Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Pluriel provides a composite snapshot, taken from a few particular angles, of the variety of poems written in Canada over the past few decades. In shaping this anthology the editors were attracted to the diverse cultural and social responses evident in the work of poets writing in English and French, both across Canada, and in particular in Quebec and other French-speaking regions of the country. Each poem is offered in its original language and in translation.

A poem of mine called "The Lot" - written in 1994 in response to the "accidental" shooting death by a Montreal police officer of a black youth and the officer's subsequent acquittal - appears in this new anthology from the University of Ottawa Press. The anthology is interesting from the standpoint of an experiment in translation. To my mind, it gives the impression of cultural distance rather than proximity. The volume is split between poems originally written in English and then translated into French and vice versa. I enjoyed reading the French rendering of my poem, though I might have questioned certain word choices. The anthology is eclectic,the choices decidedly idiosyncratic and the quality all over the map. There are poems by Klein, Atwood, Cohen and Purdy, but many by lessers like myself which can be refreshing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A.M. Klein, Richler, Bezmozgis, Michaels and ...

Rotchin are on the syllabus of Alexander Hart's summer course at UBC on Jewish Canadian literature. No kidding. Have a look for yourself. I hope the students have to buy the book.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Woman self-induces miscarriage, calls it art

The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming -- an authorial act. It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.

Reason number 2,767 why art shouldn't be taught at universities. Bring back the atelier. Please.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bonus comment on Passover

Here's Lawrence Nyveen's less theological comment on my last Passover post. It's at the bottom of his post with pics about a vomit-fest he inflicted on his kids in a Cessna airplane. I gather from the details that his kids are not eating too much matzoh this holiday.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Passover meets Dora the Explorer

Leave it to Johnny Kay - actually it's Jonathan, National Post editor, but I have it on good authority that his mom Barb, (actually it's Barbara Kay, National Post columnist) calls him "Johnny" - could put Pharaoh in the same piece as Swiper the Fox. For those of you who don't have a toddler and are out of the loop, read on anyway. The article's a hoot, and since it was Barb who sent me the Solway poem I figured I'd give her son a little air time too.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Passover" by David Solway

(Thanks to Barbara Kay for forwarding this newly-minted poem by David Solway. Posted by permission of the author.)

David Solway


There must have been one,
at least one,
who stayed behind in Egypt.
How could there not have been?
Just think about it,
though it is not written in the Book,
how the paradigm inserts itself
in tribe and tribulation.
Maybe he’d slept in, the lazy Jew,
when the people gathered in the Prince’s train,
and awoke too late to grasp his stave and scrip;
or, the lascivious Jew, he’d fallen hard
for a young Egyptian maid
and could not bring himself to renounce
the honey and figs of her lavishness.
Who knows? he may have been on his knees
or swaying back and forth in deepest trance,
the pious Jew, praying for deliverance,
demanding attention,
too busy giving the Lord an earful
to notice what was happening.
Maybe he was tending to his wounds,
the lacerated Jew, applying balms and ointments
to the scars of his captivity
on the fateful morning he was left behind;
or the foolish and myopic Jew wondering
why all the commotion, all that dust, nothing to worry about.
Could he have been the heroic Jew,
part of the local Irgun,
preparing to blow up the palace and assassinate the Pharaoh?
Flight was not on his agenda.
But just as likely the appeasing Jew
reluctant to offend his tormentors
or the fearful Jew, expecting pursuit,
unwilling to perish
beneath the wheels of the thundering chariots,
not to mention the traitor Jew
shedding his afterskin
to make himself anew in coveting and subtlety.

Sometimes I think
I am he, I am all of them.
For every reason not written in the Book

I am the Jew who stayed behind in Egypt.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

"Fun" in this case is short for "funeral" and it captures perfectly the essence of this "tragic-comic."

