Monday, November 09, 2009

"Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

-- Flannery O'Connor

Friday, October 30, 2009

A few thoughts about lyric poetry

A Few Thoughts about Lyric Poetry

Originally, the lyric was thought of as a song; even today, we call the words that accompany music “lyrics.” Traditionally it was opposed to narrative and dramatic forms of poetry because originally all literature was written in the formal metre we call verse. But these days narrative and drama are written in prose, not verse, so when people talk about poetry they are usually referring only to the lyric, and thinking of the interiorized first-person meditation, usually rather short, that we associate with the Romantics and Moderns: the kind of poem Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

Such poetry gives the illusion of privacy: it is usually not directed towards a particular audience but seems to be overheard rather than heard. This stance tends to limit the subject matter to the personal realm; moreover the brevity of the form tends to keep the focus on a single thought, feeling, or situation. It also creates the illusion of spontaneity, thereby allowing the reader to experience the material of the poem as it unfolds in the speakers mind.

“Unlike the drama, whose province is conflict, and unlike the novel or narrative, which connects isolated moments of time to create a story multiply peopled and framed by a social context, the lyric voice speaks out of a single moment in time. ”
- Sharon Cameron, Lyric Time.

This singleness also extends to voice: whereas in narrative and drama we have a clash of different voices as embodied in several different characters, in the lyric poem conflict and contradiction are situated in the mind of a single speaker as internal tensions or ambiguities. The lyric becomes “dramatic” when it presents a struggle between conflicting points of view either within the speaker, or between the poet (implied narrator) and his or her lyric persona.

The lyric provides the occasion to create unified objects of textual beauty and precision far beyond what is possible in longer art forms: every sound, rhythm, and meaning, the pausing and pacing and emphasis, can all work together to create a persuasive experience with nothing extra, nothing out of place, nothing sloppy. On the other hand such intensity limits the range of the lyric; its focus on the “I” (and just as frequently, the “eye”) can seem stifling, leaving out so much that is messy, complex and unresolved, contradictory and vague, in life. One of the reasons there is constant experimentation in poetry is that poets are always seeking ways to solve this dilemma, keeping the aesthetic control and tonal intimacy of poetry without sacrificing the amplitude available in some of the longer art forms.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I am the guest columnist at ARC this month

with a little piece about a Yehuda Amichai poem that I hope you'll like. Read it at:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

I should have known that any superhero I composed would end up sounding like a yoga asana

I went to this website called selected all the traits suitable for my own personal superhero and came up with this dame who they called "Impenetrable Butterfly." Hot Damn! Perhaps after a summer of unlimited Pilates classes, I may resemble her more than I do at the moment...

Friday, May 29, 2009

Why I should consider getting a BEAR instead of a dog

The trained behaviours of Bart the Bear II, as per his online resume.(stolen from Dani Couture's Facebook notes)

"Trained Behaviors:

1. Goes to mark
2. Goes from mark A to mark B, either slow, walking or running
3. Stays on mark or wherever he is asked to be
4. Backs up
5. Looks in a riveted manner in any direction
6. “Roars” - opens mouth wide and shows all teeth and fangs
7. Stands on back legs
8. Walks on back legs
9. Comes into camera from mark - slowly, walking or running
10. “Blows” - snorts through nose
11. Strikes with front paw
12. Charges in to camera
13. Lowers head and looks in menacing way
14. Sits
15. Begs up
16. Waves “bye-bye”
17. Lays down
18. Lays down with head on ground as if asleep or dead
19. Rolls over on back
20. Gets to all fours on command
21. Limps - walks with one front leg held off the ground
22. Fetches most anything - fake fish, stuffed rabbits or life-sized actor dummy doubles
23. "Lifts” - holds object with front paws while sitting
24. “Holds” - lays on back and holds and bounces objects with all four paws
25. “Flipper” - flips any object in front of him such as fake fish or soccer ball, etc.
26. Shakes head back and forth
27. Pushes trees, cars, tents, cabin doors, etc
28. “Happy Bear” - jumps from front feet to back feet
29. Dives on cue, does a running dive into river or pond
30. “Yoga” - holds back toes with front claws
31. Great “attack” behaviors, running hits, mauling, wrestling, full contact, with instant “off” command
32. Trained to come and be leashed on command and goes back into his trailer on command
33. No wasted time on set
34. Does a routine of multiple behaviors in a fluid sequence, for example: Come, Hit Mark, Look, Stand Up, Roar, Turn Head to Left, Exit Frame Right, all in one take"

