Sachiko Murakami: No sense is good sense

I’m at home, sick, feeling rather sorry for myself and not having much of a phenomenal blog post in me. To cheer myself up, I am watching this over and over again. Trust me, it is extremely relevant to contemporary poetry. Oll raigth!

Sachiko Murakami wrote The Invisibility Exhibit. You can read new poems by her at Forget and The Puritan. She bellyaches from Toronto.

Literary Sleaze (Part 2 of 3)

One of the most time honoured sleazy stereotypes about writers has something to do with a dark, dank pub and a bottle of whiskey. High-profile bingers like Dylan Thomas have done much to cement this ‘drunk as a poet on payday’ image. For some contemporary evidence of writerly drunkenness, keep an eye out for Matrix Magazine’s upcoming Drinking Issue ( Sadly, many well-known writers have suffered from alcoholism—some said they couldn’t write without drinking, and some stopped writing because of their drinking. Alcohol and the Writer by Donald W. Goodwin, M.D., explores the link between alcoholism and writing, focusing on American writers of the first half of the 20th century. The book’s introduction presents some interesting anecdotes from writers, along with some shocking statistics. For example, Goodwin tells us that after bartenders, 20th century American writers died of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease closely related to alcoholism, more than any other group. Goodwin asserts that about 70% of Americans who won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics, the highest rate of alcoholism among any defined social group. Goodwin also tells us that, when compiling a list of famous American writers from the 20th century, about one third could be considered alcoholics.

After establishing that alcoholism among 20th century writers constitutes a kind of pandemic, Goodwin performs eight case studies, examining the biographical details of Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Simenon, Faulkner, O’Neil, and Lowry. Goodwin tells us that this selection was meant to provide an overview of the many different paths a writer might take to the bar. Though each of the writers discussed begins their path to alcoholism differently, each of their stories ends in rum, tequila, or whiskey soaked misery.

Though Alcohol and the Writer is an interesting exploration of the link between writing and boozing, driving at the question of why writers seem so likely to abuse alcohol, the book is also problematic. First published in 1988, the text’s leaning towards Freudian analysis is somewhat painful, especially in the case of Poe who had more than a few complexes where sex was concerned. These passages present an antiquated, stereotyped view of both female and gay sexuality, and are quite annoying to read. The book also tends towards using him/he/his when referring to ‘the writer,’ which can be more than a little irritating to a contemporary audience.

Though it’s favouring of Freudian analysis and sexist use of pronouns date Alcohol and the Writer, the book remains a sobering look at alcoholism and writing. In the conclusion of the book, however, Goodwin tells us that alcoholism no longer endears a writer to the public, and that alcoholism among writers has been on the decline since the first half of the 20th century. While writers might still be spending a lot of time in the pub, according to Goodwin, it no longer seems to be ruining our lives on a pandemic scale. I’ll drink to that… but always in moderation, of course.

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

Up to the Aether (guest post by Kaplan Harris)

I adore when poets & scholars devote themselves to making available the work of some elder poet. I’m thinking of Peter Gizzi’s The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Kristin Prevallet’s Helen Adam Reader, Kevin Davies & Larry Fagin’s edition of George Stanley’s A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000, & Patrick Durgin’s Hannah Wiener’s Open House. These projects may not carry the institutional/academic clout of a monograph, but they have a lasting value for readers.

So I have a fantasy about someone assembling a similar collection for the late Steve Abbott (1943-1992). There is a lot to say about Abbott, whose life was cut short by AIDS, but whose activity & interventions, even in a short period, make enough to fill a very long biography. He was “a radical, a father, a lover, an ex-monk, a cartoon-artist, a hedonist, a romantic & more,” according to one reviewer back in 1979 — when he was just getting started. Any “Steve Abbott Reader” or “Portable Steve Abbott” would need a table of contents with 5-6 generous sections for his poems, narrative prose, comics, letters, editorial work, & criticism. A bibliography of his published writing is already available on the wonderful website that his daughter Allyssa Abbott created for him. See also his journal excerpts which are quoted throughout. Gary Sullivan has a post on Abbott’s comics here (which also includes other links).

Abbott’s editorial work is a long story that greatly interests me right now. I see him first appearing in the mid-70s not long after his move to San Francisco when he published poems, reviews, essays, & interviews in Gay Sunshine. In 1980 he founded an essential magazine for New Narrative writing called Soup (some details about it here & more soon in an essay for Jacket by Rob Halpern).

