If you haven't seen it yet, and you're looking for something to kill a few hours, you might want to check out Arc Poetry Magazine's "Portage" site. Basically, a compendium of links. If you see any glaring omissions, let 'em know and they'll add 'em for you.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:33 AM
Monday, July 30, 2007
The Vehicule Press blog points to this news item about the disastrously bad Scottish poet William McGonagall, and they generously link to my little essay on James McIntyre, a Scots-Canadian who is one of the only serious rivals to McGonagall's status as world's worst poet. See, this is what's wrong with Canada: why aren't the residents of Oxford County, Ontario campaigning for a fitting tribute to their bad bard?
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 2:32 PM
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Not surprisingly, Carmine's not on the McKay bandwagon and he has some pretty blunt words for those who are:
His popularity operates on the principle that anyone who doesn't venerate his work hasn't really understood it. Perhaps that's true. And perhaps his popularity reveals us to be a country of astonishingly easy graders.
No doubt the choir will be up in arms--even if only in decorously quiescent private conversation--over this assault on the high priest of contemporary CanPo, but the number of dissenting opinions vis-a-vis McKay's putative greatness is growing to an unignorable critical mass. Carmine adds his voice, as he points out, to Richard Greene's, Shane Neilson's, my own and, more surprisingly perhaps, Don Coles', in wishing that McKay's ample talents were not so often prodigally squandered and that his half-arsed verses weren't held in such veneration. None of us argues that McKay is a "bad poet" per se, just that he could be much better and that he is nowhere near as good as his champions like to think.
I've long suspected that McKay's inflated reputation has a lot to do with his personal charm. I run into the odd person who says some version of "I'm not crazy about his poetry, but he's such a nice guy." These folks, able to tease the poetry and the person who wrote it apart, seem to be in the minority. Perhaps on some level McKay's fans are moved to overestimate his importance because it makes them more special, too: not only is Don McKay one of the best poets writing in English today, but he edited my manuscript. Where would apostles be, without a messiah?
McKay has certainly done what a Canadian poet needs to do to find an audience in this country of big spaces and small population: travel and teach. He's from Ontario, has lived in BC, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, has strong links to Alberta and Saskatchewan, is connected to both the literary and academic communities, and has made many friends in the process. Almost everyone who writes glowingly of him knows him and has worked with him in his capacities as mentor, professor and editor. And when you know someone and love them--this side idolatry in some instances--it's only natural to gloss over their faults and shortcomings, or even to see them as positive virtues: "Oh, there's Don being Don again, isn't he just too much?"
I attended a reading he gave in Halifax a couple of years ago and certainly found him charming. But that's the extent of my contact with him. Maybe if I'd done a workshop at Banff I'd be more inclined to sing with the choir, but not having come under Big Bird's (wish I could say I came up with that nickname on my own) wing, it seems to me that he is not so much a choral conductor as someone waving his arms erratically, counting on the fact that the singers will get his drift.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 9:35 PM
Saturday, July 28, 2007
I firmly believe, and science supports this belief unequivocally, that people's differences are fundamental and to a great extent hard-wired. If all children are creative, then they are creative not only in different ways, but also to different degrees. Call it a creativity quotient. No matter how much encouragement I might have received--and I did get some--and no matter how much training I took and how diligently I practiced, I would never be more than a competent musician. I am fundamentally incapable of musical brilliance. (Similarly, I was a very hard working athlete as a young man, but no matter how hard I worked at it--particularly baseball in my case--I could never be as good as more talented athletes, who were taller, stronger and faster than I was. I was good, but I worked twice as hard to get half as far as the star players.) Most people are. Most people, by extension, are probably also incapable of brilliance (or creativity, according to Robinson's definition of it as having "original ideas of value") in any endeavour. I expect that puberty, as much as or more than education, is a major determining factor in the decline of imagination and creativity amongst the least creatively inclined children. Brain and body chemistry change and with those changes come shifts in priority, and most kids who don't see painting or pottery as a good way to get laid aren't going to bother much with it.
