Monday, January 31, 2011

Vintage Footage: Looney Tunes

Because January always has that extra day I forget about, and the Egypt events were so moving, and the Egyptians such an impressive people, patient, dignified, proud, inspiring with their human chains in the face of guns and tanks and looting and American foreign policy (a fact that continues to stun, amaze and undermine everything good about the west), even so the coverage yesterday began to feel scripted, a little too oriented toward a certain, inevitable outcome that has both exciting and slightly terrifying implications for the region, though probably I shouldn't say that because it's really none of our business, and we know nothing but what we've been shown, so we can only watch and hope things turn out for the people, and all people, that is, and because it's all so sublime, as it is when people speak en masse, and messy as it is when people speak en masse, I wanted to start the week with a little Looney Tunes just so we can actually believe we understand something, and with that, enjoy a little wash of vintage colour, and cool.

Have a great week all.

Via boingboing a 1957 Looney Tunes jazz version of the Three Little Pigs

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Weekend Read: Aram Saroyan


I went all across the country 
A sense of humor 
The size of farm animals. 

or from Third Floor Voices/ Fall 1965/ New York

the radiator, the radio louder

The above poems are excerpted from PAGES, a beautiful collection of minimalist poems by Aram Saroyan available on ubu. I am assuming that most, or many Canadian poets, and most younger poets haven't heard of Saroyan. He's a name that kept popping up, but I confess to not having read much of his work myself until stumbling across him on UBU.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Michael Turner: What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing

My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.  The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel Herb and me I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, then.  But but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Mel Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

Above is the opening paragraph of a story by Raymond Carver entitled “Beginners”, renamed “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by the man responsible for the bold type, the cross-outs and the pilcrows, the writer Gordon Lish. Lish’s editing of Carver is one of the great stories of modern literature. But is it editing? And if not editing, what then?


Why not.

After years of trying, Carver’s widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, has succeeded in having Knopf re-publish Carver’s stories in their “original” form. Put another way, Gallagher has removed Lish’s unattributed co-authorship without regard for Lish. Are these stories “better”, or are they merely closer to Carver’s intentions, the “authentic” Carver as it were?

Personally I am happy to have both, rather than one or the other, or neither (see below):

The Widow Gallagher My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was complaining talking. The Widow was complaining, and that gave her Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.  The four of us were sitting around Ray’s galleys his kitchen table drinking gin. It was a Monday afternoon It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the office kitchen from the big window behind the photocopier sink. There were the Widow Mel Herb and me I and her lawyer his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Ray my wife, for promotional purposes Laura. We were at Knopf’s New York office lived in Albuquerque, then.  But but we were all in this together from somewhere else. There was a contract an ice bucket on the table. The pen gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we returned to somehow got on the subject of editing love. The Widow Gallagher Mel Herb thought editing real love was nothing less than meanness, or in Ray’s case, aesthetic imperialism at the hands of Gordon Lish spiritual love. She He said When he was young she’d spent five years reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead before having the courage to contact Knopf and demand that Ray’s stories be republished in their original form in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. She He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said she still didn’t like how Ray looked in cardboard, and couldn’t we do more to bring out his eyes still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

Michael Turner is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction, criticism and song. He tends a blog of his own. If you're still curious you can find more about him here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vintage Footage: Norman Mailer & Marshall McLuhan

Fabulous aesthetics to this piece, from the style of the introduction to the camera work to the actual texture of the discourse. Is it my imagination or is there, quite literally, more space between the words here? Look at the way Mailer takes time think before he hurls one of his "over the top" epithets at McLuhan, whom he describes as over the top, apocalyptic, etc. and then the hilariously condescending, Oh, McLuhan offers as if patting Mailer on the head...
And in terms of the basic notion of violence being a quest for identity? Intense subtext for the social network. Love this line, "it doesn't matter whether you call something war or peace unless you pay attention to what's going on..." Mailer seems to be thinking, but he also seems unable to take these very clear statements in. In other words, it doesn't matter what McLuhan says unless you are willing to pay attention...

Also, an illuminating moment of comparison between a mind that wants an evaluative form of criticism versus one who wants only to try and full see and understand what he's looking at. Are they both attempting to fit what they see into the reality they want to argue for? Is that what we do when we engage in a kind of evaluation? Listen to the list of either/or at the end.

Or, to be is a violence, or value judgements are a sign of profound alienation.

We'll be hearing a lot about McLuhan. Looking forward to it all. Here's a great site by the way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Silver Car Sessions, Episode 6

Ever-charitable, always-gracious Canadian writer Margaret Atwood talks to us while simultaneously talking to Bill Moyers.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Blackout, Revisited | Enpipe Line, Enacted

The current issue of Vancouver lit magazine Subterrain has published essays by writers Elizabeth Bachinsky and Alex Leslie on their BLACKOUT AT THE CANDAHAR project, an erasure-as-intervention experimental poetry response to the Vancouver Olympics on which I posted last February. The poems, created by visitors to the bar during the 14 day Olympic occupation, were unable to be printed in Subterrain due to "copyright concerns," however Alex has posted a sampling, of which the above is borrowed, on her blog.

January feels like a blackout.

But I'm kept upright by the political energy and activism of the poets around me, like Christine Leclerc and her Enpipeline Project, a 1,173km poem involv­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion from poets and writ­ers around the world. There is a thoughtful interview with Christine about the project by Daniel Zomparelli over on his Geist blog.

(Disclosure: The writers I reference in this post are all people I consider friends, as well as colleagues. And for this I consider myself fortunate.)

