is entitled "Career Limiting Moves" or just how do you justify the title?
Heh. Partly ironic, yeah, because I've done nothing but move since I first left Prince Edward Island seventeen-odd years ago. But just as I chose the title Unsettled for my book because it cuts in several directions at once, I chose CLM for a variety of implications. The backstory is that after I quit a job several years ago, I sent my bosses a frustrated letter enumerating in very plain language what I felt were their failures and shortcomings as managers. It got back to me that one of my bosses was telling people that my letter was a "real career-limiting move." This is common business jargon for doing something counter-productive to the advancement of one's career. I thought this was absolutely fucking hilarious, since what could be more "career-limiting" than quitting a job?! That she would say something like this only confirmed what I already believed: that most of my bosses were not very intelligent people.
Anyway, I've also been working for the last few years as a freelance book reviewer and poetry critic. As Carmine Starnino says in the introduction to his book of criticism A Lover's Quarrel , writing honest, blunt, opinionated criticism is not a good way to get ahead in the literary scene. Which brings up another level of irony, because a career in poetry is a contradiction of terms. So what it boils down to is that I have a borderline-autistic inability to observe social niceties and keep my mouth shut. I come by it honestly. My father lost his job working for the provincial government of PEI because he made himself a nuisance to the premier and her advisors. And my maternal grandfather, who was the public health officer for the city of Ottawa, made himself quite unpopular for closing Ottawa's beaches for health reasons. My mother, too, digs in her heels when defending a position or cause. Basically, I grew up steeped in an ethos of saying what you believe to be true and just, not what will help you get by. Some people appreciate that, others see it differently. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, as the saying goes. You can't write criticism if you're worried about pissing people off.
3. Related to question #2, how have your experiences shaped both your poetry and your career as a poet?
Enormously. Some poets rely mainly on their imaginations to write. I'm not one of them. My book is based almost entirely on my experiences in Nunavut. That said, I write a lot of poems now that are not related to my own personal life experiences at all--and my job for Via Rail hasn't inspired me to write much of anything. Why this is, I'm not sure. Probably related to the transience of most of my interests and enthusiasms. Having written a lot about my life, maybe I'm now looking to other things for inspiration. One reason I remain engaged by poetry is that it's such a vast amorphous thing that it can change as I do and I can carry it with me wherever I go--in both literal and figurative senses. As for my career, well, I've always been struck by the fact that to career is "to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner" and it usually ends badly. If you want a career in the conventional sense as a poet, you get graduate degrees and try to get a tenured faculty position at a university, where you act as a mentor to other people who want to have a career in poetry. I realized pretty early on that this was not something I was constitutionally predisposed towards. Which is probably related to my inability to keep my mouth shut.
Are you distancing yourself by the so-called establishment then?
That's not my goal, per se, but is probably an inevitable consequence of my position. I tend share Grouch [sic] Marx's suspicion of clubs that would have someone like me as a member--not that Groucho knew me...
SOINTULA SITKA
by Zachariah Wells

Through peace and plenty
I’ve stood

I’ve stood
Through squabbles and poverty too

I saw hundreds fall in my shade
To fire and storm and saw

And I stood

I’ll topple too
I’ll be nurselog to hundreds and moss

Tipping roots to the sky
And top to the sea

Until then
Lean on me, lady

And look
4. Your poem "Fool's Errand" was featured in one of my favourite poetry anthologies In Fine Form, yet other poems I've read by you are written in free verse. How do decide when to go with form, and then, which form to use?
With a few exceptions, I don't really decide to "go with form" or not. Form happens, whether it's in free verse or a metrical stanzaic poem. When you spend as much time as I do immersed in poetry and poetics, these things become as natural as idiom and accent. Writing in set forms is very challenging for beginning writers or for writers who habitually use what they call free verse. But after much practice, it becomes natural. I'm a big baseball fan. One of the great joys of watching the Blue Jays play this summer was seeing John MacDonald, the Jays' shortstop, make these incredibly difficult plays look like routine business. In part this is because he's a talented athlete--but he would actually practice these techniques, over and over and over, with his mentor Omar Vizquel when the two both played for the Cleveland Indians. The things MacDonald does on the field look sometimes like inspired, genius-level intuition. But it's the product of a helluva lot of training. And they can look impossibly hard, but you can arrive at them by degrees. You can't just decide one day to switch from expository prose to writing in iambic pentameter and hope to have success. Anyway, I guess it's not for everyone to "write in form,"--I use the quotes because I'm uncomfortable with this terminology, but don't know how it might be briefly put more perspicuously--but if you've never practised it, you can never say, and practising it can only be good for your writing, I think. One thing that practise does is impart and impose a discipline to what you're doing, so that even when you write in free verse, there's recognizable structure to the thing and not just rhythmically flaccid chopped-up prose. My book is uneven in this regard. I was really still in the middle stages--even the early stages--of a long apprenticeship when the book was published and there's a baggy looseness to some pieces and to the book as a whole. If I were publishing it today, it'd probably look different. But I'm also glad that it was published shortly after I left the north; I think it more accurately reflects where I was at as a writer and a person than if I'd hung on to it a few more years.