Lately I’ve been taking notes on his turn in the editor’s seat for the long-running SF-based Poetry Flash. Since the newsletter’s inception in late 1972, the front page had been solely devoted to a calender of local readings & poetry-related events. The brief columns that were positioned after the calender tended to shrink & grow over the years depending not only on the budget, but also on who was in charge & who had time to compose or collect material. Jon Ford, for example, was the prolific editor of a section called “Speaking Up” that included reviews & reading reports, & Tim Jacobs was in charge of a small section of announcements called “Rambles.” But when Abbott came on board in February 1979, the calender was moved to the middle section, & each issue now began with a front-page column of gossipy newsbites called “Up to the Aether” (after Jack Spicer’s Heads of the Town up to the Aether). The newsletter also raised its circulation to 5000 issues per month — that’s a lot of poetry news.

Abbott took a lot of heat for “Up to the Aether,” but readers also praised the energy that he brought to each issue. Here’s sample excerpts from several installments of the column dated 1979-1980. Recognize any names?

  • “Non-smokers can look forward to a new series R. Silliman and B. Perlman are starting at Tassajara Bakery (only other non-smoker location I know of is Bound Together).”
  • “Gregory Corso’s back from Europe. I know because he came to my reading with Jack Mueller at the Grand Piano & tried his best to disrupt it. Didn’t succeed of course. ‘Well Jack,’ I said afterwards, ‘When the big guns come after us it must show we’re starting to get somewhere.’”
  • On a recent MLA: “Academic critics continue to get fat spinning webs of Confucian pedantry while the real movers and shakers of poetry live at the edge of poverty.”
  • From a year-in-review column, on Robert Glück’s Family Poems & Bruce Boone’s My Walk with Bob: “provocative essays on love, media manipulation, etc.”
  • From the same year-in-review column: “Those who think most language-centered writing obscure & non-political should check out Rae Armantrout’s The Invention of Hunger. Very accessible yet most elegant, this chapbook is one of my favorites from Tuumba Press so far. Other new Tuumba books are Percentage by Carla Harryman & Observatory Gardens by Ray DiPalma….” He also praises Susan Howe’s Secret History of the Dividing Line (“enjoyed reading and re-reading”).
  • “Carla Harryman’s started QU1… with 2 exquisite poems by S. Benson. Reread this cover to cover several times & not just because 7 pages easier to get thru than 132 either.”
  • From an April Fools issue: “L. Ferlinghetti has just accepted a $10,000 NEA grant to do a study on SF Language-Centered writers.”
  • After praising the international focus of the 4th Annual International SF Poetry Festival: “Elsewhere in town, I see the moral guardians are at it again: Should Kathy Acker write this or should Bruce Boone talk that way summed up questioning at 80 Langton poetry and politics forum. It’s the same old saw that separated Duncan & Levertov years ago. Theories are fine but one must go where one’s poem or novel takes one (a passivist view?) and if you can’t say what you want in your own writing, as Kathy pointed out, then where, pray tell, can you? Which isn’t to suggest that questioning certain modes of discourse isn’t beneficial (here columnist does a dance of Subtle Distinction, trying to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes).”
  • On Talks: Hills 6/7, edited by Bob Pereman: “These talks on writing rank with Benjamin, Barthes and Auerbach… so important it deserves a separate review.

Abbott’s correspondence could also find a happy place in a collection of his work. Consider his letter published in the 10-year anniversary issue of Gay Sunshine: “When I first became aware of Gay Sunshine in 1970-71, I was organizing anti-war work in Atlanta, Georgia. The impact it had upon me, along with documents such as Carl Whitman’s Gay Manifesto, was immediate and phenomenal. I’d long been aware of my own homosexual feelings but had felt they were a private concern to be subordinated to other political work. Here, at last, were arguments that up-front homosexual liberation was equally important and complimentary to the women’s and Black Liberation movements.”

Note that Abbott was the student government president at Emory during this time: “In a column I will never forget, I made my ‘coming-out’ a public event. Over the next two years I helped organize Atlanta’s Gay Liberation Front and, for a year, was the Gay Lib editor of The Great Speckled Bird. I vividly remember the first National Gay Liberation Conference in Austin, Texas, where I was able to meet several members of the Gay Sunshine Collective whose writings had influenced me so much.” His letter continues: “Over subsequent years, Gay Sunshine continued to provide crucial information and support toward my own formation as a Gay person and a poet…. The Allen Ginsberg interview was particularly influential to me as were pioneering essays on the traditions of homosexuality in the Middle East, Russia and Japan. I began to see how writers and poets were often at the forefront of the Gay movement in all countries, and when Winston [Leyland, editor of Gay Sunshine] accepted my first poem for publication, brief as it was, I felt I’d received an important stamp of approval.”

