Monday, December 31, 2007

Vonnegut, Mailer, Paley

The LA Times has a piece on the passing this past year of these three (very different) giants of American literature. I suppose providing the link (below) is a fitting way to end the year. All were stylish, original, uniquely eloquent writers.,0,272691.story?coll=la-books-headlines

This piece brought to mind a Peter Mansbridge interview I saw recently with Ted Sorenson, John F. Kennedy's speechwriter. Mansbridge asked Sorenson why there were so few memorable lines from Presidential speeches these days. (Sorenson wrote the "Ask not" lines.) Sorenson responded that "the age of eloquence" was over. The influence of image (and sound bite to accompany image,) had eclipsed articulation. The current President was perhaps the most inarticulate in US history, he suggested. And when ideas and policies can not be eloquently expressed, it indicates that they are not carefully and completely thought out. Seems to me the same can be said about recent Prime Ministers.

I asked an office colleague if he could repeat a Presidential line. He said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman... Miss Lewinsky." Nough said.

Happy New Year! And may this coming year bring greater eloquence!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sitcom by David McGimpsey (II)

Here's a link to my review of David McGimpsey's exceptional poetry collection Sitcom from today's Montreal Gazette. It's interesting to compare it with my blog post below ("Who will buy my dirty potatoes"). In both instances I loved the book - nothing's changed there - but frankly I prefer the blog review. It's longer, freer and more in the spirit of the book, which makes me reconsider how restrained I can be in print. To be fair, the Gazette's books editor printed the review almost exactly as I submitted it. I guess I just assumed she (the Gazette editor) would never let "fucktard" appear in a major daily. Maybe I should ask her.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Smarten up!

Malcolm Gladwell writes on the real meaning of IQ tests. I have no recollection of ever taking one of these. I was always scared to. Find out how basically dumb I am, without any hope of ever smartening up. And to think of all the years of schooling and reading books, the money tossed out the window by my parents for my parochial school edumacation. It now seems my fears were unfounded and the money wasn't wasted after all. Thanks mom and dad.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

O, so that's how she does it

If, like me, you've never been able to figure out the Oprah appeal, this article from Lee Siegel in The New Republic may help (and lord knows in the Age of Oprah we all need some help.)

A sample. "Think of it like this: The media is Caesar. Having mastered and then revolutionized its idiom, Oprah is Christ. Like changing water into wine, she has managed--through her elevation of hidden, obscure, or neglected experience into spectacle--to make the television set watch you." And it gets better.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Poem

Why Not?
With gratitude to The Writer's Almanac.


On this day Christ was born
though the actual day is not known
with certainty, experts agree
it was most likely
in the spring and not 1 A.D.
but 4 B.C.
In Finland
they dive into icy lakes then out
for a stint in the sauna
which is how they celebrate.
In Australia it’s mid-summer,
they reach for towels,
sandals and suntan lotion
and make barbecues at the beach.
The Chinese decorate paper lanterns
and light them, and in Spain
children fill shoes
with straw, carrots and barley
and leave them on windowsills
for Balthazar's donkey to nibble.
Venezuelan kids tie long strings to their toes
before going to bed
and hang them out the window.
People rollerskate to Mass
next morning and tug the strings
as they roll by.
The custom in Mexico
includes smashing candy-filled piƱatas
while in Brazil they observe the Mass of the Rooster
and Father Christmas wears a silk suit
because it's so hot.
In Greece St. Nick arrives not on sleigh
but drenched in seawater
from trying to rescue drowning sailors. Since
they don't have Christmas trees in Greece
instead they hang crosses
wrapped in basil on wires
from the rims of small bowls of water.
Once a day the crosses are dipped
and water is sprinkled around houses
to protect them from bad luck;
and everyone


Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Chabanel Christmas party

Top three things I learned at this year's office Christmas party (really a sit-down dinner):

1. It's very difficult to get drunk on martinis.

2. In Maoist China, some children were essentially isolated and raised away from their parents. A Chinese colleague told me how, as a child, she was sent to live with grandparents for the first six years of her life while her parents both worked as chemical engineers on China's burgeoning space/missile defense program. "They helped to build rockets," she said. When I asked her what it was like to live away from her parents she said, "I didn't know my father for the first six years of my life. He was a stranger. There were times when I was left alone in my house for half the day while my grandparents worked. No one was there. I cried a lot. I remember."