Where does your training come from? Do you have formal training in poetics, or is it something you've taken upon yourself?
I took two semesters (one course) of Creative Writing at the graduate level at Concordia University. Very little of what I've learned about writing poems came directly from that course. I don't know of any CW poetry programs that put an emphasis on the nuts and bolts of verse composition technique, which is really unfortunate because it's fundamental. I've mostly picked it up from reading poems, poetry criticism and various books on prosody.

EGO SUM
by Zachariah Wells

I am the lord, the thief and the vassal
Water, I shift to fit any vessel
Ice, I expand to explode a corpuscle
Wherever I go, I speak like a local
I sift like ash through grates and then settle
I mimic and ape; I’m brash and I’m subtle
I’m an alloy forged from infinite metals
I am the stove, the pot and the kettle
I patch over holes like plaster and spackle
I am the block and I am the tackle
I’m a toy pistol plated in nickel
I am the treacherous course through a tickle
I am a torrent and I am a trickle
I am most busy when I am most idle
I am the whip, the bit and the bridle
I am the bolt, the hinge and the knuckle
I am a belt in search of its buckle
I am the stamen, the pistil, the petal
I’m in forever the finest of fettle
I read very much and I know very little
I’m obliging, yes, but no one’s lickspittle
My eye has the shape of the head of an eagle
I’m a creature of habits, some of them legal
I have a nose to rival a beagle
I’m jackpine, catspruce, cedar and maple
I am the stake, the stitch and the staple
I can cram worlds in the cup of a thimble
I’m gauche and immodest; I’m horribly humble
I’m the uneasy peace preceding a battle
I am the fang and I am the rattle
I am flame shining the brown eyes of cattle
I am the Talmud and I am the Bible
I am all manner of slander and libel
I have been Cain and I have been Abel
I am the chair and I am the table
I wear many suits and shun every label
I am the song of the Tower of Babel
I’d speak the truth, but I doubt that I’m able

5. You've garnered a lot of praise for Unsettled, including from such luminaries as the Fiddlehead. Is such praise important to you, asides from a commercial standpoint?
First, I'd just like to say that The Fiddlehead didn't say anything about my book; a reviewer in The Fiddlehead, Sharon McCartney, did. As a reviewer myself, this is something that irks me, when a magazine or newspaper is cited instead of the writer; this is a business of informed opinions, not authoritative pronouncements. I've become friends with Sharon since that review was published and her good opinion means a lot to me. That aside, I'm more interested in insights than in praise, pleasant tho it be to receive it. I read reviews of my own work to see how it appears from the perspective of another person. I'm most disappointed in reviews that seem disengaged, not in reviews that have critical things to say. From a commercial standpoint, I don't think reviews of poetry collections make a precious bit of difference. If you want to sell books of poetry, you've got to travel and seek out audiences and sell the damn things one at a time. A review in The Fiddlehead and a dollar will get you the proverbial cup of coffee.
My apologies to Sharon McCartney. I did enjoy her review. However, I'm not quite sure I agree that good reviews of poetry make no difference commercially. Personally, if the review was well-written and/or by a reviewer that I've come to trust to have similar tastes, I'd be more apt to buy the book. I realize of course that we're speaking of poetry here and not the latest John Grisham novel, so my buying habits don't exactly reflect, nor influence, the actual market. Still, you have an entire page of links to predominantly favourable reviews of Unsettled- was the purpose not to enhance sales? Was it to give credibility? Another reason perhaps?
I have links to every single published review of my book--at least every one that I know of--no matter what they say. This not done as a sales pitch, but because, as a reviewer myself and the reviews editor for the magazine Canadian Notes & Queries, I believe that public conversation about books is important and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. A typical approach writers and publishers use to try to sell books is extracting a "pull quote" from a review, rather than using the whole thing. If those reviews on my site happened to shift a copy or two, I'd be pleased, but we're talking about a copy or two, not even one or two hundred, which in bookselling terms is still an insignificant figure. My book was published in a run of 900 copies or so back in 2004. I've handsold around 225-250 copies myself at readings and other places, and tho I don't know precisely how many unsold copies are in print, I know the run hasn't sold out. These are the realities of publishing poetry. The average title sells 200-300 copies. Ever. Believe me, if you buy a book of poems because of a review, then the good lord bless you my son, but your case ain't exactly normal.