Nikki Reimer lives in East Van, works in New West, wrote a book called [sic], might be suffering from SAD. But she soldiers on.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Weekend Read: The Device

Fragment of Lisa Robertson The Device by Benjamin Spencer

I left Lisa Robertson's December reading at the Atwater in Montreal feeling conflicted. At first listen, her work seemed tight, complex - even cold. I felt academically ill-equipped to thoroughly unpack it, yet remained uncomfortably drawn to its syntactical elegance and its deft weaving of lexicons. She did not provide a flashy or terribly expressive reading, adding a thick veneer to texts that I already found barely permeable.

I needed more from the reading; I felt the urge to disembody that voice, and to relocate it. I decided to tinker with something that she'd written. This process was enabled by the highly referential and intertextual character of her work, which thus provided multiple access points for adaptation and re purposing. The result is this sound poem, which incorporates material from Lisa Robertson's piece, 'The Device', comprising its partial performance by a digital text-to-speech generator amid a post-industrial dream-scape.

As the sonic and literary elements of the sound-scape coalesced, I began to recognize a distinct charm and humanity in the poem - something I'd overlooked in my pro-active, academic first-response. There is a dream of 'being' that permeates this and other texts by Robertson. That dream is described by the mechanics of phonetic play, by the narrator's clear and honest fallibility, and by the broken dialogue between referee and reference. Above all, my further readings admitted a strong and endearing undercurrent of irony. These are the aspects that I wished to represent and comment on, here.

In order to better understand any object or text, our first impulse is often to take it apart. This, conversely, was a project of reconstruction - one which ultimately led me to a deeper appreciation of a writer's work.
A songwriter and a poet, Ben Spencer relocated to Montreal from Edmonton in 2007 in search of higher taxes and poorly-paved roads. He is currently studying Communications and Creative Writing at Concordia University.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Michael Turner: River Deep, Mountain High

In my last post I spoke of curation in relation to other disciplines. Something I did not address was the word’s recent entry into the lexicon, a point taken up by Jeet Heer in a newspaper article filed around the same time I submitted my post. Missing in Heer’s piece, however, was a discussion of the word’s potential in the consolidation of ideas common to all disciplines, an interdisciplinarity brought on as much by the emergence of new technologies as a reconfiguration of those earlier forms we are told we can live without.

For this post I would like to take up one of the equivalencies mentioned in the last post: music production. In the last post I used the example of record producers and their role in shaping the music that comes to us “on” the radio, the television and the web. Although the record label’s traditional curatorial job title was “A&R” (Artists and Repertoire), it was the record producer, particularly those operating at the level of George Martin and Phil Spector, who worked closest to the recording artists’ sound, but also their compositions.

One of my favorite stories of the producer-recording artist relationship involves Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner and the song “River Deep -- Mountain High”, written by Trio Music songwriters Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and, because he believes recording is its own form of writing, Spector.

According to legend, Spector wanted Tina to sing the track but did not want Ike in the studio, owing to the latter’s “controlling attitude” (Pot, meet Kettle). With a budget of $22,000 ($20,000 of which was paid to Ike to stay away), along with 21 session musicians and 21 background singers, the single “River Deep – Mountain High” was released in the spring of 1966, where it was popular everywhere but in the United States.

Crushed by the song’s (initial) failure to crack the U.S. Top Ten, Spector withdrew from the music business and began to display the behaviours he has become known for today. Ike, for his part, loathed the Spector version, thinking it “pop or white,” and, with Tina, re-recorded the song, replacing the climbing vocal arpeggio that opens the track with a slack tide, out-of-the-gun melody line. Is Ike’s version “better”, more politic? Does Spector’s version (what he calls his “Wagnerian approach to rock n’ roll”) achieve the level of (high) art? Which version, if any, would you want on your portable media player?

Phil Spector version:

Ike Turner version:

Michael Turner is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction, criticism and song. He tends a blog of his own. If you're still curious you can find more about him here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

North of Invention

A Conversation with Sarah Dowling

Michael Nardone:
Sarah, you've arranged a great group of poets to come down to Philly and New York for North of Invention, a mixture of readings, performances and discussions on poetics. Can you talk about your curation: why these poets? where are there points of correspondence or affinity between them? where are there moments of these poets individually charting out new spaces for practice?

Sarah Dowling:
Our initial idea in planning North of Invention was to feature poets who had not read in the U.S. ever — or at least not ever in the past five years, or at least not on the East Coast in the past five years. As you can imagine, this evolved somewhat as the planning went on. Charles Bernstein, Stephen Motika and I all had particular folks in mind when we set that curatorial constraint, and I'm pleased to say that many from our initial imaginary cohort are indeed featured in the festival. However, we had to balance this ideal with the need to attract an audience, and therefore to have some figures more recognizable to U.S. audiences on our roster. We also wanted to have a good balance of emerging and established writers, writers from across Canada, and writers representing various social and aesthetic contingencies. In the end, some of the poets we had initially wanted to feature also had to withdraw their participation for personal reasons or because conflicts arose in their schedules, so to a large extent the selection of poets depended on chance: who was available in cold, dark January.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on the difference between poetry and song

From Patti Smith in American Songwriter:
Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
When I read "songs are for the people" and "poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit" I feel like puking. But she goes on:
We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses. When Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it to speak out. To make a move, to wake people up. I think rock and roll, as our cultural voice, took that energy and made it even more accessible.