3. The Canadian government built an armoury on Chabanel during WWII. The main building still stands as a sprawling 500,000 square foot single-storey facility that currently houses a plastics manufacturing facilty. But along Meilleur and Chabanel, near the train tracks, there is a subterranean complex that was part of the original armoury which descends six-stories deep. The man who swore to its underground existence could not say what it was being used for at the moment or what purpose it might have served when it was built. But he said that it was still there. A maze of rooms and corridors that went deep underground.

Essential George Johnston

Besides being an accomplished poet in her right, Montrealer Robyn Sarah has spent a great deal of her time and energy educating about poetry (as a teacher, essayist and newspaper columnist) and bringing unheralded poets to wider attention. A little while back she introduced me to the American poet Robert Sward. Now she is championing Canadian George Johnston who died in 2004 with a new edited book The Essential George Johnston. Subtlety, understatement and impeccable craft are the hallmarks of Johnston's work (also Sward's and Sarah's own work.) Zach Wells offers a whole bunch of useful links on his post about Johnston.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'Who will buy my dirty potatoes?'

David McGimpsey is the most important poet writing in Canada today. In fact he is the most important poet of his generation.

There. I said it.

McGimpsey would probably scoff at such pompous-ass, meaningless hyperbole. But there it is. And it's how I'm feeling after reading his latest volume of poetry entitled Sitcom. It's bar none the most vibrant, refreshing book I've read all year. How this book was overlooked for the GG, the Griffin, the Shmiffin, the Shmeegee, and whatever other poetry awards they're handing out these days, I'll never understand. Actually, I do. This book is too damn funny (in a serious sort of way), too damn subtle (in a complex sort of way) and too damn irreverent (in a respectful sort of way) to merit the rubber stamp of literary officialdom. Oh, and did I mention how damn funny it is.

'A good student will always learn to laugh at old professors' (Architeuthis)

McGimpsey, a Prof. in the Concordia creative writing program knows how to laugh. At himself. At us. And he gets us laughing at ourselves too, which may be the greatest achievement of these poems. No, the greatest achievement is that between har-hars we're subsumed in genuine, bona fide, beautifully written poems, and feeling giddy from the entire poetic enterprise. How can you not love a poem that begins, "Two dogs walk into a Manhatten bar." (Manhatten)

Scheduled guests on the Tony Danza Show/ stay at the luxurious downtown Onmi (Voice-Over)

How to convey the effect? How do I put this. Well, imagine you are sitting in the livingroom of another dimension and watching a late-night talk show (take your pick) on a tiny screen, the parade of comedians, washed-up movie stars plugging their latest lines of perfumes and lingerie, whatever-happened-to actors making tearful tv admissions of marital infidelity and drug abuse for one more stab at the limelight, flavour of the month pop stars not really caring; and then come the ads. You are McGimpsey. It is your love. Your undying devotion. To a reality. A truth. McGimpsey writes "On my tombstone, may it be written:/ Here lies he who loved freedom, of course/ as much as he loved a good talking horse." (Timon)

One of the few times you actually came to class you said Timon of Athens was an unreadable play about 'a fucktard who has a hissy fit when he realizes he can't buy friendship'. (B-/C+)

Yes. McGimpsey uses the word fucktard in a poem. And all I could think of was Shakespeare's 'hoisted by their own petards'. McGimpsey is smart enough to intentionally suggest such an allusion, know that resonance. Actually scratch that last comment. Poetry analysis is for fucktards.

Down to his too-tight track pants, the tenor is more or less what you would expect. (Opera)

Track pants on a tenor? What's he doing, running the quartermile? Actually no, he's shvitzing up a storm on the couch of the abovementioned talk show answering idiotic sycophantic questions and between mouthfuls of blah blah blah, yelling at the likes of Richard Hatch, Sanjaya, and Ralph Malph. Bastardo! It's utter mayhem, until someone says (the baritone) 'Have you noticed how country music these days sounds more like Bon Jovi than Merle Haggard?' The guests all look at one another in silence. Pause. They wonder what it means. Pause. They know what it means. And so do we.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Walloped again

This one is for my family in Florida.

Yesterday afternoon the skies were lightning-lit and thundering above the blizzard, a rare meteorological occurrence. At sunrise this morning the Montreal streets were glorious; golden-framed in the shimmering architecture of six-foot snowmounds.

You don't know what you're missing.