(Btw, if you’re in the Buffalo area on March 17th, I’ll be giving a talk touches on the above material for the Poetry Collection’s Small Press in the Archive Lecture Series. Details here. My talk mainly addresses the later reverberations of New Narrative writing after c1980-1985, but my attention is also on the founding figures, like Steve Abbott, who wrote, argued, & rallied their way through the mid to late 1970s.)

UPDATE/CORRECTION: The original version of this post featured a picture of Steve Abbott interviewing Gore Vidal in Central Park. But the interview was in fact conducted by a second Steve Abbott who was also contributing to Gay Sunshine during these years. My thanks to Kevin Killian for catching the mistake & letting me know about it. Apparently many people get confused by the two Steve Abbotts.


Kaplan Harris is guest blogging on Tuesdays in January & February. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.

Nikki Reimer: Olympics, Still

Was going to write about poetry for a change this week but I’ve prorogued that post in favour of a continued rumination on the 2010 Winter Festival Thing, and more talk about Olympicism and Art.

Yesterday we attended the live taping of CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, where the topic was Olympic fever. “For years Canada’s best athletes have been focused on these 17 days in February. The city of Vancouver has been working flat out too. British and American media are now criticizing the result. What do you think? Have the Games been a Canadian success so far?”

Listen to the podcast here.

The show was hosted Rex Murphy and featured guests Jane Roos(CEO, CanFund), CBC Sports broadcaster Steve Armitage, and a few Olympic athletes past and present.

Beyond the expected patriotism and self-congratulatory rhetoric, some of the Games discussion centred around the financial conditions faced by Canadian elite athletes throughout the years of training it takes to become a contender in an Olympic games. In contrast to the millions of dollars per year that elite athletes from other countries can earn (hint: look for those nations with the highest medal counts) most Canadian athletes are self-financed and can receive, at most, about $15K per year from the Canadian government. (It’s worse than that for retired Olympians; listen to the show to hear how they have been entirely passed over by VANOC. No invitations to participate in ceremonies. No free tickets to games. Nothing.)

Since I am entirely obsessed with the abysmal cuts facing BC’s arts sector, I couldn’t help but compare the dedication and financial poverty of Canadian Olympic athletes to the dedication and financial poverty of Canadian artists. Sandra Garossino has already posted on the similar struggles faced by artists and athletes:

“The vast majority of athletes, even Olympians, toil in obscurity throughout their sports careers. No televised draft ceremony, sponsorship deal, or six-figure signing bonus awaits them. Most struggle financially, if they aren’t utterly and completely broke.

In spirit and temperament, they share so much with artists…If they do manage to enter, sans the imprimatur of celebrity–the only real currency of our age–no one will know who they are. Self-important young media executives will push past them in a rush to meet the conquering gods.”

And there’s the rub. In a highly corporatized, celebrity obsessed (here’s that buzzword) neoliberal age, money, celebrity and power supersede real dedication, hard work and talent.

But I wonder why we haven’t organized to create a “not-for-profit organization devoted solely to raising funds and awareness for Canada’s” artists/writers/poets? Do we “pay it forward” and help each other out like the athletes, or are we too busy fighting each other for an ever-shrinking piece of pie?

In other, related news:

– Claire Lacey has written a full account of the In(ter)ventions conference on her blog Poetactics
-The Olympic Tent Village Voice Issue 1 is out
W2 Community Media Arts recently hosted a panel discussion on disability arts with Ruth Gould (UK: DaDa) and Geoff McMurchy (Canada: Kickstart). View the webcast here
-The W2 Real Vancouver Writers’ & Culture series wraps up this Wednesday, Feb 24
VIVO continues to host the politically-minded Short Range Poetic Device webcast
-Everyone is too drunk

Nikki Reimer blogs and plans arts events in Vancouver, where she is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Her poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Front, Prism, BafterC and filling Station. A chapbook, fist things first, was recently published by Wrinkle Press and a book, [sic], is forthcoming from Frontenac House. She has never been to grad school. (Photo: Rory Zerbe)

Lemon Hound Heads West

February 23, 2010 – 7:30pm

public reading with Sina Queyras, author of Expressway
Tuesday, February 23
Open Space
510 Fort Street, 2nd floor
7:30 p.m., free

February 25, 2010 – 7:00pm
Rhizome Cafe, 317 East Broadway, Vancouver, BC 
Sina Queyras (Expressway) will join Lydia Kwa (The Walking Boy) and Emily Fedoruk (All Still) for readings and conversation moderated by Meredith Quartermain. This event is being hosted by the On Edge Reading Series and the Kootenay School of Writing.