When I’m sitting down to write a poem, I’m not thinking of anyone. I’m not thinking about how it will be received. I’m not thinking it will make people happy or it will inspire them. I’m in a whole other world. A world of complete solitude. But when I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
Poetry for the people. I'm not sure why that conjures about issues of accessibility and/or direct address but I guess we're back to that. I'm wondering why "thinking of the people" necessarily means thinking either how it will make them happy, or inspire them. Does thinking of the people happen in rhyming couplets? If poetry is having a complex thought should she hide that away only for other poets, or translate into "people" speak?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Silver Car Sessions, Episode 5

Prince George poet Rob Budde chats about culturally modified trees and the poetics of bark and pine sap.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The most intelligent speech she'll ever give


Found Object du Jour

fr Willie Master's Lonesome Wife (via Brooklyn Rail)

An Interview with William Gass (via Alive).

In another life, you’d be:
There isn’t any other life, but I’m sure if there were, I would be a surprise to myself.

What is your current obsession?
You can’t have a current obsession. If it hasn’t been around for years it isn’t an obsession.

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What do you want to do before you die?
It’s always for me to finish my current books but there are always more coming along.

Personal hero:
If you find that your hero doesn’t have clay feet, then they’ll have clay elbows. I don’t have a personal hero, but I find heroic qualities in women like Gertrude Stein.

If you could have a conversation with your younger self, what would you say?
Get older. Youth is wasted on the young.

Read the rest here.

Posting this today because none of my Canadian students have ever heard of William Gass. Amazing, but I guess not so amazing given that they've not heard of many writers...and one cannot keep up with the number of any case. I was talking about In The Heart of The Heart of The Country which I now cannot find to offer up a little excerpt from so the above excerpt will have to do for the moment.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Weekend Read: Sherman Alexie

The Exaggeration of Despair

I open the door

(this Indian girl writes that her brother tried to hang himself
with a belt just two weeks after her other brother did hang himself

and this Indian man tells us that back in boarding school,
five priests took him into a back room and raped him repeatedly

and this homeless Indian woman begs for quarters, and when I ask
her about her tribe, she says she's horny and bends over in front of me

and this homeless Indian man is the uncle of an Indian man
who writes for a large metropolitan newspaper, and so now I know them both

and this Indian child cries when he sits to eat at our table
because he had never known his own family to sit at the same table

and this Indian woman was born to an Indian woman
who sold her for a six-pack and a carton of cigarettes

and this Indian poet shivers beneath the freeway
and begs for enough quarters to buy pencil and paper

and this fancydancer passes out at the powwow
and wakes up naked, with no memory of the evening, all of his regalia gone)

I open the door

(and this is my sister, who waits years for a dead eagle from the Park Service, receives it
and stores it with our cousins, who then tell her it has disappeared

though the feathers reappear in the regalia of another cousin
who is dancing for the very first time

and this is my father, whose own father died on Okinawa, shot
by a Japanese soldier who must have looked so much like him

and this is my father, whose mother died of tuberculosis
not long after he was born, and so my father must hear coughing ghosts

and this is my grandmother who saw, before the white men came,
three ravens with white necks, and knew our God was going to change)

I open the door
and invite the wind inside.

The Summer of Black Widows

I can no longer remember the book that I originally read this poem in. A Beacon anthology published by Beacon and edited by Edwidge Danticat? But it might actually have been in one of the Best American Poetry anthologies back when I used to look at them. In any case, it floored me. It still does. It reminds me a bit of that deadly story by Dorothy Allison called "River of Names". The story is a litany of trauma  when, as the narrator tries to deal with intimacy in her current relationship, she moves past through her childhood noting all of ways in which the children around her came to their deaths. She mistrusts simplicity. Goodness.

I'm not sure where I first encountered the Allison story, whether it was before or after Bastard Out of Carolina, for instance, but I taught it once, years ago, when I made the mistake of using Tobias Wolff's Vintage Book of Contemporary American Fiction in a workshop. Contributors include most of usual the heavy-hitters such as Mary Gaitskill, Tim O'Brien, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, Jamaica Kincaid, Leonard Michaels, Jayne Anne Phillips, Dorothy Allison, and Richard Ford. It's an impressive collection. It's also depressing as hell taken as a whole. Both in terms of the content and in the conventional storytelling. Don't get me wrong: I love many (most actually), of these stories, and certainly think they are all worthy of being included in such a project, but as a whole, it's just depressing. Most of the stories are quite literally depressing. Story after story in which there is little to be joyful about. Not a lot of humour either. Some, not a lot. And though Wolff suggests there are divergent approaches, I think those differences are like the different pots at the Mr. Mike's salad bar. Different contents but you're still at Mr. Mikes, or Denny's, or whatever... You're still faced with the same little shivering display case.

But back to the Alexie poem, which as poems go, is quite a conventional one. It's a direct address, simply framed, one that like Allison's story, offers up suffering, apparently the poet and his people's suffering, for the readers consumption. The speaker stands at the door, and inviting the reader in,  offers an unwavering account in his listing. Doing so he doesn't quite demand empathy, but certainly earns it. It has a conventional lyric turn unwinding to the oh moment, but what is revealed certainly has more power than the usual quiet revelations. Unlike the Allison story there is humour in everything Alexie touches, and here we get it briefly, but I think effectively, in the old woman who bends over in front of the the strangeness of the details. In Allison's story the way children die becomes more and more surprising.