Or maybe you do.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ambivalence by Jonathan Garfinkel

I enjoyed reading this memoir by Toronto writer Jonathan Garfinkel even more than Shalom Auslander's (see the link to my Gazette review below), maybe because as far as I'm concerned ambivalence is always preferrable to anger. Both ambivalence and anger are born of frustration and struggle, though ambivalence is open-ended and anger ultimately a dead-end.

Garfinkel writes honestly about his need to reconcile his Zionist upbringing with the injustices done to Palestinians in the aftermath of the War of Independence and the early years of the founding of the State of Israel.

Tipped off by an Arab-Israeli girl he meets in Toronto, he travels to Israel for the first time to find a house which is supposedly shared by both a Palestinian and Jewish family. If true, it would constitute a possible model for mutual coexistence, he thinks. Unsurprisingly, the situation of the house turns out to be something other than expected. But it doesn't really matter. The search for the house was only ever the means by which the author could venture out to map the contours and crevices of his Jewish soul.

The book is at its best in the first half. Garfinkel's portrayal of the Minsk shul minyan which he attends in Kensington Market is memorable, and the gradual dissolution of his relationship with his girlfriend is conveyed with subtlety. As a playwright, Garfinkel knows how to write spare, rich dialogue. Particularly moving is his description of his relationship with his grandfather and the responsibility he feels to the elder's legacy.

His initial arrival in Israel is absolutely hilarious: He falls into the hands of a group of boozing, dope-smoking, gun-toting Jerusalem punks who chastise him for being incapable (a Canadian trait) of saying "fuck" with the proper passion.

But as the book progresses his questions become less personal and more overtly political, which is a shame. He eschews touristy Holyland sites and heads straight for refugee camps in the West Bank. The majority of the interviews he conducts are with Palestinians who describe the hardship of daily existence and Garfinkel increasingly sympathizes with them. It's unfortunate that almost all of the Israelis he speaks with espouse either blinkered or intransigent positions, or are decidedly marginal, for example a representative of Zochrot, an organization devoted to memorializing the names of Palestinian towns that are no longer in existence. Garfinkel becomes so taken by the Palestinians he meets that he even makes an episode when his borrowed bicycle is stolen by some Palestinian kids and held for ransom seem almost sweet.

The author's Jewish conscience speaks to him in the form of imagined conversations with his old Bialik elementary school teacher Mrs. Blintzkrieg, which by the end sound too cute. As a balanced, considered examination of the political issues relevant to the prospects of building a lasting peace the book is lacking.

Suffice to say this will not be a popular book among Jewish Canadians who tend to be fiercely supportive of Israel. Nonetheless, Garfinkel's courage should be applauded. He opens himself up to a journey of unexpected returns, and faces head-on the many disturbing questions of loyalty and personal integrity encompassed by his Jewish identity. His conclusion that the pervasive preoccupation with victimization on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides is an untenable basis on which to forge peace is hardly earth-shattering. Efforts at mutual honesty and seeing the other for who they really are is required, not the building walls. How exactly this might happen, Garfinkel doesn't conjecture. Neither does he give the reader a sense of how his own ambivalence might be reconciled, which is a bit a letdown.

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander

Friday, December 14, 2007

Centre St-Ambroise - The responsibility for the arts

There was a piece on CBC Radio this morning about the opening of a new arts space in the south central district of St. Henri. The project is underwritten by Peter McAuslan, of brewery fame, an important supporter of the arts and literature in Montreal. The centre's new Director Dave Cool said that more and more artists are fleeing the Plateau as property values rise, rental prices increase and condofication spreads. The Plateau's loss is St. Henri's gain and this new space fills a gap, giving the growing community of artists new opportunities to exhibit.

This initiative seems wonderfully old-fashioned, in the sense that it's privately underwritten and responds to local artistic needs emerging organically out of current economic conditions. Listening to the piece and Cool's remarks, my thoughts turned to a series of what ifs: What if the government didn't hand out grants to artists at all? Would art cease to be made? Of course not. Would the vacuum be filled by people like McAuslan stepping up to the plate and going to bat for the arts? I think so. Would private patrons, as opposed to government bodies be more responsive to the actual needs of artists working in the community? In what ways would the culture of artists and the work they produce be changed i.e. instead of being preoccupied with filling out grant proposals and the culture promoted by that relationship, would the focus shift and would their work be less academic and more relevant to actualities and public tastes? I don't see the arts as we know it shrivelling up and dying if the circumstances were different. I see the opposite to be true, a more vibrant, relevant, urgent and more cherished existence for the arts, with a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility on behalf of the communities where they enrich daily life.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

