Monday, 19 December 2011

(- -)

The church choir director. The way he heaves his virtuoso's girth to and fro like an obsequious anchor, it is clear the only divine presence he believes in is that of his own ego.

His fingers darting and spinning over the piano keys like some vain and improbable crab, he is intoxicated by the gleam of his own shell, a fibrous spell cast by mere dexterity.

His bald head offset by a muted brown blazer, a permanent eclipse playing itself out in some backwoods cathedral.

Friday, 16 December 2011

(-)

The subterfuge of a seemingly transparent gesture, despite what behavioural psychologists would have us believe, continually eludes us.

We are betrayed by direct observation, led awry with hindsight.

Motion capsizes resolution.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

New Review in the Antigonish Review

Just a heads up that my review of Jason Price Everett's wildly ambitious, worthy, and mildly problematic no-novel Unfictions (2009) appears in the new issue of The Antigonish Review. For those who can't make it to the newsstand, (luckily?) it seems it has already been archived online. Anyone looking to have their literary feathers ruffled should really check out Jason's book - it's a scorcher.

Friday, 18 November 2011

New Poem Up At Encore

A new poem of mine is up at Encore Lit. Thanks to Marko Sijan & Michael Carbert.

Also thanks to all those who showed up to the inaugural revivification of the Argo Open Mic for packing a full-house and making it a resounding success. Considering it took place on the same night as the Synapse Reading and it being our first event Meaghan, J.P. & I were deeply grateful and touched.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Marilyn Warring & the UNSNA


Like so many galvanized by the sustained, and in my generation unprecedented, Global emergence of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, I have been trying to keep up not only with contemporary coverage of the issues, but have been searching out with a renewed vigour social commentators who with our present hindsight seemed to have a foretaste of what was coming.


One of the most pleasant discoveries so far has been the work of Marilyn Waring, to which I was introduced through the wonderful documentary Who's Counting? produced by the NFB and available streaming online for anyone interested.


For those unfamiliar with her work, Waring is just as vital as Chomsky or Galbraith in her quest to demystify economic and political jargon. She empowers laypersons with a course in economic self-defence, realizing that a gained familiarity with harmful policies is the most effective route to changing them, and hopefully eventually reclaiming lost sovereignty. Her clarity, colloquial language and affability also go a long way, and Waring effortlessly eschews the tag of either reactionary revolutionary or armchair activist.


The documentary traces Waring from her initial rise as the youngest and often only female member of the New Zealand Parliament, to her inspired and disturbing research on the fundamental environmental, racial, and sexual inequities imparted upon Global culture by contemporary economic practice. Waring shows how the economic "values" imparted by the United Nations System of Accounts  and the GDP are in fact, in a tangible sense purely profit driven, and are, moreover, inherently sexist and ecologically destructive. She shows how the Capitalist apologists have no clothes. We learn how all nations wishing to be part of the UN must subscribe to the UNSA, regardless of the fact that it was a culturally and historically specific document devised in and pertaining to World War Two era England. We learn too that the GDP, far from measuring a nation's standard of living as it purports to, pays no attention to any environmental indicators and disregards the work, the value, and therefore the interests, of those who perform work which does not contribute directly to the fiscal economy. This includes (or rather, fails to place value and therefore excludes) the work of child rearing, caring for the elderly or infirm, housekeeping, and any aspect of unpaid work that provides the essential yet unacknowledged support for all market production activities.  The term home economics is not only condescending but redundant: look at the etymology of the word

Serious objection needs to be made to proponents of an economic world view that considers War and disaster situations desirable contributions to economic growth while holding in contempt fundamental biological processes and subsistence economies. That famous phrase of Orwell's comes to mind: "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Economics today are only politics shrouded with an additional layer of mathematical obfuscation. The truth is that there is no debit side accounted for by modern economics: human cost and ecological cost are equally unimportant. In fact, environmental disaster is incredibly valuable in the eyes of economists: epidemics encourage more free market breakthroughs, more industry, more jobs, more capital circulation. According to the jargon of the GDP, the peddler of child pornography, as long as his profit is recirculated into the economy, is of more worth than the child prostitute he exploits. His time is in fact, by this logic, more valuable than that of the stay at home mother. To add insult to injury, the "stewards" are not only setting the house on fire, but are appropriating and gambling away your remaining assets, all the while assuming the guises of philanthropist and benevolent guide and appearing very clever indeed.


