Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reminder: "Island Poems" launch in Charlottetown

Just reminding any Charlottetown peeps out there that the Island Poems exhibit at the Gallery at the Guild, which includes my sestina "Donor", has its opening reception tonight, starting at 7:30. I still have no idea what the show looks like, but my intelligence operatives on the ground (meaning my friend J.J. Steinfeld and his lovely wife Brenda) tell me it's pretty impressive. If you can go and take it in tonight, you really should. If you can't go tonight, the exhibits does run through until April 30, so there's lots of time to take it in between now and then.

If you do check it out, please come back here and share with me your impressions of the show. I'm infinitely curious.


Review: Winter Sport, by Priscila Uppal

My first encounter with Priscila Uppal’s work was last summer during the road trip that RR and I took to PEI. We brought along a stack of literary journals so we could read aloud and critique the short stories therein during the long drive. One of the stories we read was by Uppal, and it was about a diver. It was obvious right from the beginning that Uppal is passionate about athletics, about the poetic and linguistic possibilities of describing a body and mind engaged in competition.

This passion extends to her recent poetry collection Winter Sport, which she wrote last year as the “poet-in-residence” for the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver. Here, Uppal casts her poetic prism across the gamut of the Winter Games: she renders ski jumping and the luge into haiku; she’s got love poems for the bobsleigh and figure skating; and she’s even written a gorgeous lament for disqualification.

For me, the best aspects of this book were when Uppal married the explicitly erotic possibilities of poetry to the implicitly erotic possibilities of sports. I had to smile at her “If My Lover Were a Snowboarder,” which takes the pot-infused patois of snowboarding and turns into a hilarious take on dirty talk: “You look so beautiful when you Pop Tart./ You drive me crazy when you wet cat.” Ahem. There are also some great visuals of speed skaters in their flesh-tight superhero suits.

Uppal is at her strongest when she uses a heightened lyricism to paint some pretty astounding images in the reader’s mind. She has a great poem about imagining herself as a skater while teaching her English students, bent low and arm gallantly tucked behind her as she leads them around a track. She also has this amazing riff in “Capturing Momentum: A Paradox”:

I would like to think language
travels at the speed of light
or at the very least the speed
of a high kick or triple jump.

But this too: paradox

Language lassoes.
Every page a penalty lap
of punishment.

Where Uppal is less strong is in her more experimental poems: pieces like “Numerology”, the Bok-influenced “Winter Olympics Parade” or filler pieces like “Snowboarder at the Door” feel very much out of place next to the stronger, better-crafted works of straight lyricism. I also kind of glazed over during her lengthy essays on the Paralympic and Arctic Games; better to have rendered these into poems as well. And I could have gone without the three pages of acknowledgements at the end of this collection, but that’s true of any book – an insidious trend among Canadian writers, I find.

Uppal proves in this collection that the gap between jocks and (poetry) nerds is a myth, and that even something as physical as sports can be rendered into art, an art that reminds us what it feels like to be alive. She certainly gets a gold medal for that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland

This anthology of essays – spectacularly subtitled “Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules” – is the latest in a series of books released by McClelland & Stewart as a fundraiser for the very noble organization PEN Canada. Edited by Jared Bland, Finding the Words tackles the topics above and a lot more, sometimes with humour and sometimes with a deadly seriousness. I had the good fortune of attending the launch party a couple of months ago and got to meet a slew of extremely talented people who generously donated their work to this project.

What struck me upon reading the anthology was not just the essays themselves but how Bland, who is an editor at The Walrus by day, chose to arrange them. The book opens with a piece called “A Story Without Words” by Heather O’Neill, a deeply personal reflection on her father’s long-time illiteracy. About three or four paragraphs in, you realize that O’Neill has written the essay in the same sort of faux-precocious, 11-year-old-girl voice that she utilized to such success in her award-winning novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Its tone is a stark contrast to that of the essay promptly following it – one by Linden MacIntyre called “On Mediocrity, Consensus and Success.” MacIntyre, who is about as “grizzled journalist/novelist in a lonely garret” as they come in this country, ruminates on his Giller win a couple years back for his novel The Bishop’s Man and the random crapshoot that comprises any literary accomplishment. The two essays could not be any more different in style and subject matter; but by placing them back to back at the beginning of this anthology, Bland is making a deliberate statement about how different writers’ minds work, their creative processing of the world around them, and how they go about “finding the words.” There are similarly abrupt pairings peppered throughout this book.

Naturally, I found the essays I enjoyed most were by writers I’ve already read and loved. David Bezmozgis, who could make a tax return sound engrossing, contributes a flawlessly executed piece called “Requiem for My Grandfather, Jakov Milner, Zionist.” The duo of Pasha Malla and Moez Surani lighten the mood by serving up a list of do’s and don’t’s for writers. (My favourite is #27: “Don’t put your face on the cover of your own book.”) Steven Heighton writes a lovely piece about the importance of boredom in inspiration and how our perpetually wired world can interfere with that. And I had to love Gord Downie’s story about sharing a stage with Gordon Lightfoot as they discussed their respective songwriting processes, a piece that is as much about the anxiety of hanging out with a childhood idol as anything.