If You're Keeping Score 3

Karlheinz Schreiber 3
Brian Mulroney 0
Members of Parliament 2
Canadian People 0

(One point deducted from Mulroney after his performance today. He "apologized," but to whom? It would have been nice to hear him utter the words "to all Canadians." Instead he disgraced himself further by attacking the scumbag Schreiber, proving that they belong in the same league. And his explanation about all of the cash being paid to the tax man - years after it should have been declared - since he could not produce any documentation on his supposed expenses for services rendered. How stupid does he think we are? I thought the members of the committee did relatively well, at least NDP's Comartin and BQ's Menard.)
Well folks that'll do it until the committee returns after the holiday break in late Jan.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Found Poem

I'm so jazzed on reading David McGimpsey's latest book Sitcom (more on that later) that it's screwed with how and where I see poetry. Here's the result.

a facebook friends feed

Ellen has received a ‘Yes’
Lev has removed The Doors from his favourite music
Romy is attending Jolly Nights 24.12.07
Penn joined the group Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma
Beth added the Birthday Calendar application
Simon and Rachel are now friends
Lev added the ATTACK! application
Ina is working and working and working
Cyndi challenged Trevor to Name that Cartoon Character
Joseph and Morningstar found each other

using the Friend Finder
Simon and Suki are now friends
Robin added the We’re Related application
Zach is exasperated by misguided literary nationalism
Divvy and Beth added the Jewish Gifts application
David joined the group Circus Afterhours
21 of your friends have received a new message
Charles was tagged in a group album
Ellen has received a ‘Yes’
See who has clicked ‘Yes’ on ‘YOU’.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Christmas on Chabanel

There' s a Christmas wreath hanging in the lobby of 99. There is also a small decorative electric Chanukah menorah close by. In fact each of the buildings our company administrates (seven) in the shmatte district have both a Christmas wreath and a menorah in their lobby. 433 Chabanel, with it's cathedral ceiling and mezanine also boasts two fully-trimmed, ten-foot high, artificial evergreens and a six-foot menorah with condor-like wing span. I admit I find it an odd sight. Not so much the menorahs; the ultra-orthodox Chabad Lubavitch on Chabanel has had a giant menorah out in front of their building at this time of year for as long as I can remember. It's the Christmas decor that feels somehow strange. Why that should be, I'm not exactly sure. Yes, these buildings have always been owned by Jewish people and still are. But to call the industry "Jewish" has been an exaggeration for some time. It's a mixed bag of ethnicities, increasingly Asian, south Asian, Armenian, Arab and more. In the past, the building owners tended not to celebrate holidays with festive decor of any kind. It may have been out of fear of offending one or more ethnic group. But I think what really makes it seem odd is that the industry has been struggling and word on the street is that retail has been disappointing so far this season. The stately, structured menorah is one thing. But the cheerful appearance of tinsel, shimmering gold balls, and mistletoe feels anachronistic for Chabanel these days. On the other hand, it may just be the pick-me-up we all need. The other day I went to see a tenant about a heating problem. At the end of my visit she said, "Oh and by the way thank you for downstairs." I said, "Downstairs? For what downstairs?" completely dumbfounded. She answered with a tired smile, "The wreath, it's a nice change."

Friday, December 7, 2007

A better snow poem than mine

Here's a better snow poem than mine (below) by Anne Sexton courtesy of The Writer's Almanac (we both make reference to milk at the end):

The post-literate 1980s - Thriller to the rescue

I've been engaged in an ongoing exchange with my friend Eric Caplan, a McGill University Prof. (I don't hold that against him). We like to talk about the state of the arts, he from the standpoint of pop music (he's a fine musician, plays with an occasional cover band of university associates calling themselves The Diminished Faculties), me from the point of view of literature. Lately, I've started calling the 1980s "the post-literate 80s" since I can't think of a writer who emerged during that period who has influenced in any meaningful way the writers of the current generation. On the contrary, it seems to me that younger writers are looking farther and farther back for their influences. In American literature for instance, Jonathan Safran Foer seems to have more in common with Isaac Bashevis-Singer than Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. In a recent e-mail Eric said that Madonna and Michael Jackson were the last two artists to really make a pop music splash. My point about the post-literate 80s made. Perhaps this also explains the resurgence of groups like the Beatles and new interest in Bob Dylan. I think it's more than just nostalgia. These are the musicians that remain genuinely artistically relevant and influential. Reminder: In February Epic/Legacy is planning to release a special 25th anniversary edition of Thriller to honour the watershed cultural moment of its original release. Industry execs are sitting on shpilkes, hoping against hope that this will mean at least a temporary stay of execution for the recording industry as we know it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


If veterinarians have the means to harmlessly subdue a 1500 pound charging rhinoceros, or 1000 pound polar bear, or Siberian tiger, why can't the police find a completely safe, non-lethal method of dealing with an agitated man?

