Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writing poetry can be hazardous to your health, apparently

This link is provided courtesy of my friend Elvi, wife of bloggist Lawrence (101 Squadron) Nyveen. Thanks Elvi.,,2266116,00.html

That's it, I'm quitting. No, I can't. Man, this is worse than smoking. Soon they'll be withdrawal programs, literary Nicorette.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Dream of Birds takes flight

On some occasions, however, the brevity of the poems make them pithy and entertaining. in "Savoury" Rotchin declares, "I have tasted the bird; savoured both the flavour of its freedom and flesh," and in his inexplicably striking (and thus aptly titled) "Stopped in my Tracks" he proclaims, "What's truly suprising? Someone walking down the street with a bird on his shoulder." While such moments aren't entirely representative, they are refreshing and keep this light collection afloat.

We had a good Ottawa launch of our poetry book "A Dream of Birds" at the Tree Reading Series organized by Dean Steadman with the help of able host/poet Don Officer and webmaster/poet Rod Pederson. It was preceded by some vegetarian Indian fare at a somewhat cramped but nonetheless recommended restaurant next door (sorry, the name escapes me, next to the stately Royal Oak pub where the reading took place.) The audience was warm and receptive, most of them poets, as there was an open mic to begin the program. I was exhausted having worked all day before making the two hour trek to Ottawa from Montreal. Then I forsook the offer of Seymour's legendary couch to drive back after the reading. I say 'legendary couch' because he claims that some of the luminaries who'd slept on it in the past include Irving Layton and Adele Wiseman. "Maybe some of their greatness will rub off in your sleep." In the end I passed on the couch, getting home at 1 a.m. My psiatica doesn't know from Layton or Wiseman.

This morning there is the first bonafide press review of the book. That quote upstairs is about as praising as it gets. Here's the full review from the McGill Tribune online. Stay tuned for some news on the Montreal launch at the Jewish Public Library on Sunday, April 6th.

Still tinkering with this one (what else is new?) but here goes...

THE 1970s
for Sivan

My eldest daughter,
having forsaken the shovel, pail
and sandbox some years ago,
has entered the age when one skin is shed
but the other’s yet to grow in.
In our household
everything old is new again,
the 1970s have come back
in the guise of Dark Side of the Moon,
Crime of the Century
and a rock-opera by the Who;
It was the decade
when the over-sized self-consciousness
that had been growing bigger
and speeding toward me
like a Road-Runner cartoon boulder
finally caught up, rolled me flat

and overtook me.
I’d tried slipping out of sight
in puffs of dope-smoke
but that didn’t work,
and neither did telling myself
“You’re a genius” or
“This time the plan’s foolproof.”
In no time I discovered
that the laws of physics
aren’t what they’re cracked up to be,
that earthquakes can start as little pills
(if you miss the bottle’s fine print)
and there’s precious little to depend on
except falling in love
with the chase itself

and that once set in motion
things long forgotten will roll up from behind
and when you least expect it
(you will always ignore the approaching rumble)
squash you in your tracks,
leave you wheezing, your body

like a worn-out accordion,
and still, by some miracle,
you will be able to walk away.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The world's last Jew does himself in, live!

The lights go down; the movie starts. Almost before you register his face on the screen, you see his hands looming in the foreground, holding a stack of neatly aligned bullets. Their long, gleaming cylinders seem outsize, given how close they are to the camera, which provides the fixed, warped perspective you associate with a monitoring device. A logo on the right-hand side of the image confirms your impression—“MBT AutoBioCam,” it reads—while the canned musical cue of a cable network trumpets the importance of the moment: This is news, and we’re going live!

I've never been a big fan of David Cronenberg's films but he's a thoughtful, engaging interview and this piece about a (very) short film sounds interesting.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Usher in the spring with an Ottawa poetry reading

For anyone who might be within a hundred miles of the nation's capital tomorrow (Tuesday, Match 25th) I will be reading in Ottawa with my co-author Seymour Mayne at the Tree Reading Series from our book of word sonnets "A Dream of Birds" - seems a nice way to coax in the spring. You might want to take a look at this interview about the book given by Seymour while you're at it. The reading which takes place at the Royal Oak Pub starts at 8:00 p.m. with an open mic. Admission is absolutely FREE, so tell your friends and family!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Purim!