As you can surely relate, it'd be mighty hard to pick up poetry books if I was to get them through poetry readings here in Iqaluit. I've got to go by something- even if occasional reviews have led me astray. When you lived in the North, how did you stay connected to poetry?
Good point. The longest consecutive stretch I was ever in the Arctic was 12 weeks. I had southern addresses in Halifax and Montreal. And to be honest, I've never purchased many books of contemporary poetry and until recently read a whole lot more older and/or foreign work. I only started reading a lot of contemporary Canadian-authored poetry in 2003 when I started reviewing books. I still only buy a scattered few contemporary titles a year. Poetry's really an easy thing to "stay connected to," far easier than visual art, for example, which you can only see at galleries.
6. The poems in Unsettled chronicle your time as a cargo handler in Iqaluit, and according to the reviews, sometimes reflect on the time less than favourably. Were you surprised then that the local press ( The Nunatsiaq News ) took favourably to the book?
Again, Nunatsiaq didn't take to the book one way or t'other. One of its editors, John Thompson, did--after a common acquaintance of ours told him about the book. I was very pleased that this happened and was heartened by Thompson's review. I don't think many Nunavummiut suffer under the delusion that the territory is some kind of Shangri-La. A lot of outsiders do, but they have to ignore the settlements to form such an opinion. I wrote the book as someone who was both insider and outsider--a commons status for residents of the territory, both native and qallunaat--and hoped I got things fairly close to right and didn't cover up any messy truths for the sake of propriety or fear of causing offense. I've always had a bit of anxiety about how the book might be received, if at all, in Nunavut; a Nunavummiuq reader is bound to see the thing much differently from a Southerner. So far, so good, I guess.
Again, my apologies to John Thompson.
7. Your website features many audio samples of you reading/performing your poetry, plus Sealift is a CD of 24 poems from Unsettled. Has the recording and performing of your poetry changed the way you write?
Performing came first. I've been doing public readings since 2001, but I only started recording recently. And yes, tho it's hard to pinpoint how precisely, reading my work and other poetry aloud has definitely had an influence on how I write. I read everything (my poems and other people's poems) aloud, even if it's only to myself. Poetry exists somewhere in the space between speech and song and prose and if your mouth and ears aren't playing a role in the composition process, you're much less likely to write compelling verse, I think. Poems tend to start for me, as a noise in my noggin. These days, I only start to write something on paper or on the computer after it's banged around inside my brainpan for a few days. I figure that most or all of what never makes it onto the page because I forgot about it probably wasn't much worth keeping anyway.
8. On your blog, I've noticed that you've been a little critical of some of the poetry that is being recognized in Canada today. What is the future of Canadian poetry- or poetry in general?
No idea. I expect it'll bear some resemblance to its past. The present is very intriguing, but most of what I think best receives little notice and most of what receives notice is considerably inferior to what I think best. Critics and satirists since the ancient Greeks and Romans have made similar complaints. Plus ça change...
9. Here's where the interviewer gets all annoying and makes it all about himself: One of the things I struggle with is simply finding the time to write. How do you make that commitment?
I can only speak for myself here, John. I've tailored my life around my needs to read and write and think. I work jobs that interfere minimally with that and give me lots of time. Either it's important enough to you to do this sort of thing or it isn't. There are lots of ways to write and lots of reasons to write. I think far too many people are encouraged to pursue it in a quasi-professional manner.
What is a professional manner, and is it that what you do? Could quasi-professional lead to professional?
I use "quasi-professional" to distinguish it from just doing it for your own private enjoyment and/or sharing it with your circle of acquaintance. By it I mean submitting work to magazines, contests and presses, going to writers' colonies, doing public readings, that sort of thing. A professional writer is usually a journalist or a successful novelist. It's very hard to make a living from writing alone.
If "quasi-professional" means writing poetry solely for one's own private enjoyment and/or sharing it with a few others, why do you say "too many people are encouraged to pursue it [this way]." Can poetry be a hobby?
No, I said that "quasi-professional" involves "submitting work to magazines, contests and presses, going to writers' colonies, doing public readings, that sort of thing." I was distinguishing it from being a private hobby. There's no reason at all that poetry can't be a hobby. For most people who write it, it basically is, but it's really quite easy for hobbyists to become "published poets" in Canada, because of all the public funding available for presses and magazines. I would discourage no one from adopting it as a hobby. But most people who do it as a hobby don't have anything new to say or their own essential way of saying it. There's a lot of poetry published that isn't too bad, but doesn't stand out at all from the mass of everything else. And there are a lot of poets whose sense of entitlement (to grant monies, to an audience, to continued publication, etc.) is far greater than their talent. But like I said, in some ways it's always been thus. It's far easier to be a bad poet than a bad plumber. Or than a bad novelist; it takes far more work to be a bad novelist.
MAUL
by Zachariah Wells