There are a few duds in Finding the Words, essays that are too navel-gazing or don’t quite gel as a piece of nonfiction. But generally the anthology is very strong, and equal to the great cause it supports. You should go pick up a copy and help PEN Canada if you can.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran

Of all the telling details in Charles Foran’s epic biography of Mordecai Richler – and there are many – the ones that stand out for me reveal how Richler went about founding his strongest and most enduring friendships. To describe this lion of Canadian letters as a prickly pear would be a gross understatement, and yet he seemed to have no trouble opening himself up to those who showed a temerity, intellectual rigour and cleverness that he could respect.

Take, for example, his first encounter with journalist John Fraser. In the mid 1970s, Fraser had unwittingly become a hero of Canadian nationalism when he criticized the National Ballet of Canada for touring in the United States. The NBC responded by hiring Richler to write a tart rebuttal in the programme for its 1975-76 season. When Richler and Fraser later met in the lobby at the season opener in Toronto, a faux-deflated Fraser said, “I am the unacceptable face of Canadian nationalism.” Richler tried to brush the whole affair off, saying his attack wasn’t personal, to which Fraser replied that it was okay, that he too had done some “hack work” in his day. Instead of being grossly insulted, Richler laughed at the barb, and the two men became friends.

Foran’s book is packed with exactly these kinds of revealing details and impeccable insights into Richler. To describe this tome as a comprehensive biography of the man probably isn’t enough: Mordecai: The Life & Times is as much a biography of an age, a way of living, as it is of Richler himself. Indeed, reading the book can make a certain type of person long for a time that no longer exists: a time when authors had a much better chance at living solely by their pens, when more magazines ran lengthy essays and still paid writers handsomely for them; when authors were still treated as citizens of the world and less as captives in their own regional bunkers. Or even smaller details – like when you could still smoke in public, or show up at a literary event hosed out of your mind. Richler did it all – and refused to be anything other than what he was.

One the great strengths of Foran’s writing is that he never takes his narrative off in directions that aren’t appropriate for the subject itself. Richler would have had a low tolerance for high-falutin’ literary analysis (even of his own work) or didactic extrapolations on biography, and Foran wisely keeps both out of his book. Instead, he approaches his subject with an eye for storytelling, for humour and for presenting details at face value and allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Richler would have thoroughly approved.

Other reviewers have criticized Foran for a lack of structural balance in the text – weighing too much on certain epochs of Richler’s life, too little on others. This didn’t really bother me. I enjoyed watching Richler climb the economic ladder as much as the literary one: from impoverished artiste in Paris in the 1950s, middle-class scribbler in the 1960s and `70s, to highly paid cultural commentator in the 1980s and `90s. All along the way, Foran provides us with fabulous windows into the composition of Richler’s most enduring novels. If Foran focuses on some periods more than others, it’s only because they warranted it.

Any future biographer of Mordecai Richler will be hard-pressed to top Foran’s thorough and thoroughly engaging performance. Here's hoping people will continue reading this book for as long as they continue reading Richler himself.

Monday, April 18, 2011

New issue FreeFall magazine - and audio of my poem

So the website for FreeFall magazine has been updated with information on its new issue - Volume XX1 Number 1. I'm particularly excited about this, as my poem "On Choosing a Mattress" has been published in it after winning second place in the magazine's annual poetry contest. What's more, there's audio of me reading the poem that you can listen to. The hissing you hear is probably a result of the less-than-stellar mic on my Macbook; the echoing you hear is my voice bouncing off the bare walls of my home office as a result of last month's move.

For a much more enjoyable listening experience, I strongly recommend the audio for the winning poem, Catherine Owen's "Reincarnation Redux." This is a beautiful piece reflecting on loss, death and the possibility of returning as a different life form. I see Catherine Owen's name around in a lot of journals, and I'm very pleased to be sharing a line-up with her.

The rest of the issue looks stellar as well - it's got an interview with Douglas Glover (the judge for the contest) and one with the ever-hilarious Will Ferguson. Here's a list of newstands where the magazine is available; you should go pick up a copy.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Acceptance and publication - Novel excerpt: The Quint

Okay friends and neighbours, some pretty big news around here: Got word last night that an excerpt from my novel-in-progress has just been published in the latest issue of The Quint (Vol. 3 No. 2), a multidisciplinary literary journal based out of the University College of the North in Manitoba. As you may recall, they published four poems of mine back in the fall, and editor Yvonne Trainer asked earlier this year if I would send in something from the new novel.