This book makes a compelling argument that the graphic-novel is perhaps the ideal form for memoir/autobiography (in the same vein, Art Spielgman's "Maus" immediately comes to mind as well.) I guess they should be called graphic-memoirs. Alison Bechdel has made a name for herself as a lesbian comic-writer (Dykes to Watch Out For) but what a shame if, like me, you are initially put off by the gay tag. There is just so much more to this brave, deeply honest and touching story of a person in search of a personal narrative. It's about unteasing tightly knotted threads (that can easily tear), about secrets badly kept, lies badly told, myth-making and busting, and the love that holds a family together in spite of itself. The epicentre is the author's relationship with her father, one that is part Daedalus/Icarus, part Stephen Daedalus/Leopold Bloom (I know they're not father/son, you have to read the book to understand the reference.) Bechdel is as gifted an artist as she is a storyteller and this is as much the story of an artist "coming-out" as it is a lesbian, probably more so (see also James Joyce.) Her panels have the feel of being both entirely fresh and archival at the same time, like genuine snapshots from a family photo album that have been filtered through an utterly present and contemporary consciousness.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Freedom to what?

Well, what would Passover be without a little pontification - funny word for a Jew to use since it relates to Pontiff - and, anyway, I prefer to think of what I'm about to foist on you as public reflection.

Passover is the holiday of deliverance, freedom. These are terms that have been so abused lately it seems like a good time to reconsider them. "Deliverance" must necessarily be joined to the word "from". We're delivered from something, which begs the question, from what? The word freedom must necessarily be joined to the word "to", freedom to do something, but again, to what?

In the Passover story the answer to the question of deliverance is a no-brainer, it's deliverance from slavery, from tyranny, from spiritual and physical oppression. But the "freedom to" part is less obvious, although, God's answer is pretty straight forward. In fact, He couldn't be clearer about it. He tells the Israelites up front that they're being liberated in order to worship Him and He makes sure that they leave Egypt with all the things they need to have a festival in His honour. This is also part of the reason why we have a seder, an event in which from the moment we wash our hands before we sit down to the dinner table to the moment we get up to leave, everything is meticulously prescribed and scripted.

Now one might justifiably ask what kind of freedom is that? God releases us from bondage in order that we worship Him and commands us to have a feast. And we commemorate this event by following a script in which we're told what to say, what to eat, even when to ask questions. Sounds more like a new form of tyranny.

Well, it would be tyranny if God had made it a condition of deliverance, which He didn't. He frees the Israelites without any guarantees that they will abide, and in fact, they have second and third thoughts with respect to their newfound freedom. They flounder and want to return to Egypt time and again. They find out that in many respects their freedom presents a greater challenge to them than being in bondage. Now they must take full responsibility for their decisions. So the first answer to the question of "freedom to what?" is freedom to make responsible decisions and suffer the full consequences.

But what about the ritual of the Seder? Why not celebrate our newfound freedom with a wild bash, getting blitzed out of our brains, eating at the best restaurants and then dancing the night away. The way we celebrate every other event in our lives from birthdays and anniversaries to Stanley Cup Championships. A real party! Why the structure, the restraint, the order? The reason is because we are meant to understand that true freedom comes with mindfulness and meaning, not the ability to do anything we want or the capacity to afford gourmet meals and the most expensive booze. Freedom comes with being able to see that every action, no matter how small or quotidian (like having a dinner of basic foods like the one we share at Passover) is meaningful and significant. The highly structured nature of the evening frees us to put aside superficialities (like what's on the menu and how it will taste and even the casual conversation that usually attends meals) and to delve more deeply into the meaning of all that is before us and the drama in which we are participating, and not just an historical drama, but the drama of daily life itself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blood on the family doorpost