Lug me out on a dead man’s walk
    And bring my head down on the block.

Not like an axe that chips and hacks,
    Just lift me, let weight wedge the cracks.

Drop me into wood’s formula plots:
    Sap bleeds, sap suffers, sap clots.

Sic my steel on the stubbornest log—
    I’m more loyal and dumb than a dog.

I rise and fall and rip through heart rot,
    My blow barks out like a shot.

Wheel me round in an amoral waltz:
    Cannots, shouldnots, wouldnots—

Chop! Not a second to spare for second thoughts
    And no love lost for knots.

10. And since I'm milking you for advice, when do you decide that a poem is finished?
I don't. Paul Valéry, the French poet, said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. When I stop seeing things that I can do to make a poem better, I try to leave it alone. Sometimes this happens after a first draft, sometimes it never happens. I have one poem that I've been revising off and on for almost ten years and I don't think it's done with me yet. Ars dura, vita brevis...
RELIGIONFor Richard Dawkins
by Zachariah Wells

You’d swear she was designed for self-immolation
The way the moth circles in logarithmic gyres,
Spirals down toward ad hoc pyres
(Campfires, candlewicks, shivaree mobs)—but reformation
From science fixes the error: crossed wires
In moths’ brains make them offer themselves
As tithe to some lunatic church. Delve
Deeper: what misfires
Is an elegant compass to which stars
And moon, optically infinite, are lodestone
Of a luminate sort: their glow,
Shed on her eye’s arrayed guides, shows
The moth home. Rays shone
In spikes, like spokes from a hub, draw her to cars’
Headlights, lit windows, autos-da-fé, torches:
The moth’s led astray by our radiant porches.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reader's Diary #316- Sheila Burnford: One Woman's Arctic

The saving grace of this book is a title that serves also as a disclaimer: it is One Woman's Arctic. Written by Sheila Burnford, of The Incredible Journey fame, it chronicles her time spent at Pond Inlet in Canada's Arctic back in the early 70s.

I doubt many Southerners, at least those who have never visited here, would have the same experiences reading this book. For me, it was impossible not to spend the entire time comparing it to the Arctic I've come to know since I moved here in 2001. Quite frankly Burnford's tale is VERY different than the experiences I've had.

The problem is that it's hard to say which version (hers or mine) is accurate. For one, Burnford's journeys took place in the early 70s; it is a gross understatement to say that the Arctic is vastly different than it was then. For that matter, I would venture to say that the whole world is a very different place. Furthermore, Burnford's experiences took place in Pond Inlet, while mine have predominantly been in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit. I've not yet had the opportunity to visit the place we simply refer to as "Pond", though if it's anything like the utopia she describes, I've been missing out.