Thinking of this poem in relation to the reading last fall by Vanessa Place from Statement of Facts I wonder about the way conceptual writing deals with facts, how in working with the traces of the materiality of systems, and of excess, it soaks up such minor revelations into a motherlode of undeniable, and largely affectless, force. Seems to me that, like the lyric impulse, conceptual attempts to witness the singular by taking account of the sheer mass of material trace, and of the attempts we make to give account of ourselves: in courts of law, in newspapers, in testimony. It just doesn't want to do it on the personal level of the "I" as in "my experience", as Alexie does above, or filtering it consciously through the author in any case. Or at least not earnestly, or simply.

Of course, as Lisa Robertson has said, it's too late to be simple. Think about the way we think of the world now, and how we did twenty years ago. Much different. The revelations, the accumulations made over the past two decades make poems similar to the one above seem naive. I'm not saying  the poem above is naive. I think Alexie does more than gesture at connection, he actually does some of this work: opening the door and letting the bulk of suffering inside. So, no this poem isn't naive. (I think that many poems that attempt to do this are, but that's also not my point.) What I'm trying to think about is the scale. This is what seems quaint given what we are by now surely realizing we are being faced with: the sheer number of us, the escalation of human trauma, natural disasters, violent spectacles, and for better and worse, the increasing coverage of all these events that is now available to us. Globalization exaggerates everything out of scale. Alexie already knew this. 

I wonder, in the face of this, how various poetic voices--the lyric, the conceptual, the avant-garde, etc, deal with this compression of human experience, emotion, desire, and sorrow--as the world shrinks, and we are faced with so much? Aware of so much from the minutia of the banal to the catastrophic. We can't possibly take it all in. Which is why retreat is actually very compelling, and I for one, am constantly tempted by it (unplug, off-grid, rebuild the interior, bring on the irony, hell, any distancing devices...).

But I don't. And I don't because I feel that writing must help contextualize our experience of the world and as such one must face it. It must, as the speaker in Alexie's poem does, try to give voice, and to find away to inhabit the pain of being human. It must face it squarely. As he does, again and again in his work, with humour and grace. It must, perhaps, be a kind of breathing through, of embodying, that reminds us, yes, we can move through this. It's painful. And it passes. And it's painful, and it passes. And it's painful.

(Post updated 12:08 PM)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When songwriters write poetry

Correspondences: fifth in a series of posts from Michael Turner

With the Are Curators Unprofessional? symposium behind us, I would like to turn to the question of the visual art curator in relation to other media. Are there equivalents? And if so, are they as varied within their mediums as curation is to the visual arts?

Consider the book editor. In big house publishing, the book editor is in charge of all manner of book production, from manuscript acquisition to design to promotion. Some editors spend most of their time on acquisitions, while many more work underneath them, doing the heavy lifting, occasionally acquiring books of their own. Some editors, such as Nan Talese and Phyllis Bruce, have their own eponymous imprints. At smaller houses (Book Thug, New Star), the editor is often the publisher, a dual role that has both its strengths and its weaknesses.

The musical equivalent of the curator is the record producer, usually a free-lancer hired by a label to oversee an audio recording, not just the laying down of tracks but also the selection and arrangement of those tracks. In big label recording, the producer is often there to “break” a new act, or help an established act change direction. Some producers, such as George Martin and Phil Spector, have their own sound, and their names figure prominently on the package. For those acts without means, label support or an interest in working with others, production is done within the act itself.

In the visual arts, the curator is responsible for the exhibition, which includes selecting the work, helping with its production, installation, writing, animation and promotion. Some curators, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, fly around the world mounting hundreds of shows a year, while others, if not working underneath them, are employed at small art spaces (Artspeak, White Columns), which they have been known to direct as well.

Given the expansion of the contemporary art experience, where film (Douglas Gordon), music (Janet Cardiff), dance (Yvonne Rainer) and writing (Liam Gillick) are no longer out of place at galleries and museums, and where the medium is often the material, one could consider curation a meta-profession. Which brings us to this site, a site that features video, music and writing. Is its founder a curator? I asked the question of another blogger, who himself has a literary background, and he would have none of it. He found the word “pretentious.” I asked him what he thought “curation” meant, but again, he would have none of it.


Michael Turner is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction, criticism and song. He tends a blog of his own. If you're still curious you can find more about him here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Silver Car Sessions, Episode 4

Soft-walking, big-stick-carrying Calgary poet Claire Lacey discusses her composition process. kevin mcpherson eckhoff plays Persona to our Strange Brew.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

In Conversation: LH talks to Linda Griffiths

LH: As a non-actor who writes, and has some theater experience, I admit to a certain jealousy of the actor writer combination. Not only can you give a brilliant reading from your book at the launch, but you inhabit your characters, bringing them to life again and again. It's the relationship between the author, text and performance that I envy. Does this resonate? Or, more pointedly, do you think that actor playwrights have an advantage?

LG: I believe writing is a physical activity – that is must be sensual, even if you’re just sitting on your bum in front of your lap top. Sometimes our bodies go dead, and we lose that gut feeling in our work. Actors work on a physical, emotional and intellectual level. The work is in the body. When I feel I am losing my connection to the tug in the gut that means you’re on to something, I think into my actor self. I now have two completely different ways of working. One is utterly traditional – I sit down and pound the keys like any old writer out there. The other is unique to my particular training in improvisation – I stand up and improvise. In order to do this someone has to watch, and you tape what comes out of your mouth. Audio tape is fine. Then you transcribe and spend a lot of time honing the raw material. My play Alien Creature: a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen was written almost entirely this way, even though in print it looks very writerly. The writing came from that character, from my actor self. Age of Arousal, was an entirely traditional process with no improvising – was written on the keyboard – but even then, I’d like to think I was referencing sense memory from my actor self. I don’t know if it’s an advantage, it’s just how my life went – that acting led me to writing.

