Saturday, August 30, 2008

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets

The sonnet, says Wikipedia:
is one of the poetic forms that can be found in lyric poetry from Europe. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song." By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history.
The "Canadian Sonnet" is, presumably, one of the forms many permutations.

Is there anything Canadian about the "Canadian Sonnet"? If there is, only a foolish reviewer would attempt to isolate it in Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells (Bibiloasis, 2008). That is to say, this is not a nationalistic collection. The editor offers no thematic synthesis -- such as suggesting that Canadian sonneteers reflect the country's deep relationship with its geography, or some such claptrap.

The editor does suggest, however, that the poets "understand the glory of Canadian identity is its prismatic variety." Canada is like a prism? You are never quite sure where the light is going, or coming from? Wells expands:
Something that strikes me, looking at the roster I've assembled, is the sheer number of immigrants and emigrants peopling this anthology -- border-crossing poets who can't be confined to the national or regional boxes we tend to put them in. This is reflected by the formal variety of the poems and it says a great deal, I think, about the portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet, a poetic form whose protean history is a (sometimes) gentle rebuke to hidebound provincialism.
I think by "hidebound provincialism" he means "the way Canadian literature has commonly been viewed."

Gentle rebuke? There is a more ferocious project underway here, I suggest. But it is humbly framed, and it is also largely left to speak on its own.

The reader is led to read these sonnets as examples of the form, not as chunks of the nation.


Two sonnets from the collection to reflect upon, picked at random:

DELIRIUM IN VERA CRUZ (by Malcolm Lowry)

Where has the tenderness gone, he asked the mirror
Of the Biltmore Hotel, cuarto 216. Alas,
Can its reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail, tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very retreat, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard by you. What error
Is here? Am I that forked rashed image?
Is this the ghost of love which you reflected?
Now with a background of tequila, stubs, dirty collars,
Sodium perborate, and a scrawled page
To the dead, telephone disconnected?
... He smashed all the glass in the room. (Bill: $50)


The sky is Reckitt's Blue of the bone
And the pavements catch,
For a redbrick house with a deershead
Porched, I watch,
It would have had big windows, curtains of ecru lace ...
And a matching African violet.
On the verandah there a lion (window-box)
Leans head and mane on the topmost pane,
(I fear to rile it.)
Moonlight falls through the trees in patches of ecru lace ...
Ah there's the house with the unicorn;
(Voodoo Man, Voodoo Man,
Won't you cure me if you can?)
The Voodoo Man said, Lift the latch.


This is as lovely and humane a collection of poetry as you are likely to find. The content is prismatic, an excellent image of the variety within.

Yes, there are nature poems, and there are poems about tides, rocks, trees, lakes and regrets. But there are poems about sex, too. I didn't see any poems about skyscrapers or the beauty of the DOS operating system or "Why I love my iPod," but one must leave room for a sequel.

I spent a couple of weeks attempting to think of something sharp and critical to say about this book. I didn't come up with anything. I confess that I have met ZW and found him keen in wit and intelligence and generous in spirit.

But if I could think of something cutting to say about Jailbreaks, I would.


Good work, Zach. This is a model of what an anthology should be.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Salon Des Refuses

The Urquhart Disaster was what Maisonneuve called it, but that was just a prelude to a double issue of Canadian Notes and Queries (#74) and The New Quarterly (#107). Even The Toronto Star (Aug. 10, 2008) took notice, and quoted your not-so-humble correspondent, me. The Star even mentioned TDR's little survey of the short story in Canada, which concluded very unscientifically that Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look On Love was the "best book of short stories in Canada since 1980."

What is the source of this discontent? The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart (2007).

What is the problem? The thick book fails to include many of the country's best short story writers.

Like who? Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, Norman Levine, Hugh Hood, Diane Shoemperlen, Heather Birrell, Sharon English. [Where was John Lavery? Greg Hollingshead? Derek McCormack? Carrie Snyder?]

The double issue of TNQ and CNQ collect 20 short story refugees and also collect critical responses to the Penguin collection, including a typically bombastic piece from Kicking Against the Pricks author, John Metcalf. Metcalf calls the Penguin anthology "something of a travesty of Canadian achievement." If such a book had been published in Ireland, there would have been "a storm of protest and derision in the literary world." In Canada, however, Metcalf despairs for "the vast Canadian silence."

Ha ha ha. Good one, John.

Metcalf's comedy was absent from the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on August 13, 2008, when the editors of TNQ and CNQ faced off with a panel of short story writers and critics to ... refute the Penguin anthology? That's what I thought was going to happen, but it didn't turn out that way.

TNQ editor Kim Jernigan began the evening by calling TNQ and CNQ the mom and pop of Canadian letters. TNQ is the mother (i.e., it's nurturing of new talent); CNQ is the dad (i.e., it is critical and curmudgeony). Rough stereotyping aside, there's something to this; although CNQ editor Dan Wells quickly jumped in, commenting that his magazine "celebrates, too."