What I sent her is an excerpt that I've read from at readings in Toronto, Moncton and, most recently, Perth Ontario over the last year or so. It's taken from (what is for now) Chapter 13, the place where the two main threads of the novel come together for the first time. The excerpt seemed to go over quite well with audiences when I read it aloud, so it made sense to send that. This marks the first time that any part of this book has appeared in print.

The Quint is packed with other cool works too, including a really great essay by Yvonne on how neuroscience and neuropsychology are affecting the future of biography writing. Fascinating stuff - you should go check it out.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Acceptance: ISLAND POEMS: A Collaborative Art Project

To any Charlotteotown readers out there: I'm happy to announce that a poem of mine, entitled "Donor", is going to be part of a show called ISLAND POEMS: A Collaborative Art Project, running from April 19th to the 30th at the Gallery at the Guild, 115 Richmond Street in Charlottetown. The exhibit, which is a joint project between the PEI Writers’ Guild, Peake Street Studios and a group called this town is small, "will involve the interpretation by 27 individual artists of 27 new works of poetry created specifically for this show."

This was a fascinating process for me: the submission rules required that I write a poem in one of five pre-selected poetic forms, and I chose the sestina - partly because I had never written a sestina before and looked forward to the challenge. Anyway, I don't know which visual artist my work was paired up with, nor have I seen the painting, but I'm sure it'll be an interesting collaboration regardless.

Alas, being stranded in Toronto, I won't be able to attend the launch on April 21st, but if you're in the Charlottetown area and can take in the show while it's on, please do. Then come back here and tell me all about it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Weekend report

So the reading that RR and I did together on Friday night in Perth, Ontario went over very well. We read, along with Tish Cohen, to an enthusiastic and engaged audience at the Factory Grind Cafe, right on the edge of Perth's beautiful downtown. The event was hosted by the intrepid Johnny Pigeau, who has launched his First Edition Reading Series and will be opening a new bookstore in Perth in the next month or so. I got some interesting questions from the audience about the new novel-in-progress, the first time I've really discussed it in any detail in a public forum.

After the show, we headed out to a local pub called (aptly enough, for Canadian literary types) the Fiddlehead Bar and Grill. Feeling expansive and experimental after my reading, I decided to order an emu pizza, which came drizzled in goat cheese and other goodies. Apparently emu farming is a big thing up in Perth - they also had an emu burger on the menu. At any rate, I'm happy to report that the large, flightless bird is delicious and makes for an excellent topping on pizza.

The next day, we drove over to Ottawa to have lunch at the home of RR's editor John Metcalf and his lovely wife Myrna. We had a sumptuous meal and engaged in lively conversation that stretched well into the afternoon. While there, John was able to give me a copy of the new issue of CNQ, in which I have a lengthy essay on Ray Smith's 1974 novel Lord Nelson Tavern. I'll get into the article and the issue at a later date, but needless to say that the new issue is gorgeous and packed to the rafters with amazing writing. So you should go pick up a copy when you get a chance.

And despite all the busyness this weekend, we still managed to host a small dinner party on Sunday night, unpack boxes in our new apartment, and alphabetize some books. All in all, it was lovely. Of course, the fun doesn't stop. Tonight I'm off to the Dora Keogh here in Toronto to see my friend Jacob McArthur Mooney launch his new poetry collection, Folk. The festivities start at 7 pm, so if you're in the area you should totally come out.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reading tonight in Perth, Ontario

Just a reminder that RR and I, along with Tish Cohen, are doing a reading tonight at the Factory Grind Cafe in Perth, Ontario as part of the First Edition Reading Series. The festivities start at 5:30 pm and should make for a wonderful time. Come on out if you're in the area.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Back online, and in a new home

So I'm happy to report that this weekend's move went more or less without a hitch. We were, predictably, screwed with our pants on by Bell Canada, which hooked up our phone but then promptly crossed the wires with someone else's line. But other than that, things went about as smoothly as can be expected when you're combining two homes into one.

The new apartment is, by the way, fabulous - the endless sea of boxes and unpacked bags notwithstanding. RR and I had a brief discussion about which room we each wanted our office in. I chose the one farthest from the bedroom because a.) I typically start writing around 4:30 in the morning and b.) unlike her, I tend to read aloud as I work. The biggest job has been, of course, amalgamating our respective libraries into one super library. Our combined book collection is just too staggering to phathom, but we're slowly working our way through the boxes, re-alphabetizing everything. (My bad - I forgot to label the book boxes as I finished backing them.) The shelves will look mighty impressive once we're done.

Lastly, I was happy to get enough of my office unpacked and set up to start writing again after several days off. It felt good - though a little weird- to be in a new space. I blame the strangest on the fact that most of my office stuff is still in boxes, and things will feel more natural once I get everything unpacked. Wish me luck!