LH: Do you prefer acting or writing, or both?

LG: Acting on screen is really fun, I did a lot of that when I was younger. But my heart is with writing now. I like to do both, but I’ve turned down two acting gigs in the last while because they would interfere with writing projects. It’s been writing for a long time now.

LH: What is the last piece of theatre that you saw that excited you?

LG: It’s often young companies that excite me. I saw a show called Highway 63 – a three-hander set in Fort McMurray with National Theatre School grads in it. They went to Fort MacMurray as a group, with Layne Colemen as director and Charlotte Corbeil Coleman as writer. It was classic ‘verbatum theatre’ - they went into the community and talked to people, got the pulse of the town, the feel of the oil industry, then worked together to produce their own take on it. It’s both personal and political – I love that.

LH: You are from Montreal, and you studied at the National Theatre before settling in Toronto--do you miss it? What is the one thing you must do when you travel down the 401 to la belle province?

LG: So many things hit me when I return to Montreal. It was such an intense time when I lived there. I left when I was twenty one, so my life there was about being a student, about being afraid to commit myself to this ridiculous thing – a life in the arts. So much seemed against me. I was kicked out of National Theatre School, not because I was openly rebellious but because I was secretly rebellious. I just couldn’t connect with what I was learning there – the school has changed a great deal since then. I’ve never done very well in institutions which is so strange when I’m teaching in universities. When I come back to Montreal, I get flashes of my young life, it’s incredibly potent. I see myself and my friends walking up the mountain, slogging around the streets of the McGill Ghetto, feeling heartsick because I felt I’d never get to do what I wanted to do. I remember walking down St. Laurent in the rain wearing a red velvet cape, just walking and walking. I’d taken a one year teaching diploma at McGill – grade school teaching and I wanted to die. I walked until I realized that I was willing to do anything to act – I had a vision of myself in White Horse in the Yukon, working as a waitress and doing amateur shows – I realized I was ready to make any sacrifice. Within a month I had my first acting job. I see myself at that time in Montreal – it’s a place I love but where I’m always uncertain...


credit David Leyes
Playwright/actor Linda Griffiths will read from her own works as part of Concordia’s Writers Read series. Griffiths has written, acted, developed and produced theatre (and some film) for at least 25 years. As playwright, Griffiths is the author of twelve plays and the winner of five Dora Mavor Moore awards, a Gemini award, two Chalmer’s awards, the Quizanne International Festival Award (Jessica), a Betty Mitchell Award and Los Angeles’ A.G.A. Award for her performance in John Sayles’ film Liana. Her latest play, Age of Arousal has been widely produced, including at the Shaw Festival in 2010.

Where: J.A. De Sève Cinema, LB Building, 1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd.W.
When: Friday, January 14 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Weekend Read

Sex Without Love
by Sharon Olds

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other's bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health--just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.

Well, it isn't a poem about running but the analogy lingers decades after I first encountered this poem, probably the most famous Olds poem. To be alone on the road, in the poem, in one's practice, to go far, as she did, into the self. In a meeting yesterday a room full of writers bandied about the collaborative aspects of writing--community, publication, editorial processes, etc--and that's true, absolutely true. But ultimately, writing is a long distance practice. Best not looked at too directly. Best tended to the way that a runner tends to his or her goals, which is to say, best do it, daily alone, or with one's own goals in mind. The middle distance, the bend in the road, a pleasurable view...

At a reading in November someone asked Jeramy Dodds and Lisa Robertson if they remembered their own lines. If they came to them now and then. I thought it was such a strange and instinctive question and I was happy to hear it. Beyond the idea of the poem is there a visceral link, an umbilical cord, that perhaps isn't severed?

I haven't read Sharon Olds in a long time. Her work, all these years later, seems almost a parody of these early, urgent poems and I simply can't read her anymore. It feels as if the poet has attempted to *not* let her practice grow. The titles are firmly domestic, feature mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, going back, back, to 1937, to the Month of June,  the poet at the centre of her family, watching, "do what you are going to do," she says, "and I will tell about it..." I wonder about the way that poets situate themselves in family narratives as if, like the cast of the Star Trek Enterprise, we can wander out into these distant, and unique dramas, and interact without harm? Or, put another way, does our well-meaning neutrality, our looking, have a price?

More generously, perhaps as a reader I have gone in a direction too far from our original place of commonality and can only wave back fondly when the lines from the poem come to me. And they do. They return again and again as a kind of perfect example of this kind of poetry, this confessional, this scrubbing of one's daily life. They do come back though, with a tinge of nostalgia for a time when a poem seemed whole to me. Impenetrable. When I believed what I read.

It's not that I don't trust poetry, it's that I am suspicious of sincerity.

I'm not saying that one can't write about one's life. Look at these early Olds' poems. Look at Rae Armantrout, Erin Moure, these poets chronicle the dailiness, but their dailiness is huge. Is cast, not with simple metaphors and interior imagery, but by taking the small ache of the heart and casting it into the universe of ideas, the history of human thought. They are all there, the mothers, the brothers, the desire to go back to a certain moment... I guess I'm saying it's hard, very hard to do well, and to do new, and to do fresh, even, it seems, when you once nailed the form.

Over the years the imitators of Olds have multiplied, but few have taken the risks she took, at least in these early books, and few have sliced their skin and flayed their veins with such style. As the boozy mother in Hannah and her Sisters says, "Now how can you act when there's nothing inside to come out?" Indeed.

--Sina Queyras

Friday, January 07, 2011

Fragment toward an essay on the mother, time and poetry

I am not who I thought I was.