Sunday, May 24, 2009



A column I did for Canadian Literature


It was what I'd been waiting for almost forever, when the letters
danced together to make sounds, the sounds I heard in my head, or
anyone's. When I first realized I was doing it I thought I was
cheating, borrowing the "ook" from "book" to make "took" and
"look," like copying someone else's tree in my drawing instead of
making up my own: central pillar, three branches, a pillowy
crown, five apples. Shouldn't each word have its own special, its
own personal letters? But there could never be enough letters,
enough angles and curves and loopy loops, to make all the words I
knew and those I didn't know yet but would. And so I learned the
economy of language, to borrow and copy and make do, remaking
meaning. Someone else's tree in my drawing, curly smoke from the
chimney, two windows, tulips all around. "Look" what I "took"
from the "book!"

"Reading" originally appeared in Canadian Literature #121, "What the Archives Reveal"

Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?

It seems to me that from the first moment I heard poetry, before I could even read, it entranced me. In those early days my fascination was more with the sounds and rhythms of words than their meanings, and I continued making up rhyming poems for many years after I learned to read.

I think I only started writing poems that didn't rhyme once I was in high school, once my experience of language became more grounded in text than in the speaking and singing voice. The first poet who made me think that maybe I could pursue poetry seriously was Leonard Cohen; I bought The Spice Box of Earth at a book fair in my school gymnasium when I was in grade ten and it took the top of my head off.

How/where do you find inspiration today?

I used to find inspiration in books, then in landscapes and lovers. Now it's just everywhere. I don't even think of it as something as exalted as "inspiration"-- it's more humbly "material." Every single thing I experience can pass through poetry.

Poetry is like Lyra's alethiometer in The Golden Compass. By writing it I come to know the world.

What is your writing process?

I try to make time to write every day, even if all I can muster up is the energy to edit stuff I wrote the day before. I usually need to spend about an hour warming up at my desk by reading my email, paying bills, just getting my butt firmly fixed in the chair. Then once I get going I find it really hard to stop. Sometimes I'll even get up in the middle of the night to keep working.
What is your revision/editing process?

With prose, I edit fanatically, constantly, incessantly, as I go. Each day I go over the previous days work and edit it, adding and deleting, adding and deleting, and eventually moving forward. With poetry, there tends to be a lot more deleting and revising than adding as I refine exactly what it is that needs to be said. Sometimes if I'm lucky, with a shortish lyric, I get the first draft the first day and then just fiddle with it for ages. With a long poem it may take months.

What inspired "Reading"?

I can't remember.

What poetic techniques did you use in "Reading"?

It's a prose poem, which means it dispenses with the white spaces between lines that make poetry slow down and give emphasis to certain syntactical units and instead relies on ordinary devices, primarily punctuation but also sentence structure, to control the pace. But I still use a lot of "poetic" devices, primarily repetition and rhyme, to give it the density we associate with the lyric.

Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?

I use memory. That's a damn fine resource! Except when you can't remember things (see above).

When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?

Read lots, write lots. Learn your craft. Think about how you learn to play an instrument, or a sport—practice is everything. That means you MUST revise. Don't assume that your first draft is the best you can do!!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I'm following my bliss

Sorry folks,

I know you are waiting breathlessly each morning for my blog but I've just been too darn busy DOING THINGS to write. Spent ten days in England, some of it on the magical coast of Cornwall, and came home obsessed with gardening. So that's where you'll find me, most days, getting down and dirty.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Stephen Heighton. When I told him how much I loved the poem he published in The Walrus, "Some Other Just Ones," he replied, with some bemusement, that he'd had exceptional feedback from that poem and wondered why he didn't write more happy stuff. I said that happiness is not conducive to sitting alone in a room, scribbling; it wants to get outside and dance.