Later in the evening Wells spoke of some of the editorial tensions between mom and pop. Wells was clearly the instigator of the joint issue; however, the soothing balm of mom Jerigan was all over the evening at the Gladstone. Vast Canadian silence? From one of the editors at the heart of the protest?

Jernigan even called Metcalf's focus on language (as performance) "a bit of an oversimplification." (Well, duh.) Jernigan made the point because she wanted to highlight the ability of good short stories to demonstrate psychological acuity, one of the many things that good stories do, as well as showcase keen use of language.

No one called Urquhart's anthology a disaster. There wasn't even much discussion of it. The panel, led by Jernigan, instead discussed short stories in general, anthologies in general, and their own writing process in general.

Without the expected fireworks, the evening was a bit of a let-down. Though it wasn't without insight.

The panel consisted of critic Stephen Beattie, writer Mike Barnes, writer Heather Birrell, writer Sharon English, writer and former academic Adrian Michael Kelly.

The conclusions included:

  • Short stories are harder to write than novels, but maybe not.
  • Richard Ford is a better anthologist than Jane Urquhart because he said he chose only the best stories, while Urquhart admitted in her introduction that she might not be the right person for the job.
  • Martin Amis said that in short stories you can't get away with cheating.
  • Carol Shields said Alice Murno's short stories don't end; they "soar off into mystery."
  • We need evaluative standards; we should only search out the best; there is no other point to reading.
  • There are two kinds of anthologies: popular and academic. Academic anthologies make money because they have a captive audience. Popular anthologies rarely have much shelf life.
  • Canadian literature is what people read in school.
  • Short stories are not a stepping stone to the novel. They are a different form.
  • Readers seems willing to accept challenging narrative strategies in film, but not in fiction. This is bad news for short story writers.
  • Short stories may be more true to life than novels, because they are episodic. In life, moments bump up against each other, as they do in stories but not in novels so much.
  • How come Canadians don't value their genre writers as much as their literary writers?
  • Readers have perhaps forgotten the joys of the story story, because short stories tend to remind us of life's ambiguities, and Oprah has grown rich selling the belief that all problems can be solved.
  • Short stories don't provide a quick fix, and this frightens people. This is bad news for short story writers.

Jane Urquhart, however, doesn't frighten people.

The Penguin anthology delivered (an odd, reactionary, themed collection), the country yawned; John Metcalf sighed.


Late addition: The editors of TNQ and CNQ should be congratulated for their combined issue. It is a collectors' item for sure. There is much for general and specialist readers to savour in the two magazines. Far more than many lit mags collect in their lifetimes. I realized that I hadn't said that earlier and wanted to say: Strong work. Thanks.

At the same time, it's imporant (I think) that the argument not become hyperbolic ("disaster") or personal ("Urquhart"). There is plenty of meat in the aesthetic debate. This is, I believe, where even Metcalf would like to hear the noise. It's appropriate. It's welcome.


Update: CBC Radio discusses the Salon Des Refuses (podcast) with Adrian Michael Kelly: Aug 20, 2008

Two related links:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Charles Foran

Join the Revolution, Comrade! This isn't quite what Charles Foran requests in Join the Revolution, Comrade: Journeys and Essays (Biblioasis, 2008). For one, note the lack of an exclamation mark. For another, note the deflating subtitle. Journeying is what this book is about, not insistence on the still point of revolutionary certainty. The book takes the reader on a warm, calm, reassuring meandering with a lively literary mind, though subjects as various as contemporary China, southern Ontario English-language usage, and "Adventures in Waynejohnstonland."

Unlike his Biblioasis stable mate, Stephen Henighan, Foran has not written a polemic. Like Henighan, Foran has a global view of the world, has spent a significant portion of his life abroad, and puts pressure on Canlit to report on more than well worn themes and suicide in the snow. While Henighan is often more interesting (he's more prepared to say the shocking thing), Foran is more persuasive (or at least less likely to provoke the reader to write "BS" in the margin).

At one point (page 109), Foran describes the protagonists of two of his novels as "feckless Canadian(s)." One could describe the narrator of his nonfiction as feckless also; however, it's just a ruse, isn't it? Just a Canadian rhetorical strategy? Not to be too self-aware. Too proud. Too keen. Or perhaps it's just a southern Ontario thing?

"Dumb as a sack of hammers," is the title of Foran's memoir about a southern Ontario childhood that doubles as a lament of the plain-mindedness of Upper Canadians. The essay begins by recounting a conversation Foran had with an Irish journalist in Toronto about Roddy Doyle's lively use of language in the Barrytown Trilogy. Why are Canadians such language bores? Maybe it's really only an Ontario thing? Why don't we say things like: "Don't go all Don Cherry on me"?

Good question.