Without her, I have no idea. What will I do? What is that Sappho line about having two minds? Or Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” which really hits home. I will never bring my mother books, nor will we discuss them. She will not read my novel when it finally appears, nor will she stack my books beside her bed. I will not sit in the chair by the window listening, smelling the northern air, feeling the clouds gathering at the top of Thornhill Mountain. I will never hear another story again.

From “The Glass Essay

Stepping out into the sky Carson notes of the light:

Something inside it reminds me of childhood—
it is the light of the stalled time after lunch
when clocks tick

and hearts shut
and fathers leave to go back to work
and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering

something they never tell.

It isn’t that poetry holds childhood, but it is a conduit, and it can transport.

This sense of stalled time is everywhere in Carson—and it resonates with me. The moment, caught mid-thought, as if the night could comprehend one’s feelings. And the mother, somewhere in verse, waiting for the daughter to reappear.

You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that?
Because “all that” is the fuel of poetry, perhaps. Even, I might argue, the most conceptual of poetry. Put up as many constraints as you want, tie one arm and one leg, tape one’s mouth, make it so you will have to type with your nose—or more appropriate to our times—reserve for your material the language of phone books, or google searches, it seems to me, those moments, those basic desires, burn in all poetry.

Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound lives in Montreal. Her first novel, Autobiography of Childhood, is due from Coach House this fall.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

I, Nuligak (Part 2)

To begin, a few brief selections from I, Nuligak:

I, Nuligak, will tell you a story. It is the story of what has happened to me in my life, all my adventures, many of them forever graven in my memory. Those of my people who lived before me came from Kitigariuit. During my earliest youth the Kitigariukmeut were very numerous; I have known them, I have seen them. I was an orphan, for my father died before I was able to know him. I have no memory of him. Because I was an orphan and a poor one at that, my mind was always alert to the happenings around me. Once my eyes has seen something, it was never forgotten.

Naoyavak, my grandfather, said to me one day, "I will teach you how to recognize the different moons; I am getting old and many do not know the Eskimo names of the moons. They have forgotten. You, remember them." Then Grandfather took little sticks and stood them up in the snow. [...] This is what I retained of what he taugh me in that month of January, 1909. The January moon is called Avunniviayik in Eskimo. It is during this month that the dwarf seals produce their little ones. Premature young of the ordinary seals freeze and do not survive. The February moon is Avunnivik. The true seals bring forth their young. These develop and become the seals we hunt. March is Amaolikkervik. The little snow birds (amaolikat) arrive from the south. The April moon receives the name of Kriblalikvik because the sun has melted the top of the snow, and as we stare at it, it sparkles with whiteness. Tigmiyikvik is our month of May, the time when ducks and geese return from the south. June is called Nuertorvik; in our kayaks we go after muskrats swimming in the rivers and lakes--we hurl harpoons. To the July moon we give the name of Padlersersivik because everything dries up during this month, even the earth. August becomes Krugyuat Tingiviat in Eskimo--the young swans take their flight. In September the Inuit of the Arctic Ocean leave in their kayaks to harpoon seals, using a special harpoon, the aklikat. Therefore the moon is called Aklikarniarvik. In the month of October one of the first signs of cold is the forming of thin ice on the sandy shores of the ocean. This ice is called tuglu, and the moon Tugluvik. In November it is cold and when we open the door white mist fills the igloo; this is the mist of the freezing days. That is the reason why this moon is called Itartoryuk. We call the December moon Kaitvitjvik because during this month of darkness the Inuit assemble, forget their worries, rejoice and dance.

The old Aoktalik had set a herring net along the shore, away from the loose ice. We were eating in our tents when we heard him call. He shouted in his Nunatak language, "Samma subbonme!" The white man would have said, "There she blows!" But we said, "Hey, over there--a white whale!" I took my gun and began to run. The whale was struggling and the old man had all he could do to hold on to the end of the net. His feet had dug a furrow in the sand--and he was standing in water! "A whale there!" The beast came to the surface to breathe and I took a shot. The old man was out of breath--a white whale is quite strong, you know! Aoktalik must have had uncommon strength to have held on to a whale caught in a herring net.

At Imariuk the sun did not appear above the horizon any more. The fish did not bite, and we had scarcely enough to eat. For that reason we came back to Tuktoyaktuk. We had set aside an abundant quantity of fish there. As we had no provisions Uncle and I took only one sledge. We had but one dog left. The Ovayuaks had only two. Although we were not very far from Tuk our dogs refused to move any further. Cold, hungry, they lay down on the snow. We harnessed ourselves to our sledges and thus reached Tuk. From Our cache we took a quantity of fish. Our dogs reached us, at night, one after another. They had followed us as soon as a little rest had brought heat back to their bellies. We gave them food. Our dogsgrew far and regained their strength. Ovayuak, the eldest of my uncles, decided to go to Kitigariuit to sell the silver fox I had caught at Imariuk. We left. Ovayuak sold it to Mr. Young. I was there, taking it all in, while the bargaining went on. The fox was quite small. He bought it for $110. Uncle used the money to buy white man's food. For me, he bought a carbine 30/30 and I don't know how many boxes of cartridges. He also took a kerosene lamp which had me bewildered when I watched it change darkness into bright light. It was during those days that we two, Uncle Nuyaviak and myself, got sores all over our hips, thighs and feet. The itch was unbearable, so much so that often after scratching the sores to the quick we found relief by sitting in the snow; and the snow would turn red with blood. We very nearly died. I believe that we had what the white men call smallpox. This frequent sitting in the snow cured us, healing our sores.