Conversely, the kids with a higher Creativity Quotient can't have it bludgeoned out of them by an unimaginative school system. I went to an exclusive private school for grades ten to thirteen, a place where the future investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, software programmers and politicians were molded. And I did extremely well there, in the terms dictated by that place and its system: I scored high marks, played team sports and was given a leadership position as prefect in my final year. My road was paved with golden bricks to the career of my choice. And yet, even after a very successful undergraduate career, I wound up not doing what Robinson says the system was designing me to do--being a university prof--but loading airplanes, serving food and drink and writing poems.
Maybe if the education system wasn't as fundamentally uncreative as it is, I would have followed a different path. But it is that way. And I don't know if it's possible, on a mass scale, for it to be any different. Because for it to be different, it would have to be run and executed by, you guessed it, creative people. And if all people aren't equally creative, which they aren't, you're going to run out of creative folks long before you've got the system staffed. So while I am in fundamental agreement with Robinson's perspective, I'm not optimistic that it can ever be widely implemented, particularly not with the centralised bureaucracy of governments and school boards. In other words, it's only apt to happen in isolated private schools (and here, to be fair to my old high school, they had exceptionally good drama, music and arts curricula and extra-curricular activities), which makes this excellent, imaginative education available only to the economic elite (no surprise that Robinson's services are much in demand in the corporate sector and that, as a Knight and no doubt a wealthy man, he is mainly talking to and about other people in society's upper crust) or those poorer kids lucky enough to get scholarships (as I did; I wasn't poor, but my private education nevertheless put my parents--who believe in the value of public education in theory but saw how poor it was in practice--into debt, for which I will remain grateful forever).
In our present political climate, with most politicians--or at least those getting elected--gung-ho about cutting taxes and reducing spending, it's hard to see this changing for the better in the near future. Not many of our best and brightest go into teaching because a) the system stinks and b) the pay's lousy. Hard to blame them. The former factor has to be a greater one, since many teachers are willing to take a significant cut in pay to teach in private schools. And most teachers in the public system would rather be in well-funded schools in well-heeled neighbourhoods than in the inner city educational jungle.
That said, I think everyone has had those memorably excellent teachers in public schools that have made a difference to the course of their lives in one way or another. This is cause, if not for hope, then at least not to despair. Because people are willfully perverse by nature, there will always be teachers willing to do too much work for too little pay. They deserve an enormous amount of respect.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 2:04 PM
Friday, July 27, 2007
Speaking of which, I met with my boss when I got in. The investigation of my "insubordinate" act a few weeks back is complete and I've got off without so much as a slap on the wrist. I'll be paid for the trip back, as I felt I should've been, according to our contract, and I'll have a "coaching letter" on my file stating that my manager talked to me about the issue. So basically, no disciplinary action at all. Because I was in the right all the way. I'm glad I took a stand and glad I successfully made my point without a fight. I was also glad to see, in the highlights of our new tentative agreement, that the issue at hand has been properly addressed in the CBA. One for the little guys.
A request: I don't want to discourage anyone from posting comments on this blog, but I would appreciate it if folks would sign their comments. It lends them greater validity if they contain strong words--and it leaves the commenter open to criticism. If ya can't take it, ya really shouldn't dish it, eh. Moreover, it's a more respectful way of arguing. Gloves up.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 7:55 PM
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
The interview is wonderful, however. Great to hear her take on feminism and its place in poetry. Another highlight is her very quiet dismissal of Charles Olson's poetry. If ever there was an overrated figure in 20th Century poetry, 'tis he.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 9:30 PM
The background for Pool’s analysis is a culture that actively discourages critical thinking, one that would rather have enthusiastic cheerleaders (like Oprah) than incisive critics. Although one of the persistent complaints about book critics is that they are too nasty, Pool finds that the opposite is in fact true: often, critics aren’t nasty enough. It is interesting that both Pool and Marchand make the same comment: both stand by every negative word they ever wrote, but both confess to some retrospective reservations about reviews in which they feel they treated their subjects too kindly. Pool attributes this to “weakness,” and points out that “it takes courage and confidence for a reviewer to go his own way and tell readers that the latest ‘masterpiece’ isn’t very good. Amid the waves of praise, he risks not only what all critics risk, being wrong, but being wrong alone.”