Perhaps it is cause for hope that some of Waring's almost two decade old suggestions, for instance that contemporary economic figures come to include such things as Environmental indicators  and Household Time Use Surveys, are in some places beginning to be taken seriously. Not the former here at least, what with the current regime's ample disdain for superfluous appendages and knack for alchemically converting blight to gold. Surely, if economists figured out mathematical formulas to convince themselves that money is indeed real they could make steps to develop basic principles that take into account the public good? I know moral principles and spending aren't supposed to go together but let’s stop pretending that the current schematics have any real pretence towards impartiality, shall we? Even those who personally acquit themselves of moral blame and seek to redeem through private leisure need to understand something fundamental: with rules like these, there are no exceptions. Your leisure time is someone else's commodity, and whatever incorruptible sphere you imagine holds it fast, is shrinking.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Send in the Nouns

Thanks to the folks at The Puritan for putting up my review of Jon Paul Fiorentino's Indexical Elegies as part of a supplement for the recent Summer IssueRead it here.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

What stronger perfume than a just cause?

When I settled in London, in 1974, there were second-hand bookshops everywhere. One could walk from Earls Court to Notting Hill Gate, which is only a bit over a mile, and take in six or seven. They are all gone. One could step into even the smallest shop and there was always the sense of an inner sanctum to which only the elect had admittance. This is important to note. At that point, and it would still be the case later, a bookseller was deeply ensconced in a culture of secrecy. One simply did not speak of the inner workings of the trade. Now, of course, the guts are all over the place. One may poke through them at one's leisure. There are no more secrets: one speaks openly, shamelessly, of one's gains and one's losses. Anyway, to go back to those little bookshops and their secret zones, all the books one most desired were in those cubbyholes, just beyond one's reach, or so one imagined. Money was not the key to them nor could a smile move the misanthropic hearts of those crotchety old men in their small dark shops. (What man of feeling though, would not choose the misanthrope over the indiscriminate lover of his own species?) Selling a book was never uppermost in their thoughts, and indeed there was much pleasure to be had in not selling a book to someone thought undeserving of it. It was a great shame when booksellers began to have to sell books in order to survive. - from "A Factotum in the Book Trade" by Marius Kociejowski

I had the good fortune of being present at a poetry reading of rare calibre last night which featured, in addition to outlandishly priced drinks and a raucous house band with a thoroughly objectionable name, performances by three of Canada'a distinguished poetry elder statesmen, Norm Sibum, Marius Kociejowski, and Eric Ormsby.
The event took place at the CFC (formerly Zoobizarre) in the midst of the surreal St Hubert shopping district in the mile end, a sandwich board promising a free evening of live music and poetry oddly incandescent and alluring among the whirlwind of shoe polishes and esoteric tablecloths. The goods were sponsored by Encore Literary Magazine and presided over by its editor Michael Carbert, who read poems by the late Richard Outram between readers.

First up was Sibum, "the bard of Sherbrooke West," author of over fifteen books and an ongoing series of blog based missives of considerable lucidity and moxy, Ephemeris. With several books in arm he took to the stage and confessed that, contrary to usual, he had no idea what he was going to read. He began, quite arbitrarily, with a long, truly idiosyncratic poem rife with allusions and elusive particularities that I think the audience, myself included, was quite unprepared for. Upon completion Sibum confessed that the audience sounded "awful serious out there" and decided to read another lengthy musing with "funny stuff in it" this time. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the audience's occasional muted chuckles never coalesced into actual laughter, or his eagerness to have to his peers take the stand, but Sibum concluded somewhat prematurely, all but one of his books, and two of his poems, neglected. Sibum was in the difficult position of ice breaker this evening, and unfortunately, as he tested the waters, the audience somewhat failed him. Although I was unable to fully sink my teeth into much of Sibum's verse (I will have to read one of his books, 2002's A.M. Klein Award winning Girls and Handsome Dogs?, to savour and unpack some of its density), I was left with a strong impression of his commanding presence, his almost classical eloquence, and his begrudging, curmudgeonly tenderness and charm. My interest for more was piqued.