So bye, y'all.

Much more interesting article than anything I could write at the moment

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review of Bernadette and the Lunch Bunch from the School Library Journal

Gr 2-4–

Bernadette Inez O’Brian Schwartz is about to start third grade, and without her best friend, who moved away, it’s going to be “the worst year ever.” This curious girl is an engaging and quirky character who loves to ask “Why?” and investigate the world around her through science. Bernadette is seeing a lot of changes in her life this year, in addition to the loss of Jasmine, and she doesn’t like it. One of the big changes is that she has to eat lunch at school every day. This is a most terrifying prospect without a best friend, but after a few weeks she becomes friends with Annie, Keisha, and Megan and they team up to form the “Lunch Bunch.” Written with light humor throughout, the story unfolds nicely to share many of the challenges Bernadette faces, such as not having a talent to showcase in the talent show and not being able to enter the science fair. Bernadette is good at developing “strategies” to figure out how to deal with different situations, and, with the help of her friends, she always comes out on top. A few black-and-white illustrations are scattered throughout. This is a fun read with accessible language and appeal for early chapter-book readers.

–Bethany A. Lafferty, Henderson District Public Libraries, NV
© School Library Journal 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chicken poetry reading

New review of The Violin Lover

I was totally thrilled to get a good review of The Violin Lover from an expert on violin music! She says, "The Violin Lover is a beautifully written novel, one that fans of violin music, as well as readers of serious literary fiction, will particularly appreciate."

If you're interested, you can read the rest of the review at

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

dark night of the soul

"Fun" site

Poet Michael Lista sent this to Bookninja; I just had to post it here!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fiction and Memoir: a few thoughts


Memoir combines the aesthetic challenge of fiction with the obligation to be as truthful as possible. It is true that memoir is understood to be a subjective recreation of events in the author's life — there is some latitude because it is only one person’s truth, not “the” truth. But that doesn’t mean you can flagrantly distort or exaggerate for effect. If the only way to get at the emotional truth you feel is to make things up, then you need to write fiction, not memoir. Otherwise you are betraying the reader, who trusts you.

How is making things up a betrayal of the reader? Because in fiction, the author and the narrator are understood to be different people, while in memoir they purport to be the same person, someone who is saying: “Pay attention. This really happened to me.” You’ve asked the reader to trust you, and this is a privilege not to be abused. To justify this trust, your focus needs to be on making your story worth the reader’s while, which means it must be reliable. Veracity is a necessary condition for any document that claims to be a memoir.

But although veracity is necessary, it is not sufficient. A memoir is not a private document like a journal; it is not therapy. The mere fact that something happened doesn’t make it worth reading about. You must find the heart of your story and work back and forth from that, choosing to represent only those events that illuminate that centre. We don’t need to know everything you know; we just need to know the really important things. If the art of fiction is knowing how much to put in, the art of memoir is knowing how much to leave out!

In other words, even memoir needs a plot! What is a plot? Not mere narrative sequence — this happened and then this and then that — but the interconnection and relationship of events through cause and effect. Ultimately, a good memoir must contain the same elements you find in good fiction: setting, description, dialogue, and character. You need to build scenes and provide lots of imagery; it’s not enough to talk about feelings. The more you make us see the more we will believe.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

If I can't have that writing studio in the woods you can buy me this instead...

or this!!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

it's minus 25 outside and I'm drawing cartoons...

why I need a bigger office or a secretary or something...

I thought I was pretty organized, frankly. Most people think of me that way, but apparently all of us were wrong. Because recently, when an artist I met wanted to see an alphabetical bestiary I wrote several years and two computers ago, I couldn't find the damn thing. Somehow, I managed to leave it behind when transferring files from desktop to desktop to laptop, perhaps discouraged by too frequent rejections.

Eventually I found a print-out in one of many bankers' boxes that are scattered across my office like foundation stones for the library of my dreams. But it was a close call.

You know you are getting old when you start thinking about all the work you've lost, misplaced, or abandoned over the years! But my friend Robert Priest has the right attitude: when I remarked that I now had as many unpublished books as published ones, he quipped, "I have as many unwritten books as written ones."