For every difference I noted, I kept reminding myself of the the title. It was one woman's Arctic- it wasn't mine, it wasn't anyone else's, it was simply Sheila Burnford's impressions and observations. Yet for all the excuses or rationale I could muster, I still wasn't able to entirely trust her accuracy. For one, she rushed to conclusions and generalizations. The moment one Inuk did something nice for her, it was suddenly "true Eskimo hospitality." (This was written before the term Inuit had gained much popularity in the South.) Such all-encompassing conclusions marred the book from beginning to end and were in the predictable vein of Inuk-good, whiteman-bad. It's not that I wanted her to focus on the negative, for surely I've had a lot of wonderful experiences in the Arctic as well. Still, some moderation would have been nice. Furthermore as positive as the generalizations about the Inuit may have been, I don't think she does them any favours when she takes it to such an extreme as to even rationalize murder as an acceptable cultural practice. In describing the murder of Robert Janes, a white man who had some financial tanglings with a group of Inuit hunters in the early part of the 20th century, Burnford writes,
"...although there could be no doubt that it was a pre-conceived murder from the point of view of white justice, it was entirely within the framework of custom and common sense that had evolved of necessity among the Eskimos..."
I'm sure that there are plenty of Inuit that would say otherwise. I'm not arguing that Janes wasn't a shady character (he may or may not have been), but it seems to be Burnford's assertion that a shady Inuk would be out of the question. For as pleasant a light as she cast on the Inuit, she seemed unable to see them as individuals: Inuit with nary an Inuk among them.

Besides, I have trouble with anyone who claims to know a culture inside and out in such a short span. It was a little unclear how much time exactly she spent in Pond Inlet (Wikipedia says two summers, but there are definite mentions of spring and fall as well). At most she was there for two years. I've lived in Nunavut for nearly six years and I still don't claim to know the place. Heck, I spent 24 years in Newfoundland and I don't think I could define that culture adequately either.

It would have been nice to have had this story without the editorial.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #26- George Orwell VERSUS Leonard Cohen

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Leo Tolstoy Vs. George Orwell), with a final score of 8-6, was George Orwell.

Whew, that was a close one. Though I like Tolstoy, Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 are two of my all-time favourites and I don't think I could have handled an Orwell loss this week. There were some great points made about his relevancy (but, as Athena pointed out, some Tolstoy themes ring just as true today). I'd add to Chris's remark about "Orwellian" having become a common term, that everyone also knows what "big brother" refers to (and it wasn't meant to be cutesy- stupid CBS!) It also saddened me that a couple people mentioned having Orwell ruined in school. Seriously, I think you should sue. My experience was more in line with Raidergirl's. Mr. Butt got us all to appreciate Animal Farm (not to mention Romeo and Juliet and The Pearl).

But this week's another week, and I have a sneaking suspicion I'll take some slack for this pairing (or at the very least, scare off some potential voters). Still, I'm curious as to what will happen.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (Dec. 11), and please spread the word!

Who's better?



Monday, December 03, 2007

Reader's Diary #315- Mavis Gallant: When We Were Nearly Young

Short Story Mondays

To change things up a little, I've decided to link to an audio post this time around. Mavis Gallant's short story "When We Were Nearly Young," as read by Antonya Nelson, is available here courtesy of The New Yorker (you can download or stream it). I've listened to very few books on cd but after listening to a few short stories and poems, I think I'll give it a go.

In the meantime, Antonya does a passable job with the story. She's a little too flat at times, but the story was enough to hold my interest. Plus, I enjoyed getting her perspectives on both Gallant and the short story itself, wisely included as a intro and conclusion.

Perhaps it seems somewhat hypocritical that I enjoyed Gallant's story but referred to Elizabeth Taylor's "Miss A and Miss M" as boring. At first glance (or listen, in this case), both stories are pretty on par with one another in terms of action (or lack thereof). In fact, "When We Were Young" was more character study than story, but still, something about it held my attention much more.

Last week one of my co-workers remarked about a depressing underside of Christmas. "When you're young," she said, "families seem so close at Christmas. Then when you get older, and more aware of all the tensions, some of the magic is gone." Perhaps there are some of you that disagree, but I thought it was a pretty accurate perception. That it came from someone in their young 20s, ties in with Gallant's story.

"When We Were Nearly Young" is a fantastic title for this story, capturing the edge that defines this story: the edge between youth and adulthood (One character's fears of turning 30 rubs off of all of his younger friends). But while I think it would be very easy to write the story off as depressing, I didn't think of it that way. Yes, it shouts most loudly about magic disappearing, but I think Gallant's narrator is a little unreliable (in fact, she refers to herself as "ill-defined"). Magic is simply believing that the impossible is. This could manifest itself in the naivete of youth (as my co-worker mentioned), the idealism of 20-somethings... or in the old that forget the stresses of the past and paint their memories with cloudy Norman Rockwell versions. Just as children have their own unique versions of magic, they have their own worries too. The narrator in "When We Were Young" seems to recall the time leading up to an end, when really it was just the passage to another stage.