Tuesday. I step through the front door after work and Wife is at the sink straining spaghetti, looking like she's ready to strangle someone with noodles. She's screaming; at daughter one to get her butt up from the basement and clean the mess left on the kitchen counter, at daughter two to get off the computer and vacuum her room, at daughter three to cease reading Archie comics and finish her math homework, and before I can ask, in my most honey-dipped voice how her day was, she's commanding me to take daughter four to the bathroom before she pees in her pants. For the record, this is not my average welcome after a day's work. The household is thickly redolent with anxiety and resentment. More than usual. The children are ducking for cover, hiding in the basement, seeking safehaven behind bedroom doors. You never know when the next explosion might occur, a kitchen cupboard boobytrap, a livingroom sofa ambush. Best to stay away, steer clear of confrontation, navigate around danger. It's the week of double-work, night and day, of being under the ruler's merciless thumb, the taskmaster's cracking whip, the days of slavery, of waiting to be liberated, of aspiration and inevitable failure. It's not exactly Egypt. It's our house. And it's the week before Passover.

Back at the sink, her fingers are tangled in knots of drippy semolina, the dregs of a box dug out of the back of the cupboard from last summer, consumed now or else wasted in the name of religion. Wife has that pitiless look in her eye, tinged the red of fatigue. I know what she's thinking as she glares into the steam rising from the porcelain sink. I hate you. For making me do this. It'll never get done. The shopping. The cleaning. The dishes. It can't all get done on time. Again. And you're to blame. I hate you. Now I'm thinking back, sarcastically, what would getting ready for Passover be without a little slavery. And she's thinking back at me. Shut the hell up. Come down from your sanctimonious mountain you holier-than-thou, lazy-ass sonofabitch. The work all falls on my shoulders, not yours. I'm the slave here, not you. I'm the one who'll be dragging the three year old down the aisles of the IGA, dodging near-sighted bubbies, stacking the cart up with egg-matzoh boxes, macaroon cans, cellophane packets of gefilte fish and jars of horseradish, and picking through the shelves of condiments and spices looking for the "Kosher for Passover" seal of approval. I'm the one who'll be emptying the kitchen drawers and washing them out. Scrubbing under the fridge. Behind the stove. Inside the grates. I'm the slave here and I hate you for it! We say nothing to each other. But we know. This is the week of telepathic conversations with burning bushes; remove your shoes, step carefully, don't get too close or you might get scorched. I slip quietly into the next room, out of range. She's right. It's the same every year. And again I wonder how we're going to survive the journey intact. How we're going to get all the chometz out, the yeast, the ferment. We know we're going to try again. And we know we're going to fail again. But, somehow, we also know it's a journey through the wilderness we'll survive.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Maha Choir, this Friday and Saturday

From Elvi:

Please come and help me celebrate a very good year.

Je vous invite de tout coeur de venir m'accompagner

dans la célébration d'une merveilleuse année.

Choeur Maha presents

"Vers le Vert!" TWO NIGHTS!!

April 18 AND 19At 8:00 p.m.

At: The Eastern Bloc, 7240 Clark (near Jean-Talon) $10

With special guest: Willow Rutherford

**MORE INFO: Choeur Maha, our much-loved Montreal women's choir, has been about challenging musical and social conventions. It has taken us fromexperimental sound installations to spontaneously spreading the singing anddancing groove into the audience. Directed by Kathy Kennedy.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why Are You so Sad?