Yesterday, my wife brought home from the library this absolutely mind-blowing graphic novel version of the Megillat Esther by J.T. Waldman. This book is a genuine work of art and literature; multi-layered, multi-referenced, original, beautifully composed, visually stunning and intellectually rich, like a Judeo-Persian feast for the eyes, mind and heart.

Dip in to the Megillat Esther website to get a taste.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The perks (pricks) of higher office

"You wouldn't be doing any of this if one of the objectives was not to increase the amount of pussy that was available to you. That is what you do," Hitch says. "You don't do it to be, ah, the most approval-rated governor of New York, for fuck's sake."

I suddenly find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with Christopher Hitchens. It's hard (pun intended) not to this time. I once heard a poet (I think it was Leonard Cohen but don't quote me on this, it might have been Irving Layton) who, when asked what inspired his poetry, answered getting laid (I may be paraphrasing here.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

My all-time favourite author

His parents encouraged their children to pursue their artistic interests, to the point that when Steig’s brother Henry expressed interest in becoming a dentist, his mother discouraged him. Henry became a jazz musician, a novelist, and a jeweler instead. William was willing to study art, at least sporadically: He dropped out of City College after two years, the National Academy of Design after three years, and the Yale School of Fine Arts after five days. He dreamed of going to sea, and had papers to ship out when, in 1929, the stock market crashed, and took his parents’ savings with it. He had to go to work, making pictures.

Who's your favourite author? Some writers avoid that question like the plague, for a host of reasons. Because favourites change over time. Because it's easier to talk about books that we've loved or that have influenced us than authors. Because we don't want to look stupid: Truth be told maybe it's not Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hemingway or Bellow. Maybe it's ... William Steig. When I think about my favourite authors Steig is the name that keeps coming back. Okay maybe it's because I've read a lot over the last thirteen years and ninety percent of it has been picture books (my eldest daughter is fourteen, my youngest three). I'm re-reading (for probably the hundredth time) the entire Steig oeuvre and I am convinced more than ever that he was one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. For me, there is absolutely no doubt that the combination of drama and mordant lyricism in "The Amazing Bone" equals anything by Hemingway. "The Zabajaba Jungle" is as harrowing as "Lord of the Flies" only more subtle in existential depth. "Gorky Rises" is positively ethereal. Okay, I'm being somewhat facetious, somewhat. But I've always fantasized about writing a thesis on Steig. Read him. Drink in the simple artistry of his pictures, bask in his language, delight in his dark humour. And check out this article about the conflicted soul of the master storyteller:

Fifty things

I was once invited to a party where each guest filled out a piece of paper with a "little known" fact about themselves. The papers were collected, put into a bowl, and then each person chose one, the object being that you had to find the person who belonged to the bio-snippet you chose. It was a get-to-know-you game. The ensuing scene was intriguing. Everyone was walking around asking complete strangers personal questions. The responses to the game were also interesting. Some of the guests lied. Others went around saying how stupid the whole exercise was. But for those of us who were honest and partook with gusto it was a lot of fun. The bio-factoid I used was that I was once questioned by the Soviet KGB (it's a long story.)

Well apparently, if you're a bloggist (I prefer it to blogger), one bio-snippet is not enough. Frankly, I'm not sure I want anyone except maybe my wife (not even my kids... especially not my kids) to know fifty things about me. But here is a link to Lawrence Nyveen's fifty things you didn't know about him. Even if, like me, you knew virtually nothing about him to begin with, it's still a lot of fun. Now I feel as though we're tight as frat brothers. Reading down the fifty makes you realize how wonderfully incongruous life can be (at least Lawrence's life, anyway):

(that's his portrait from his blog, by the way.)

"A voice less heard than overheard"

This quote comes from an essay on poetics by my friend the poet, short-story writer, essayist and teacher Robyn Sarah from the online journal Drunken Boat (unfortunately there is no direct link to the essay, you'e got to click through "Poetics" then Robyn's name and then the essay titled "Poetry's Bottom Line"):

I don't normally go in for reading essays on poetics, even as I am a practitioner and occasional editor and reviewer of verse myself. Something a bit too high-minded about the term "poetics." Although as Robyn can attest from our many email exchanges, I have scratched my head about what makes a poem work or not work. It's hard to put into words - which, I suppose, is part of the mystique of poetry. Let's just say I recognize a poem when I see one: It hits me in the kischkes (put that in an essay on "poetics.") Still, I recommend Robyn's essay. It's as clear and honest as anything I've ever read on the subject.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Having talked about trespassing...

we can always tread lightly, with discretion. This one's just too juicy not to share. In my (almost) fifteen years of working the street it was a new one.