It definitely left me with much to consider. That the characters are on the cusp of something is but one idea of many I could have discussed. Hunger plays a pretty significant role as well. However, I wanted a post shorter than the story itself!

(Did you post about a short story today? Let me know in the comments below.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Canadian Book Challenge- 2nd Update

Wow, has a whole month past since the first update? I didn't make as much progress this time around, but fortunately many others made up for my slacking. Since then we've also welcomed a few new participants into the fold. I hope everyone makes sure they visit each other's sites to show their encouragement- it is the Canadian way afterall.

Speaking of the Canadian way, I'm not sure how many of you caught the wild story on Raidergirl's blog last month. I had offered Zachariah Wells's book of poetry, Unsettled as a prize, and drew randomly from those who answered a pop quiz I had posted the week earlier. Raidergirl, of Prince Edward Island, was the lucky winner so I emailed Zachariah with her address. It turned out that he just happened to be in P.E.I. at the time. The story gets wilder from there, but you'll just have to click on the link to her blog to find out how.

Now on with this month's progress. *Indicates new since last update:

The Maple Leaves (1 Book)
Framed
- The Story Girl by Lucy Maud Montgomery*

Emily
- Crow Lake by Mary Lawson*

Susan
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel*

Chris
- Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Heather
- Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje* (waiting for review)

3M
- Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais*

Ripley
- Atonement by Gaetan Soucy*

Dorothy
- Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje*

Nan
- A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny*

Corey
- Houdini's Shadow by Leo Brent Robillard*

Kate
- Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whitall* (waiting for review)

The Beavers (2 Books)
Gautami Tripathy
- Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Callista
- The Library Book by Maureen Sawa*
- fake id by Hazel Edwards*

Booklogged
- Birds In Fall by Brad Kessler*
- Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark*

Court
- The Hunter's Moon by Orla Melling*

The Bluenoses (3 Books)
Melanie
- Yellowknife by Steve Zipp*
- A Hard Witching by Jacqueline Baker
- Smuggling Donkeys by David Helwig

Geranium Cat
- The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel*
- A Deathful Ridge by J. A. Wainwright*
- Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark

Bookgal
- Unless by Carol Shields*
- The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields*
- The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Caribou (4 Books)
John
- The Time In Between by David Bergen*
- Love: A Book of Remembrances by bpNichol
- Out of the Sea by Victor Kendall and Victor G. Kendall
- Uncommon Prayer by Susan McMaster

Raidergirl
- Hockey Dreams by David Adams Richards*
- A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews*
- The Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod
- The Inuk Mountie Adventure by Eric Wilson

Historia
- Starting Out by Pierre Berton*
- A Nurse's Story by Tilda Shalof*
- One Red Paper Clip by Kyle MacDonald
- Miss O by Betty Oliphant

The Coats of Arms (5 Books)
The Loons (6 Books)
Steve
- Alligator by Lisa Moore*
- Sailing to Saratanium by Guy Gavriel Kay*
- Spook Country by William Gibson*
- And No Birds Sang by Farley Mowat*
- Uninvited Guest by John Degen
- Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Nicola
- Eye of the Crow by Shane Peacock*
- Kanada by Eva Wiseman*
- The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy
- The Alchemist's Dream by John Wilson
- Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
- Gemini Summer by Iain Lawrence

The Polar Bears (7 Books)
The Kingfishers (8 Books)
The Osprey (9 Books)
The Green Loons (10 Books)
The Snowy Owls (11 Books)
The Canada Geese (12 Books)
The Grosbeaks (13 Books)


(If this update is not accurate, please let me know in the comment section and I'll edit it.)

Now, it's prize time! To win a copy of Kenneth J. Harvey's Inside, how does a scavenger hunt sound?Amongst the reviews (new and old) posted above, find:

1 biography/memoir
1 book set outside Canada
1 book written by a Canadian Book Challenge participant
1 young adult (YA) book
1 book that a reviewer used for multiple challenges
1 Governor General's Award winner
1 sci-fi or fantasy book

More than one answer is possible and you may use a book more than once. Email your answers to jmutford (at) hotmail (dot) com. From all those who enter, I will randomly draw one name and post the winner next Saturday. Please don't post your answer in the comments.

(Special thanks to Kenneth J. Harvey for donating his book!)