If you're keeping score 2

Karlheinz Schrieber 3
Brian Mulroney 1 (at least until next week)
Members of Parliament 1
Canadian People 0

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Best 100 Books Season

Does Anyone find these things at all helpful?

Over at "Thirsty" the Biblioasis Dan Wells complains About the Globe 100 list of "best" books of the year. He is disappointed that the so-called "small" publishers, in spite of receiving excellent reviews for their books, tend to get shafted in these year-end assessments. It's hard to disagree.

The lists certainly afford ("afford" being the optimal word here) certain publishers one last chance (after awards season failure) to plaster a gold star on their book covers, and not uncoincidentally, another opportunity to advertise their books in the newspaper in time for the Christmas rush ie. "chosen one of the 100 best books etc."

What does making the list mean from a reviewer's standpoint? Not much according to Bookninja's George Murray who has contributed book reviews to the Globe & Mail but has never been consulted for a top 100 list. He writes, "The thing I find funny about the 100 is that the reviewers themselves aren’t consulted. Reviews I’ve written in the past have led to 100 listings, but I only found out by opening the paper in December."

I've never found these lists particularly useful as either gift-purchasing guides or as a guides for my own future reading. The tongue in cheek approach employed by seems more appropriate. Their list is less self-important, more adventuresome and definitely more fun, with lots of "small" press recommendations too. Here's the link to last year's Christmas list: I look forward to this year's installment from them.

If you're keeping score

Karlheinz Schreiber 2
Brian Mulroney 1
Members of Parliament 0
Canadian People 0

Monday, December 3, 2007

Montreal this morning, 30 cms and counting


This offering of
heaven grounded
the mind is
for a moment
to roam an expanse of land,
envision a span of lake
like a lush carpet of light
and then thoughts
get folded
neatly as bed linen
into the mundane,
bus schedules,
school closings,
the streets shimmering
linoleum white
and in every quarter
amid the perk-perk-drip
of coffee pots
and swish-hum
of dishwashers
there is kitchen-talk,
some time needed
some extra time
for another phone call
from neighbours
searching for new
and amusing ways
to describe deluge,
a fresh outpouring
unlike any
in recent memory,
a double dose of milk
in the morning coffee.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The uneasy fit between poetry and awards

I've been a regular reader of Alex Good's website for interesting links and thoughtful book reviews for some time now ( He recently held his fourth annual Runaway Jury (with Carmine Starnino and Paul Vermeersch) to reassess the GG poetry selections. The most interesting comment I think came from Carmine who said "This country is bursting at the seams with word-happy, form-shifting poets hungry for change and constantly on the look-out for what Auden called "new rhetoric." But rather than tracking this large-scale shift, this leap into "new rhetoric," this year’s jury produced a shortlist that feels like a standing hop." Zach Wells, another one my favourites, also commented on this ( Carmine may be right, but my thought was that the most interesting moves artistically have always taken place away from the centre, at the margins. Why should the Canada Council (or any other cultural institution) be expected to "track" changes in artistic innovation. They are by definition certifiers of a cultural norm, a standard that is acceptable and typically already widely accepted ("bluechip," Carmine calls it.) The Domanski choice is eminently understandable in this regard (as is the tendency to award authors for their careers instead of their books.) In the arts there is no more uncomfortable fit then awards for poetry. This also begs the question of the role of public funding for poetry production and publication and whether it is relevant and even needed any longer. It seems to me that poetry is flourishing in print and online because the means are available to inexpensively produce, re-produce and widely distribute it. The same can not be said of any other artform which requires huge resources and benefits from public funding (visual arts, dance, theatre, film). The public subsidizing of poetry publications and poetry-related events seems to have achieved very little with respect to generating new audiences, more book buyers or more proficient and relevant practioners. I don't think we should expect otherwise.