Without putting too much stock in it, I was still pleased to hear that "Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems" by David W. McFadden was a finalist for this year's Griffin Prize (how many remember who won the Griffin last year? Two years ago?). I've been making my way slowly through the book since I bought it a month or two ago and I'm enjoying it. The volume covers McFadden's entire poetry career ('poetry career', oxymoron alert.) The book is lively and refreshing. Not sad at all, in spite of the title. But what struck me most about the poetry, which is varied in form and content, funny, experimental, rambling, precise, sad and joyous, is how uniformly heartfelt and accessible it is. We are firmly entrenched in the era of specialty, from the arts to the sciences, everyone is a specialist. And one thing that's always bothered me about much of today's poetry is how it seems to be the product of specialists. Too many practitioners and critics these days appear to be obsessed with the minutiae of form and content and they too often lose sight of the basic element of poetry, that it must first and foremost speak to the heart. On the few occasions I went to visit Irving Layton in his home on Monkland Avenue, I always found him sitting at his dining room table, pipe in hand, surrounded by a scattering of books. Each time I made sure to survey the titles. What was the master reading I had to know. I expected to see poetry, of course. I never did. I saw philosophy, politics, fiction, classics, but I can't remember ever seeing a book of poetry on the table. Layton frequently bemoaned the narrowness of thought and perspective that he saw developing in the young minds being produced by the universities. He felt that creative writing programs would sound the death-knell of poetry. (Layton himself was a graduate in agriculture and political science. I once told him that he had the perfect education for a poet.) Layton understood that being narrow of mind was dangerous. It was a concern he constantly railed against, the loss of our common humanity. I sense the same in McFadden's poetry. He's of that ilk, a generalist, a throwback to an earlier era, whose poetry sometimes feels like a leisurely garden stroll, alive, redolent and joyful. At other times he's on the hunt, tracking frightful beasts. He's got a range rarely seen these days.

Monday, April 7, 2008

And the national capital of poetry is...

Really nice Montreal launch of A Dream of Birds last night at the Jewish Public Library. A refreshingly eclectic program that featured unfairly forgotten rabbis, poetry, and anecdotes about sadistic Jewish dentists. Also, the screening of, according to Seymour, the first ever original animated Yiddish film in the history of cinema. It was a real bonus to see so many friends who came out Rachel Alkallay, Jeffrey Mackie, Elvi Nyveen among them. Thanks again to the JPL and in particular Roxana Brauns for organizing another successful event.

In case you missed the Gazette this past weekend, in celebration of April, the coming of spring and our national poetry month, I wrote a piece asking a handful of poets from across the country to nominate a poetry capital of Canada. Some of the responses are surprising. There's plenty of room for opinion. Your input is welcome on the blog.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Montreal launch of A Dream of Birds

Here's an announcement of our upcoming event this sunday. If you anywhere within a hundred miles of Montreal it'd be nice to see you, if not to hear me and Seymour then at least to hear Ira Robinson talk about an intriguing, little written about chapter in Montreal's Jewish history. Another bonus is that Sharon Katz's multiple-award winning animated film "Slide" will be screened. She designed our book and used bird images from the film.

The Jewish Public Library in collaboration with the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies present (More than a) book launch of
“Rabbis and Their Community” by Ira Robinson
“A Dream of Birds” – Word Sonnets by Seymour Mayne and B. Glen Rotchin
with illustrations by Sharon Katz
SUNDAY, APRIL 6, 2008 AT 7:30 P.M.

Click here to view the flyer

What the Shohtim Did in Their Spare Time
Ira Robinson, Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religion, Concordia University, who has published extensively in the area of Jewish Studies, will talk about early 20th-century Montreal’s Shohtim, men who also often displayed literary and artistic talent. Even with their inherently difficult job of slaughtering cattle for Montreal’s kosher meat industry, they had ample time to pursue other occupations and avocations, including Torah and Jewish philosophy scholarship, journalism and music. In doing so, they contributed significantly to Jewish Montreal’s intellectual atmosphere.
Introduced by Prof. Dr. Norman Ravvin, Chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.

A Dream of Birds
Seymour Mayne, author, editor or translator of more than 50 books, and B. Glen Rotchin, author of fiction and poetry, will launch their joint work of poetry that developed from their casual, back-and-forth dialogue as friends. The resulting literary collaboration came as a surprise even to them, like a flock of grounded birds suddenly exploding into flight. Its theme is birds; the reader might sense the push and pull of wing force in the cadences that cross its pages. The poems are responsive, sometimes playing off one another, at other times dueling.
The book also features a flip-book animated sequence of drawings by artist/film-maker Sharon Katz that is visible when its pages are turned. It also includes illustrations from Slide, her short animated film, which will also be screened at the launching.