A longtime tenant of mine, a screenprinter and one of the nicest guys I've known in the game, comes to tell me he's selling his bizness and retiring. He will not be renewing his lease at termination and has someone to take the place over. Fine. I meet with the purchaser. (Technically, he's not actually buying my former tenant's bizness, only the factory, large screenprinting machines, dryers, compressors, ventilation equipment etc.) The purchaser seems like a nice enough guy. Young. Mild mannered. Makes no fuss. I'm told by my former tenant that the purchaser has already begun operating the bizness, has put the utilities (electricity and gas bills) under the new company name, and the only thing left for him is to get a new lease. I do my standard checks on the purchaser's company (supplier references, bank) and everything is clear. I draft the new lease. The purchaser comes to sign. He signs but at the meeting I'm told, "Oh, I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but I left my chequebook in the office. I'll be back tomorrow to give the security deposit and pay the first month's rent." One day passes, two, five... I call the phone numbers he left me. Out of service. The home address he provided belongs to a relative. "He doesn't live here," I'm told. The guy's vanished, without leaving a trace. I dig some more, check the public record on registered loans. As I suspected. Using the factory equipment as collateral, the guy conned the bank into giving him a quarter million dollars and, without doing a single day of bizness, the fraudster put a key to the door and walked away leaving everything. The only part of his game I couldn't quite figure out was how he got the bank loan in the first place. A lease is normally a prerequisite. According to the record, he had secured the loan two months prior to signing the new lease (and anyway, I never gave him a copy of the new lease because I was waiting for the deposit cheques.) Turns out he got a copy of the former tenant's lease and forged new dates and names to make it look like he had arranged a ten year deal with the Landlord beforehand.

One for the next novel.


Since starting this blog I've written precious little about the comings and goings of the bizness on Chabanel. It's a tough call. My professional activities, my work, how I earn my living requires a certain respect. Plainly, it would be stupid of me to write or say anything that would threaten my job and I'm wary about trespassing onto that territory. Does that mean that I can't be completely honest with my writing? Of course not. We use discretion in every aspect of our lives on a daily basis, how we speak, how we behave, even how we make art. Discretion does not equal censorship. So now there's this hoopla going on in Toronto about the principal of a Jewish day school who's shown some poor judgement by posting sexually explicit poetry on his website. My position is simple. The guy made a stupid move. There's no issue of free speech. No one is stopping the principal from posting anything he wants. The only question is whether the bad judgement he’s shown warrants dismissal from his job and that will be determined by those who have something tangibly at stake, the parents, the board of directors of the school etc. If I were sending my kids to his school would I pull them out over this? No. You make your own judgement:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Corner Borges and...wisdom

Because for an artist, and I try to be one, everything that happens is material for your work; sometimes it’s very difficult. Happiness doesn’t require anything more; it’s an end in itself. Unhappiness has to be transformed into something else; it has to be elevated to beauty. For an artist everything that happens to him has to be clay for his mold, and he must try to feel things this way, even if these gifts might be atrocities.

This recently re-discovered interview with the master was forwarded to me by my friend, the poet and scholar Seymour Mayne.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Erotic suffering and cultural change

The first ingredient is exotic, glamorous pain. We all suffer, but most suffering is not glamorous. Audiences don't want to hear about the kind of suffering they actually endure. So to a medieval peasant, sufferings like cold, vermin, beatings and plague would not have been exotic or saleable. Those people wanted stories about what they didn't have, like enough to eat or a warm palace to sleep in. They told tales of palaces that fell into the possession of plucky orphans and magic tables that always overflowed with food...

Fast-forward a few hundred years and you find us, the doughy descendants of those wretched peasants, so stuffed with food that we obsess on losing weight. Magic tables constantly filling with roasted goose are the last thing we want to hear about.
Only now do stories about cold and hunger without happy magical endings become popular, because that form of suffering is, for most of us, a nice distraction from the actual sufferings we undergo...