Here's my primary criticism of the book. It's divided into three sections. I found the first section kind of dull. I would have made the second section the first section. The opening section contains six essays about China, the author's experience in Asia, memories about 9/11 and the Tiananamen Square massacre period and movies about Vietnam. None of these subjects is dull, but I guess I just found the tone of these pieces too reflective. Or at least too reflective for the beginning of the book. I found myself hoping the pace would pick up. Thankfully, it did.

The biggest value of the book is Foran's evident intelligence. Here's a passage that brings together Milan Kundera, Don Quixote, Douglas Glover and reflections on common weaknesses of literary criticism:

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera believes the legacy of Don Quixote has been denigrated by an adherence to the "imperative of verisimilitude" in the novel. He lays the blame on our fixation with realistic settings and chronological order. Douglas Glover qualifies Kundera by suggesting that literary realism is a technique which becomes problematic only when "someone tries to turn it into a definition." Glover admits, however, that this is precisely what "unthinking writers and journalist-critics" have done. Psychological realism, with its emphasis on credible plots and believable characters, is a major tradition in western literature. But it isn't the only one.

I found Foran review of Tariq Ali's novels of particular interest: "History in the quintent isn't a force above and beyond human agency. Civilizations don't clash; only individuals do, and they can always resolve otherwise."

This almost sounds like a southern Ontario insight. We can all work it out, can't we?

The review of Tariq Ali's work is in the third section of the book, which includes a review of Noah Richler's Literary Atlas of Canada, Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons and "American Fiction in the New Millennium." In these reviews, Foran shows his literary sense, his critical intelligence, his knowledge of historical and geographic contexts. In short, he is a more-than-able reviewer. I enjoyed these pieces most of all, and felt richer for reading them.

I would suggest that this is the revolution Foran would like us to join. Please become keen, reflective, intelligent readers and interpreters. It makes the journey so much more interesting. For everyone.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Lynn Coady

It's 10 years now since Lynn Coady's debut novel burst into the Canadian literary spotlight. Its power and originality have not dimmed.

Like the Douglas Glover biography I previously posted, the below biography was written on assignment.


Lynn Coady, writer (b. 1970, Cape Breton). Adopted into a large hockey-driven family, Coady spent most of her childhood in Port Hawkesbury, an industrial town of 4,000 located on the southwestern end of Cape Breton Island. Coady nurtured early artistic aspirations and struggled with disapproval of her ambitions.

She told the online magazine Bookmunch her early life didn’t encourage artistic development: "To aspire to [the writing life] is considered preposterous and bigheaded, and you are tacitly told that people like you ‘don’t do that sort of thing.’"

In her novels and short stories, Coady has drawn on her the environment of her childhood, including themes of economic hardship, literary ambition and teenaged pregnancy. Pregnant at 18, she gave up the baby for adoption. "Being a pregnant teen … awakened in me a number of philosophical questions about what it is to be female. It also made me see a lot of hypocrisy in society," she told Quill and Quire. In an author profile for Random House she said her pregnancy "set me off on the philosophical course that I eventually went down. It blew society wide open for me."

Coady moved to Ottawa in 1988 to pursue journalism at Carleton University, before switching her studies to English and Philosophy. She soon dedicated herself to creative writing while working odd jobs, such as day-care worker and nanny. She moved to Vancouver in the mid-1990s and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of British Columbia while working on her first novel, STRANGE HEAVEN.

The novel would trust her into the Canadian literary spotlight, receiving a nomination for the 1998 Governor General’s Award and wide praise. A review in January Magazine is representative: "Fresh and raw and utterly unselfconscious. A book so entirely without guile and so completely of the earth, it’s impossible to read it and wonder if the author isn’t beating a whole new path."

One of the more memorable characters in Canadian literature, the novel’s protagonist, Briget Murphy, is 18. She has recently given up a baby for adoption. The first half of the novel finds her in the psychiatric ward of the children’s hospital amongst disturbed peers. The second half finds her at home for Christmas amongst her disturbed family. Like all of Coady’s work, the novel treats its characters with compassion and abounds with humour.

Coady has listed Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Dostoevsky and David Adams Richards among her influences. Her work is notable for its treatment of the absurd, absence of sex, depictions of alcohol consumption and what one critic called "the abject and the taboo." An excellent ear for the vocal patterns of Maritime English is another common characteristic of her work, providing it with a strong sense of place and vivid characters.

Her protagonists have tended to be youth on the cusp of adulthood, negotiating what it means to enter the adult world. Like other satirists, Coady depicts the world as unstable and rife with hypocrisies and contradictions.

The author of three novels and a short story collection, she has also written four plays, though these are not considered her major work. To date, her work has aligned with a tradition of literary realism typified by Maritime authors such as David Adams Richards, Ernest Buckler, and Alistar MacLeod.

She has edited anthologies, taught creative writing, and served as the guest editor of Adbusters Magazine. She has also written journalism for many publications and wrote a regular column for The Globe and Mail. Her awards include the Canadian Authors Association/Air Canada Award for best writer under 30, as well as the Canada Council for the Arts’ Victor Martyn Lynch-Straunton Award for artists in mid-career, among others.