Books and autographs available. Reception sponsored by the Tauben Family Foundation of the JPL.

Jewish Public Library, 5151 Côte Ste-Catherine
$5 JPL members/students, $10 non-members
Info: (514) 345-2627 ext. 3017
Reception to follow

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

April is National Poetry Month...

and spring. Here's a poem that celebrates both poetry and seasonal profusion. Read on and you will fulfil your statutory obligation to read a poem this month.


For me a poem
is worked soil
turned and watered
a thousand times over
green profusions pruned
with blunt tools
strangling weeds uprooted
dug out stones cast aside
on a growing pile
sweaty body bending
as praying bodies must
that draw closer to their source
sifting pale fingers squirming
through black earth till
my stiff spine
refuses to straighten up again.

Amid the struggle questions occur:
Does the perfect poem radiate
like a garden in bloom
multi-coloured bands expanding
outward forever?
Or does it zero in
on a single symmetrical flower
a golden bull’s-eye word
the unpronounceable Name
as succinct, precise and encompassing
as the well-aimed arrow-point
embedded in silence?
And how can a tired man
awaken from his cramped cage of bones
to yawn and stretch
at the long day before it reaches
its unheralded conclusion?

Samuel Gesser 1930-2008

I was deeply saddened to learn this morning of the death of Montreal impresario, writer, cultural-treasure Sam Gesser. That's Sam on the left recently receiving an award at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. In the last decade of his life Sam received a pile of awards for his life's achievements from the Order of Canada to recognition from the Smithsonian Institute in Washignton. The Gazette's Bill Brownstein has penned a fitting tribute to Sam which appears today on page 3 with wonderful archival pics of Sam with Nat King Cole, Nana Mouskouri and others he worked with professionally over the years like Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger.
His cultural and artistic accomplishments were many, but I'll remember Sam most as my cousin. My dad's first cousin actually, his mother Ida and my grandmother were sisters. I got to know Sam well only about ten years ago. He was a lovely, soft-spoken and generous man who took an active interest in my writing when I wasn't writing much, and would call me up every so often to encourage me, and to see how I was doing and how things were in 'the other part of town' (it was a far way from his Place des Arts office downtown to Chabanel but he made the trip for lunch more than once.) Among the many recordings Sam did for Folkways was the classic Six Montreal Poets which included Louis Dudek, FR Scott, Irving Layton, AJM Smith, a rare reading by AM Klein at McGill, and a very young and nasally Leonard Cohen in the 1950s. My favourite story about Sam was when Cohen came to see him with some of his songs (Suzanne among them.) Sam was already making a name for himself producing concerts and making records. Sam told Leonard not to quit his day job - his music would never sell, the lyrics were too complex and confusing, and besides he couldn't sing for beans. In a culturally rich life, Sam got it right most of the time. I'll miss him.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Der Rebbe Woody

There's one thing I'll say about Montreal-native Dov Charney of American Apparel fame, he's got chutzpah. Well, now he's being sued (for the umpteenth time.) By Woody Allen no less. The article wonders what possible connection there might be between American Apparel and Woody as a hasid (a frame from Annie Hall). Like all AA campaigns it has something to do with Jewish kitsch. Not too long ago there was a display of kitschy 1970s bar-mitzvah photos in the store window on the corner of Sherbrooke and Claremont. They were absolutely hilarious. Wide lapels, fat bowties, powder-blue and gold polyester suits with velvet trim, big bushy hair. Made me wistful with memories of my own fabulous Bar (1977) held at Elm-Ridge Golf and Country Club. The theme was magic (I used to do tricks as a hobby.) The legendary Montreal magician Henry Gordon performed for the guests. Hey, Woody was also a magician, I think.