It's important to realize here that the "suffering" of these stories is erotic to the reader, just as the vision of a magic table always full of food was erotic to a medieval audience. And by looking at what forgers feed their gullible readers, we can see how cultures change.

I've kept my mind pretty well out of the controversy regarding books sold as memoirs that are actually pure fiction. I think part of the reason is that I see the relationship between memoir and fiction as a continuum, a sliding scale. Memoir, like memory itself is partly fictional, and fiction, contains ingredients of memory. So the question becomes where and how should the line be justifiably drawn between the two. There are no hard and fast rules. And in recent years the line has become hazier. Why else has something emerged called "creative non-fiction."

Okay, the cases in the news lately have been particularly egregious examples of falsehood, outright fraud. And I guess what I find most interesting are not questions related to safeguarding the integrity of literature or even the book industry. But rather what the trend (and it does now seem to be a trend) tells us about the path of society, cultural change. Tyee Books has an interesting perspective as quoted in the above paragraphs:

No doubt the publishers were duped by the authors. But they share part of the blame. In the rush to publish and compete in an increasingly competitive economy publishers have become lax on the editorial side to the point of negligence. It's particularly intriguing to think that writers, of all people, have become such charlatans. I don't mean to place writers on any kind of pedestal, but there has always been a certain cache and nobility to writing. What makes it so surprising is that the rewards which await the fraudster tend to be relatively negligeable. With very few exceptions, writing has never been a lucrative activity. What a writer might expect from his/her toil is a certain amount of respect. Nonetheless nowadays, with the proliferation of writing in general and a great many paper and electronic outlets available more people are writing and some are even managing to scrape together a meagre living. The point being that in today's environment, it's inevitable that with more writers and publishers and product out there, there are bound to be more charlatans, people who will push the boundaries to get an edge.

And I suspect that pushing the boundary has become easier for young people who are growing up in a culture where everything is relative, a matter of spin. The points made in the Tyee piece seem to come down to one main point: what sells. Stories of violence and "glamorous suffering" are nothing new. They've worked since the bible. What has shifted is the context; a wired society that pushes the boundaries between fact and fantasy in a thousand different ways. Young people spend a great deal of their time in a headspace that is virtual, assume multiple made-up identities and dispense with them as easily as candy wrappers.

Book publishers are going to have to be more vigilant, no doubt about that, for the sake of their own financial interest. And the silver-lining here is how quickly these frauds have been exposed, which is also endemic of the wired world, the libertarian ideal of a system that can police itself. But even more important, it shows that as a society we still care. Not so much about the integrity of literature or the nobility of the writing profession, but about what goes in to the products we are consuming, from Chinese-made toys to books.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

My first Coetzee, unbelievably. I'll be reading many more.

This is a delightful, multi-leveled, multi-layered novel that reminds me of a three tiered chess game, and gamesmanship is the operative term here.

The setting is an apartment building and actually each page is divided into three sections. The top section is occupied by the writings of Senor C, a South African born 72 year old author of some renown living in Australia, an obvious stand-in for Coetzee himself. The contents of this uppermost section is a manuscript of his "opinions" being prepared for publication in Germany, lofty thoughts on a myriad of subjects including, Harold Pinter, Australian politics, apology, probability, Zeno, the afterlife, the body, paedophilia, terrorism, the slaughter of animals, the nature of the state, compassion, avian flu, competition, Guantanamo Bay, Al Qaida, Dostoevsky, boredom, ageing, JS Bach and the list goes on.

The middle section is comprised of Senor C's more informal, intimate thoughts about a young Fillipina he meets in the apartment building's basement laundry room. More than forty years his junior, he is nevertheless smitten with Anya and decides that he will make her his "secretaria" (secret aria) by offering her the job of typing his manuscript.

The bottom section is written in Anya's voice. She is a street saavy survivor who immediately sees through the old man's ploy, and uses her sexual assets to draw him in. Her crass, oversexed, money-hungry boyfriend Alan isn't terribly pleased with the arrangement. He concocts his own plan to use Anya (who is using Senor C, who is using her in turn) to steal the dormant wealth amassed by the old man from his writing.