Yup, sounds about right.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 8:22 PM
A pleasant consequence of my lack of work was a bit of time for on-the-job reading. I've got Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses along with me and I finished the first chapter, "Smell," on my way here. The writing occasionally gets a bit purple, but her style's excellent for the most part and the subject matter fascinating. She says one thing in particular that caught my eye (and nose, I suppose): "One of the real tests of writers, especially poets, is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?" I like the thought in the first sentence, but the second is an example of how she can get carried away in her prose. It strikes me that "the scent of sanctity in a church" is reminiscent of the overpowering ripe-cheese reek of an industrial hog farm and the suburbs of the heart are dark and dismal precincts full of bored teenagers and frustrated adults.
I remember, during my brief stint as a student at Concordia University, writer-in-residence Anne Dandurand complaining that very few English writers lead with their noses, that the olfactory was a nil factor in their atmospherics. She's probably right. The example par excellence of smell-lit, of course, is German novelist Patrick Suskind's Perfume, a book brilliant in parts, if somewhat uneven on the whole (his novella The Pigeon is a more uniformly excellent book).
Fact is that smells are, as Ackerman acknowledges, very hard to capture in words. I've made a few attempts over the years. It's probably not coincidental that I included two versions of the poem "A Whiff of Mussel Mud" (for the other version, you'll have to buy the book!) in Unsettled. Not just because I was unsure how to write about smell, but because smell is so closely linked to memory, far more than other senses, and the poem is explicitly about the kind of intense déjà vu that a smell can occasion, so having two versions of the same poem, spaced out in the same book, might create a similar feeling of "hey, wait a minute..."
A more recent poem of mine was published by Liz Bachinsky in a recent issue of Event:
The dim stink of skunk carried in
From the woods isn’t unpleasant—
Distance and diffusion
Make it more perfume than weapon
And it mingles in the brainpan
With a memory you can’t put a finger on
But linger over anyway—a vaccine
Couldn’t be, without a speck of infection;
Anti-venom is drawn from pure poison;
And the life you lead on this land
Was allowed by the death of your parents.
It hurt, but diffusion and distance
Make it bearable. When you live with a constant
Scent in your nostrils, you can’t
Stand it at first, then come to love it, then
It grows so faint you forget its existence.
Again, the link between stink and think--or at least recall. The poem's fictional--both my parents are alive and I would have it no other way--but is based on a statement I've heard my dad make on more than one occasion, about liking the distant smell of skunk spray. (I too am fond of the smell, but can't say to what extent that fondness is linked to my father's statement, and to the man himself, because I think of him whenever I smell skunk now--which is quite frequently in East Vancouver.) Indeed, many expensive perfumes are made from a trace of the foulest odors known. And I tried formally to build that idea into the poem, ending each line with a variation on an n-sound, a rhyme scheme that, while incessant, doesn't declare itself boldly, but which I hope might enter the brain, through the ear (as nasal proxy), obliquely and insidiously. It's a very quiet poem compared with much of my other recent stuff.
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Ackerman's book. I have a definite bias towards poetry that embraces the sensuous, poetry with tangible texture, vivid imagery, aural resonance, and maybe the odd drifting aroma. A lot of the poetry that dissatisfies me seems to be merely verbal, to lack other dimensions, to be writing or idle chatter rather than the by-product of living and the embodiment of urgent speech--to be, in short, the work of a disembodied mind. Of course there's no such thing, pace Descartes and all the other ghost-in-the-machine fallacists he spawned, so I suppose it's more a matter of a mind insufficiently engaged with the sights, sounds and smells of the world it inhabits.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 4:36 PM
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Ever since Hannus was a manuscript in utero, it's received two widely divergent kinds of response: a) wild enthusiasm and a perception of great emotional intimacy and b) head-scratching confusion and a perception of emotional distance. There doesn't seem to be much in between. When Rachel was at Concordia working on the book as her MA thesis, she had a prof who told her point-blank that people wouldn't have the patience to work out all the intricacies and contradictions of the book and that no publisher would be interested in it. Unfortunately, that fatuous prediction has only been proven partially false. Despite its distinctly west-coast subject matter, no BC publishers were interested in it; it took an unorthodox publisher like Beth Follett of Pedlar Press to see its merit. Another publisher's first reader loved the book, while the second reader complained that the book "spoke when she wanted it to sing." Presumably, she was talking about the passages that are written in prose... It was a lovely bit of literary comeuppance when Hannus was nominated for a regional interest prize in the BC Book Prizes this spring.