My children got very little to eat at times. February ninth was one of those days. No open water. I left anyhow and far out I saw a polar bear. I killed it; I was so happy thinking that the children would have something to eat, that I never forgot that day. I had killed a male white bear, big and fat. I cut it up, selected a piece of meat from the paws and put it in my bag. Stanley, my little boy, my youngest, came to meet me. I gave him the little morself of meat: "Go and show this to your mother." The little one brought it to his mother, and Margaret shouted with joy. The young men brought the carcass home and the Inuit of Abvak had a good meal. With my forty-four cartridges, from January to March, I killed thirty seals, five ugiuk, the big bearded seals, and four white bears. I am not saying this to brag nor to serve as an example to younger men, but only to stress that I was very happy to have changed my cartridges into so many things to eat.

Right after New Year's we hooked 1,869 fish and netted 696. In Sitidgi Lake my son took 3,851 of them. That made 6,416 in all. [...] During the fourteen years I lived in the Delta I took the following furs with the help of my sons:
White fox: 3
Red fox: 19
Crossed: 18
Silver fox: 3
Ermine: 162
Mink: 106
Marten: 3
Lynx: 18
Muskrat: 30,739

Glossary [selected]:
aglu: Hole in sea ice, where seals come up
aklak: Brown bear of the steppes
angayokrartune: When we have become old
aodlarnerk: One who has left with the intention of not returning
atun: Song
avartsiun: Magic song to halt whale's flight
kadjgum: Hunger!
krilalugak: White whale, beluga
kroliat: True story
maktak: Whale skin
nukatperaluk: Little young man
nuliartunga: I took a wife
oliyut: Nerves from caribou spinal column, dried and used as thread
orsiktartut: They make a loop
pernerk: A curve
sila: Time or weather, sometimes personified
taimane: In that time, once upon a time
takunaklunulu: Looking attentively
tunrat: Spirits
unipkay: Story that mingles fantasy with fact
uvanga: Me!


When I had first written to introduce I, Nuligak, and registered, at the bottom of the post, my alarm at seeing The Walrus publishing ads on their website from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), ads that attempt to greenwash the Tar Sands, it was, I thought, a combination of two separate subjects that simply occurred at the moment of writing: I, Nuligak is a work of literature that I would cite as having an absolutely necessary place in a historical study of Canadian writing, one that I worry could be lost as it is now nearly thirty years out of print; and, having returned from the region in Pennsylvania where I grew up, witnessing there the contestation within many of the communities around natural gas fracking (and seeing Josh Fox's fine film Gasland, specifically about what is happening there), only then to read, once back in Yellowknife, the National Energy Board's report giving their approval to the Mackenzie Gas Project, "Respecting all voices: Our journey to a decision," a thorough washing of a whole other degree, in which traditional leaders from throughout the Northwest Territories express their concern over the building of this natural gas pipeline (beginning in the exact places Nuligak describes over the course of his autobiography, and moving across the entire territory down to Alberta, where it will be pushed straight to the Tar Sands and burned to extract crude oil from the sludge there), and to see these very real and imperative objections packaged oh so strategically in a document that seems to nominally enumerate such concerns so that the pipeline proponents can then ignore them--after all, says document, the project can be done "sustainably," any effects on the people, the animals and the landscape will be "mitigable" (n.b. nothing is mitigable)--and then, finally, to see in The Walrus, an otherwise great venue for social-minded journalism, one that has consistently attempted to shake-up various complacencies national and global, to see these ludicrous ads attempting to make what is happening in our Tar Sands somehow progressive and mindful of our common future, well, it seemed that both I, Nuligak (the book itself and the landscape told of in its story) and The Walrus ads (the ads themselves and the landscape affected by those who invest in such ads) were two parts of the same larger social document, one under the genre of erasure text.

Now, the ads are down. It could have something do with some of the protest found across online media. It could be that CAPP's contract with The Walrus ended with the new year. Or it could be that some person or persons on the masthead finally spoke out about how false the ads made the general mandate of the magazine appear. I'm not sure.

"It has to do with the vitality and integrity of the publishing culture." This is from Lisa Robertson, spoken at the end of our conversation, in regards to the small presses that have kept her works published, and, therefore, alive. It is a sentence, I believe, that applies equally, too, to the preservation and cultivation of a book like I, Nuligak in the context of Canadian writing, as much as it does to the role of writers, editors and publishers when confronting the Tar Sands.

Michael Nardone lives in the Northwest Territories.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