The narrative is a multidimensional house of mirrors. Suspicions give way to trust and vice versa. Perceptions and realities alter as positions shift. Anya's down-to-earth, heartfelt beliefs begin to 'soften' Senor C's writings as the two draw closer in a relationship of genuine mutual affection.

My favourite line comes from a section titled Insh'Allah. "Behind every paragraph the reader ought to be able to hear the music of the present joy and future grief." This masterfully crafted story resonated with me symphonically long after the last page was turned.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

It's a lovely cover. As I mentioned this book has been waiting for me for some time on the bookshelf, quietly, patiently like the cover's empty boat. I'd read so much about it since it was released in 2005, bucket fulls of praise. In the end I was disappointed. Frustrated is probably a better word.

Ishiguro gives us something that might be called SH (speculative history) a variation or subgenre of SF (speculative fiction.) Phillip Roth's "The Plot Against America" also comes to mind as recent SH in which history is re-imagined, tweaked, the facts slightly altered, and the logic then fictionally played out.

SF is generally not on my reading list, but I can see the attraction of speculating on a farflung future, stretching the tendons of reality, creating imaginary worlds with all sorts of dystopic or utopic possibilities, in order to learn something about our present. But there is also something distastefully presumptive and problematic about the conceit of toying with the past for this purpose. With history, whether or not it actually happened, matters. The fact that what takes place in "England, 1999" of this novel doesn't reflect conditions of the time and place, gives the entire exercise an air of illegitimacy. I kept scratching my head, wondering why the author simply didn't just use "England 2199." But this was not my main frustration with the book.

The conditions described in the book are of a dystopic past in which a race of clones is raised for the sole purpose of having their organs harvested (called "donating.") The narrator is Kathy who is a "carer," someone who cares for donors during their convalescence before they themselves become donors. She is caring for her close friend Tommy who has made multiple donations, reminiscing about the time they spent together at Hailsham and The Cottages where they spent their childhood and adolescence with their other close friend Ruth.

Somehow, these clones can donate three and sometimes even four times before coming to "completion" (euphemism for dying,) which begs the question, are they bred with multiple organs? It's hard to imagine how the organs are harvested, and in what order, to ensure mutliple donations. In general, the system of organ harvesting, how exactly it works, how it came into being, who was behind it and how it evolved etc. is never detailed. This omission left me questioning from beginning to end, distracting me from the main story which is about the love and friendship of the trio of clones.

The fact that the main characters are questioning too is transparently part of the author's storytelling strategy. He wants us to be part of the secrecy that surrounds the young lives of the protagonists. I frankly had a hard time buying into it. The story, which goes from memory to memory, (a lot of sections start, "I should explain here...") is a drawn out affair in which the author strings the reader along, dropping hints about the background. The reader is kept more or less in the dark until the last 50 pages of the book, when one of the "guardians" clarifies the true nature of the clones' existence and the battle waged behind the scenes to save their "souls." By then, the question of whether clones have souls, which is supposed to be a crux of the book, seemed almost moot because they are portrayed as such sensitive, intelligent and articulate young people with emotionally rich lives. Quite simply I didn't believe (or, for that matter, care) that Kathy and her cohort, who by the way are well-read and creative (all part of their upbringing), would be so dim as to not realize what was actually going on, so dumb as to not understand how they are different from the general public, so blind as to accept their tragic fate, and so lame as not to try to escape, rebel, or something.

On the other hand, maybe that is precisely why they should be considered a subhuman species, because they don't seem to have any genuine and burning desire to fight for their own survival. Each of their lives is a slow excruciating smoulder which utlimately extinguishes once a letter (from some unseen, faceless institutional master) arrives telling them that it is their turn to donate until they 'complete'.

Cuba and the three Rs: Reconnecting, Reading, Relaxing.

Back from seven days in Cuba with the family. Many pleasures were enjoyed not the least of which were much-needed megadoses of Vitamin D, much-needed time reconnecting with the wife and kids (boy, it's easy to forget how enjoyable their company can be) and almost complete disconnection from the wired world. Also, managed to read two novels. I'd had Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" on the backburner for a long time, and I'd never read anything by J.M. Coetzee so I took along his latest "Diary of a Bad Year." One was disappointing, the other a delightful surprise. In the coming days, when time allows, I'll let you know which book falls into which category. By the way, that's a shot of the actual hotel.