I guess what this means is that this is not a book with "universal appeal." It is not a book that can be easily or passively consumed. It is, however, a book that receptive readers, willing to do their fair share of work in piecing Ida Hannus' story together, have loved. Which is as close to an objective statement about it as I can get.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 1:27 PM
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 9:12 PM
Friday, July 20, 2007
Related to my last post, here's video of Bringhurst reading from his great work of translation, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, by the Haida poet Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. The intro's a bit annoying and the recording quality's not shit-hot, but it gives you an idea of what an amazing reader Bringhurst is, on top of all his other accomplishments.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 6:47 PM
UPDATE: See also the post on Vehicule Press' blog about CNQ 71.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 3:12 PM
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 10:49 AM
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:13 PM
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
And why won't he heal them? Any believer inthe christian god as a supreme being is helpless to answer that last question without resorting to self-delusion and intellectual dishonesty.
And then there's the Jews, who seem to maintain that God loves only amputees (oh, groan!)--and male ones at that.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 8:30 AM
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
My pops just sent me this very nice article on my old home town. I'm shocked and appalled that the Tulugaq Bar (a.k.a. "The Zoo," with which readers of Unsettled will have a secondhand familiarity and with which I, during my stints in Iqaluit, had probably too intimate a relationship) has been renamed "The Storehouse Grill." This is a bar where, while I lived there, you weren't allowed to take photographs--bar management was really just trying to save the locals the trouble of beating the crap out of you if you did snap a shot.
Iqaluit was already becoming yuppified when I pulled up stakes for the northern frontier of Resolute Bay in 2001, so I can only imagine the tragic hipness of the place now, eight years into Nunavut. Still, it will ever and always be a freaky little town (even if officially a city now). This guy gets the character of the place pretty well.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 8:07 AM
Monday, July 16, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 4:42 PM
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 2:30 AM
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:32 AM
Sunday, July 15, 2007
I've just been made aware of a very dangerous thing: email Scrabble. I'm not generally much on board games, but I'm something of a Scrabble fanatic. Anyone wanna play?
Got back from Winnipeg this morning. There's a chance we're going on strike next week, but I hope not. More anon.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 5:55 PM
Friday, July 13, 2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007
"Achromatope" is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a colour-blinded painter, a verse adaptation of an essay by Oliver Sacks in his book An Anthropologist on Mars (a wonderful book). And for what it's worth, I think it's one of the best poems I've written and is not at this point published anywhere else.
ERRATUM: I erroneously reported earlier that "Achromatope" would be selling for $15. Caryl informs me that she's dropped the price to $10. $10! How can you not order one?
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 3:31 PM
This is the first train-caused fatality I've experienced, but in the three-plus years I've been working--seasonally, I might add--I've been on board for 4 "crossing incidents." I will never understand how people can be so stupid as to take chances with a train like that, but it happens all the fucking time. An analogy: a car being hit by a train is like a beer can being run over by a car. For Christ's sake, don't assume that you can beat the train. It's not worth the gamble.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 1:02 PM
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Monday, July 9, 2007
I love doing readings, even though I've done some crappy ones, in which either my performance, the venue, the audience or some combination of the three, were subpar. But the buzz I get from one really great, enjoyable reading makes up for nine mediocre ones. Same goes for readings I attend as an audience member. I go expecting crap most of the time, but hoping for gold. Enough turns up in the pan that I find it worthwhile to keep prospecting. And I'll travel a fair distance to attend a reading I know will be good. I drove to Victoria a few months ago, for instance, to catch Geoffrey Cook reading. I've read with Geoff in the past and know he does a knockout job. He didn't disappoint. And as an added bonus, I got to hear Martin Hazelbower's incomparably weird and brilliantly virtuoso performance that night. For me, such readings easily rival theatre or music as live entertainment.