On Reviewing: Carol Matthews

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

CM: When I write a review, I want to give readers a glimpse of the texture and perspective of a book, let them know why the book might be worth reading, and how it might connect with other writings or events. Often my purpose in accepting an assignment to write a review is to have occasion to read a book two or three times and give it much closer attention than I otherwise would do.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?
CM: I tried to avoid exegesis, not always successfully. Mostly I attempt to do close readings, evaluating or assessing why the book is important, and what it achieves that seems remarkable. I’m attracted to reviews that give me a sense of excitement about how a particular work connects with other writing within that genre or with other writings by that author.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
CM: I like a review that places a book in a larger context in terms of the genre, the setting, or other books by the author. A successful review should show us something about how the reviewer approaches her subject as well as how she assesses it and how the work affects her. It’s important to sense that the writer has a good grasp of the genre and intention of the book she’s reviewing. I like fiction reviews written by fiction writers, and poetry reviews written by poets.
LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?
CM: When Derk Wynand was editor of the Malahat Review, he sometimes asked people to write about a number of works by the same author. I wrote a long review about Natalia Ginzburg’s books and found it very satisfying to spend a substantial amount of time immersed in her writing, seeing recurrent themes as well as changes and contradictions in her works, and considering the elements of her writing that I most admired.
I have written a number of reviews for Event, a journal which usually asks reviewers to tackle three or four different books at a time, making connections if it fits, or leaving them as discrete sections if it seems more appropriate. While writing such reviews, I’ve enjoyed finding connections or differences between different books of fiction and the process of seeing them in conjunction with each other has prompted some observations I might otherwise not have made. I like reading reviews that make surprising connections.
LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?
CM: Completely different. Writing essays, and especially trying to write short fiction, is much harder work for me and involves many  stops and starts. Often I give up on a piece I am writing and don’t get back to it for months, if at all. When I’m writing a review I’m quite disciplined and and always meet deadlines and word counts. Reviewing feels like a job to me, whereas my own writing feels like something else entirely.
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?
I now don’t write about books that I really don’t like. Once, years ago, I wrote a review about a book that I considered to be silly and underserving of any positive assessment, and I wrote a review that mocked the book. It still shames me. Soometimes I find reviewers quite clever in their dismissal of books they don’t care for and, while this can be entertaining and often amusing, it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?
CM: The last review that made me want to run out an buy the book immediately was Cynthia Macdonald’s review of Annabelle Lyon’s The Golden Mean. The review didn’t say a lot about the writing, did not really assess it nor place it in relation to other works. However it gave such a strong sense of the subject of the book itself and the feat of taking on such a subject that I immediately wanted to read it.

I’ve also read reviews that made me reconsider my assessment of an author. I recall a review by Martin Amis of Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura,  that made me think differently about both Amis and Nabokov.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
CM: Can’t think of any. I read lots of good reviews, but I particularly like the intelligent reviews I read in the Guardian.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
CM: Not likely, at least not in this country. British journals have a long tradition of paying writers reasonably well for reviews. Indeed it seems to have been possible for some to have a career as a reviewer in Britain. Not here. As the newspapers and little magazines go under, there will likely be less opportunity. Maybe blogs will eventually offer some new options.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
CM: I like writing about writing because it makes me think more clearly about what I’m writing and what I’m reading — that’s what I achieve for myself.  I like to think that it might also bring new readers for writers whose work I admire, but that might be naive. However, I’m surprised sometimes by a reader telling me that they’ve read a review of mine and that they went out and got the book. It can happen.

Carol Matthews, a retired academic, lives on Protection Island, B.C. She has written reviews for Malahat and Event and has published essays and short fiction  in several literary journals. A collection of her articles for Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, was published as The First Three Years of a Grandmother’s Life in 2006, and a collection of her short stories, Incidental Music, was published by Oolichan Books in 2007. A cancer memoir, Reflections on the C-Word: At the Centre of the Cancer Labyrinth was published by Hedgerow Press in 2007. A new book, Dog Days: Between the Lines, co-authored with Liza Potvin, will be launched in a few weeks.

Anthologies and feminisms: are we having a moment or what?

If you found Juliana Spahr and Claudia Rankine’s American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language exciting you’re going to appreciate Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry, published in 2009 by Coach House Books. Edited superbly by Kate Eichhorn and Heath Milne, the collection includes fifteen of the “most engaging avante garde Canadian women writing poetry today.” Some of these names will be familiar. In particular Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, and to the narrative people in particular, Gail Scott. Some of the new names include: Margaret Christakos, Susan Holbrook, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Karen Mac Cormack, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nathalie Stephens, Catriona Strang, Rita Wong, Rachel Zolf and, I must confess, myself. (Helen Hajnoczky image!)
Anthologies and feminisms: are we having a moment or what?