Second was Marius Kociejowski, author of the acclaimed travelogues The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool (2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (2010) whose recent reminiscences on a life well spent in the antiquarian book trade, published as "A Factotum in the Book Trade" in CNQ 82, I quote above. Kociejowski read two poems from his 2003 selected poems So Dance the Lords of Language, "Tiger Music" and "A Seventh Jew," as well as a more recent poem called "Sparrows". His reading was absolutely phenomenal. He was captivating, summoning a perfect timbre of restraint, patience, and theatricality. He knew how to hook a listener, as evidenced by his introduction to "Tiger Music": "I was informed by my friend Subhi in Damascus that in Arabic there are sixty-seven words for 'lion'; I assume, perhaps wrongly, that there must be almost as many for 'tiger'". That poem's exploration of "the many shades of tigerness between one which dozes / And another that lunges, / the different music they make" and "A country as bare of tigers as [a] soul of truth" was Conradian in its narrative pull, utterly convincing, with scores of dramatic levity in tow. In "A Seventh Jew" he gave us an imaginative portrait of an anonymous victim of the French Resistance in Lyon, arrested, imprisoned, executed and known to history only as "a Jew / with a fine voice" who sang an aria of Cavaradossi's before being taken to be shot. His closer, "Sparrows," pulled me in with its incendiary opening line "The bitch muse has gone, pulled another fast one" and sustained my interest in a usually hackneyed mode (the writer's block poem) with its stunning lines and images: "You should have known better than to bring her home. / You should never have tried to work miracles on a global scale. / There are, after all, limits to what a man on stilts can do." I never doubted Kociejowski's authenticity for a second, and where he displayed a romantic predisposition to dwell on the loftiest and most reiterative of poetic themes, he earned every moment of it.

Eric Ormsby closed off the evening nicely with a set of finely tuned poems from his most recent selected poems, 2011's The Baboons of Hada, to which the audience was very receptive. Ormsby displayed great range, alternately making the crowd laugh with "Mrs Lazarus," a comedic portrayal of the resurrected man's wife's chagrin at having to endure the rank odours and whims of her living dead husband, and edging them toward contemplative silence with his closer "Blood", a moving account of fatherhood and a tribute to Ormsby's two adopted sons, "Children not of my blood but of my love" of which "Consanguinity knows nothing of our fierce fragility": "Backward to Eden let our recognitions rhyme." I liked Ormsby's poems quite a bit, but found them a little too reminiscent of the perfect formally calibrated, conceit-driven English poetry of the mid twentieth Century, perhaps slightly out of step in their likeness to Larkin and Hughes. One requires a little slippage now and then. Don't get me wrong, I've no horror of form, nor even of rhyme, but I find the slavish adherence to conceit somewhat predictable: we all have the ability to remain topical, and we can all do the legwork, but there remains something ineffable, possibly dangerous, that makes a poem work for me - the kinds of wild eyed flashes and shadowy volleys that we catch if only in periphery - the kinds so amply displayed in Kociejowski's verse that night.

*****
I dunno, maybe my ample enthusiasm for the latter was bolstered by my previous reading of the article with which I began this post, and have mentioned earlier, "A Factotum in the Book Trade". Undoubtedly it coloured my reception of the poems and my endearment for their author. But I don't see how it could have been otherwise: Kociejowski's reflections on the vanishing sanctity of independent bookshops, his portraits of bygone eccentric, indeed, sometimes fanatical bookmen, and above all the fondness with which he speaks about "a world made for people fit for nothing else" were too honest and moving, and above all too timely, for me to leave them unheeded.

As some of you may know, I recently became involved with the Argo Bookshop, to the extent that come November, I and two others (my partner Meaghan and our friend J.P.) will be the new owners. No, it is not an antiquarian bookshop, but a retail one; in fact, the oldest independent Anglo retail shop in the city of Montreal, and a damn fine one at that. We've inherited quite a legacy. The original owner and operator of close to forty years, the infamous John George (who I never had the pleasure of meeting) is still renown as one of the greatest book eccentrics the city has ever seen, and is, in fact, a character worthy of Kociejowski's article. Regular customers have an almost rabid sense of ownership, and members of the "old guard" still frequent the store weekly, toting several hundred page typewritten bibliographies of recommendations for the humanities sections, or harbouring imminent divorce threats from their wives should they be caught buying another book, or else appropriating our new fall/winter catalogues without our prior consent. They are being driven out by an increasingly alliterate, digital culture, and the Argo has become a refuge of sorts - the last fort, all but slated for demolition. Dealing with these people has been a learning curve, the combination of their sense of entitlement and feelings of victimization sometimes utterly baffling, and we are slowly creeping towards a means to grasp, and cope.