I think most of the people who argue against readings don't like doing them. Solution: don't do them. If you do decide to do readings, for the love of Pete, RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE. Rehearse what you're going to read beforehand, don't make it seem like this is the first time you've seen this strange piece of text in your hand. And try not to use the audience like a captive clutch of guinea pigs for testing out brand new material. Read the stuff with a bit of life, don't try to mimic its textual 2-dimensionality on the page. Whatever, please don't sublimate your own discomfort/dislike/ineptitude for public performance into some kind of "readings are bad" dogma. Yes, most readings are bad. But then, so is most "poetry" on the page. Not a coincidence.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:09 AM
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 10:04 AM
Saturday, July 7, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 8:45 AM
Friday, July 6, 2007
Thursday, July 5, 2007
I found my role
hard to accept—
I found it droll
I found my hole
hard to inspect—
I found it full
I found my parole
hard to dissect—
I found it dull
I found the Demerol
hard to inject—
I found a hole
I found the pole
hard to detect—
I felt its pull
I found the toll
hard to reject—
I sold my soul
I found my role
hard to affect—
I played it cold
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:09 PM
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Arc poetry magazine, as part of their special "Forgotten & Neglected" issue, has posted podcasts of featured poets' poems, including my reading of Kenneth Leslie's "Lowlands Low." Hear it here.
You can also hear Arc editor Anita Lahey reading Leslie's "No Poem Is Ever Ended" here.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 4:48 PM
An interesting and entertaining, albeit chaotic, unedited and ill-transcribed interview with one of my favourite living poets, Peter Van Toorn. Very flattered to see Peter speaking highly of my essay on his work, even if I become "Zachary Weld" and the essay's title morphs from "Jabbed with Plenty" to "Jab with Twenty"!
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 3:14 PM
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
I won't get into the details in public, but basically what happened is my employer tried to tell me I couldn't do something that my collective bargaining agreement says I can do. Against the counsel of a few co-workers (who agreed that I was in the right but figured I'd get in shit), I stuck to my guns. Sure enough, when I got back into Vancouver today, I was called into the office and told that I was to be "investigated" and held out of service without pay until the investigation was complete. This is part of the intimidation/bullying/harassment arsenal they employ on a semi-regular basis to get people to give up their contractual prerogatives. I'm quite confident that I'll win in this case, but even if I do, I'll have a bullseye on my back for a while. Nothing I ain't used to.
The trip itself was a bit crazy. Everything was running smoothly, until the morning of the third day, when I woke up and realized we were still in Melville, SK, which we should've left an hour or so earlier. Turns out a train ahead of us had derailed, so the road was blocked. The derailment of freight trains is a pretty routine occurrence, so I didn't think much of it. It could be as minor as a car or two being off the tracks, but still upright. That wasn't the case here, however. After moving up the line from Melville to Yarbo, we finally got the go-ahead to proceed, the derailment having been "cleaned up." As we approached the bridge over the Cutarm River, I could see that it was a pretty bad derailment, a couple of cars completely tipped over. But as we crawled over the bridge, I looked down into the river valley and saw this incredible wreckage of cars and containers. Seems a wicked wind had blown some double-stacked container cars off the bridge and they took a whole bunch of other cars with them. Crazy mess. I was looking for some pictures on line, but the media don't seem to have picked up on it much.
After that, we were delayed again by some bozo trying to use the train as the instrument of his self-destruction. Unfortunately, he failed in his objective. Then, because of the compounded delays, our engineers ran out of legal driving time and we were delayed further waiting for a relief crew. I never did make it to Winnipeg, as the train I was supposed to head west on left the station before we got there. So at Portage la Prairie, I and all the other Vancouver-based staff hopped off one train and onto another. Which was the point at which I did what got me into trouble. Fortunately, I have a spotless record with the company to-date, which I think lends a great deal of credibility to my case. We'll see.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 9:43 PM
My book Unsettled was published almost three years ago, but it's never too late to receive a review. Which I just have, courtesy of Rob Taylor at PoetryReviews.ca. In keeping with my policy of not commenting publicly on reviews of my work, I have nothing further to say, but would appreciate it, as I'm sure Mr. Taylor would also, if you'd check it out.
I'm back from my rail trip, and it was eventful. More anon.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 11:59 AM