The literary book selling landscape has changed considerably from the milieu Kociejowski describes in his article. Unfortunately I do have to worry about a sale, and though I try very hard to not be ingratiating, it does mean that I sometimes have to been beholden to absolute dipshits. No we do need carry How to Get Laid or Die Trying. But I'll order it for you if you really want it: after all, I'm no censor. People want to support an independent bookstore while acquiescing part-and-parcel to the dictates of of global consumer culture: if there's one important lesson I've learned already, it's that cognitive dissonance is the flavour of the day, and to not judge too harshly. After all, there is something of the deliberate anachronism (some would, and have indeed said, latent insanity) in our own choice to take over a bookstore that specializes in literature, philosophy, and religion, as if we want to be in the front row when the wave of extinction breaks over us.

And yet there is no sounder choice. In certain ways there was no choice. Or perhaps we were already resigned to it. You see, in case you haven't been following the headlines: the arts they are a' dying. Despite having drawn around 20-30 people last night, and having been published internationally in magazines as distinguished as The New Yorker and anthologies like the Norton, the authors from last night's reading would be lucky to collectively sell 50 books in independent shops in Canada this year. & even that might be considered a good number at this rate. Here is my first contribution to the pile of once surreptitious guts of the book trade Kociejowski referred to in his article. It is by all measures an ignominious decline.

& yet there is hope. The three new co-owners, all of us under 25, wouldn't have embarked on this endeavour if there wasn't. Ours may not be the popular position, but we are by no means lone wolves in the wilderness. There is, in a manner somewhat analogous to the resurgence of vinyl, a growing widespread movement of publishers and readers who have had it to the teeth with lesser digital approximations of the books they love: they are demanding, and starting to produce, thoughtfully designed, aesthetically distinguished books-cum-art-objects. To be sure, print has less multimedia potential than the digital, but it has the advantage of being a tactile medium, and there is a kind of reinvention of that medium afoot. Consider some of New Directions recent "book in a box" projects that, in addition to being simply beautiful, ask readers to question hegemonic givens of reading and to engage with text in novel and fascinating ways, such as Anne Carson's celebrated multidisciplinary elegy Nox or B.S. Johnston's The Unfortunates, whose unbound chapters can be arranged in accordance to the reader's preference. Or even closer to home, Bilbioasis's finely designed, often exquisitely embossed and printed catalogue of stellar National and International talents, or even fine press houses specializing in limited runs of contemporary Canadian talent such as Frog Hollow Press and JackPine Press. No, these presses will never become the mainstream, but they can at least become a self-sufficient and vibrant subculture if more people catch on and duly declare their allegiance. & there is of course, last but not least, the vigilant bookseller, an indispensable and often uncredited resource of the trade. These are the ones responsible for "selling the unsellable," the ones largely responsible (along with adept critics) for making the case for the overlooked and thus salvaging them in part, or at least introducing them to varying generations of readers. As far as I can see, there is a symbiotic relationship between booksellers, readers, and writers: all have a vested interest in the perpetuity of print, and all of us need to figure out ways to nurture mutually beneficial relationships - relationships often fragmented at the cusp of beyond repair, and preyed upon in the most insidious manner by vying corporate interest groups who cultivate our sense of wariness and alienation from one another. Let it be this simple: there are brilliant writers alive here and now who demand readers: support them. There are scores of other book lovers around who understand the inherent value of print: seek them out. There are booksellers who through whatever foolishness or insanity have decided to hang a bittersweet albatross around their head: support them. I would love for nothing more than the Argo to be a place that facilitates this kind of mobilization.

Last night's reading was amazing: the combination of Kociejowski's article and the three readers having strangely coalesced in my mind, and perhaps unexpectedly to the reader of this post. The reading was a powerful antidote to the mutual admiration societies and increasingly facetious meta-writing bullshit that all too easily fills up journals and readings these day. There are master craftsmen about and, it seems, at least a reprieve from the eternal apprenticeship I'm floundering in. We can renew our commitments and find other ways to deal with the apparent deficiency of our situation without being glib or dismissive. I think this is an important time for me to take a stand as a young writer and book lover both. How much richer and more memorable the exchanges between the few who bought books last night and expressed their appreciation and thanks with the poets than those who line up daily inside Dear Heather's to buy the most recent offering of Stephanie Meyer pap. As Kociejowski inscribed in fellow co-owner J.P Karvatski's copy of So Dance the Lords of Language, "What stronger perfume than a just cause?" Here's hoping the wind bears that perfume towards our book world a little longer before it stagnates with indifference and is replaced with the sewer that overtakes it.