On Reviewing: Thom Donovan

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

TD: Review differs for me a little whether I am reviewing performance, visual art, poetry/literature, or something less identifiable through its particular field, discipline, genre, etc. In the past couple years, for instance, I have been reviewing more dance and performance. Basically, I started reviewing dance/movement performance as a way to learn how to write about dance, and as a way to start sketching a set of conceptual coordinates that may help me to think more clearly about choreography and movement. In regards to my dance writing, I like the notion that one doesn’t need to be an expert to write about something; that their naivety may be able to produce an openness, or that their perceived expertise in another knowledge context or discipline can perform a dis-equilibrating or estranging effect towards a critical discourse. Maybe I’ll say something that hasn’t been said about a particular performance because there are ossified ways of writing dance criticism—a field which I remain largely outside of, though I am beginning to become friendly with more and more choreographers and dancers since I started writing reviews, and am finally beginning to teach myself more about the history of dance criticism and dance itself.
In the past five years, I have also been writing more about contemporary art. Writing about visual art is tricky to me for a variety of reasons, and set apart from the realms of dance/movement and literature/poetry. One of the main reasons for it being set apart is the current economics of art—or at least the New York ‘art world’—in which you find artists in very exploited situations, many of whom are trying to survive in a kind of market game (it is widely known that art is one of the most deregulated markets in the global economy). I am not interested in bolstering the reputation of an artist for the sake of their work’s profitability, nor do I think one review can determine the success of an artist (though it certainly helps if Jerry Saltz or Roberta Smith recommends your work). I am, however, sensitive to the fact that reviews can shape what artists do (and are capable of doing) and so when writing about a show or exhibition I tend to be fairly generous while keeping the reality of the artist’s situation in mind as much as I can, as well as the situation where their work is being shown, which is increasingly foregrounded in our current economic atmosphere. For instance, I am currently trying to write a review of Mika Rottenberg’s show at Mary Boone gallery, Squeeze, which alludes extensively to the commodity fetishism of her product (one encounters a picture of Boone herself holding the ‘product’ of Rottenberg’s art—a cubicle of trash—before one enters the installation space in which one sees an approx. 20 minute video of the cubicle being produced), and the situation of its distribution (said cubicle is withdrawn to the Camons Islands where, by contract, it has been agreed to never be exhibited publicly).

Then again, I am very interested in artists who are trying to work as much as possible outside of art market dynamics. One of my current outlets for writing about said artists is PBS’s Art21 blog, where I have a regular column called “5 Questions for Contemporary Practice.” The first three features are with Miriam Katzeff of Primary Information, a press which republishes facsimiles of rarified visual art printed matter and distributes PDFs of uncopyrighted art writings; Temporary Services, a group from Chicago who has been proliferating work having to do with the investigation of public space and DIY culture since the late 90s; and Carin Kuoni, who curates the indispensable Vera List Center for Art and Politics, an organization based at New School University whose programming tackles an incredibly diverse range of issues and practices pertaining to civic responsibility and cultural politics.

Writing about art, I often have pangs of bad conscience, because I don’t want to just be an advertisement or endorsement for a particular artist or cultural institution (though maybe this can’t be helped?). Yet, I am also partisan, and so I think that certain individuals, groups, and institutions need to be supported more than others (and, in many cases, more than they are) so part of my work is in the interest of both making legible the necessity of that organization or individual within a broader context and of promoting what they do while simultaneously maintaining enough critical distance to reflect on why that doing matters historically and within out current situation. With art, not being particularly educated in the field of art history (I haven’t completed an art history degree, nor an MFA, nor a degree in curatorial studies or art conservation), I tend to be led by my nose. In regards to individual artists in particular, there is something that I see in their work that reflects my own concerns and practices, so I wish to write about their work in order to know it better, or so that I can express something I may wish to say through it. Some of the things I’ve written about Guy Ben-Ner, Catherine Sullivan, Adam Pendleton, Martha Rosler and others I would certainly put in the category of a kind of investigation or essay rather than review per se, though these writings have some of the rhetorical and generic trappings of the review as a critical format.

With poetry, generally, I feel like I have a considerably different relationship with the things I choose to write about. Mainly, I feel like writing about others’ work can be a gift to them—an act of devotion, courtesy, or friendship (though I have been criticized recently for writing introductions that were not “short” enough). Yet, perhaps more importantly, I feel like others’ work can reflect larger problematics that I detect within a culture at large, and which become exigent through those works. To write about another’s work can help you to voice your own concerns and preoccupations. It can also help one to deepen a discourse about historical preoccupations pertaining both to poetics, literary criticism, and cultural production at large. More and more, I wish to write criticism that participates in a conversation among my peers, which is to say, among the people whose work really excites me, and which I see as adding something to an ongoing conversation that I feel myself to be most a part of. If I haven’t gone the ‘negative’ route in terms of what criticism I’ve written (there have been so many calls to ‘negative criticism’ in recent years, as you know), it is probably because I am still too busy celebrating my peers and connecting the dots between different ideas which still really haven’t come into focus, or simply cohered. Maybe this connecting will never end; or maybe it is the true route to the negative—through a situatedness within the particularities of a discourse rather than outside one. As if anyone could be objective anyway, or impartial, which always seems like a self-perpetuating myth of criticism since the New Critics (who seem to be more in vogue now than in the past forty years, no?), especially the ways certain people would articulate the ‘purpose’ or ‘function’ of criticism/the critic. If you love something you want to care for it. Why would it be any different with criticism? Criticism can bring into existence forms of caring, while also potentially saying something that really speaks to the situation we’re in, or the conditions (and I think this is a crucial distinction) that we will have wanted to have been. Which is to say, that will have brought a certain future into being.

Blogging lends a certain independence to this activity, because the weblog—despite its “devaluation” as a format (I’m using this term after an insightful article written by Rich Owens about Sean Bonney’s blog, Abandoned Buildings, and the blog that I have edited for the past five years, Wild Horses Of Fire, recently published in the Poetry Project Newsletter)—is fairly autonomous and flexible. I have long used a blog because something felt like it needed to be said fairly immediately and, as reviewers know, it can take a long time to pitch a piece and then have to edit it—often months. One has so much control over what they do at a blog. The only thing is that some people feel like the blog is cheapening. I think what people say at blogs can tend to be cheap, and perhaps the format promotes this, but I don’t see why people can’t post sustained criticism at a blog, especially with many of the new templates that have emerged in the past few years such as Tumblr and Wordpress, not to mention the advances in PDF and POD formats, which can supplement blogs through printable objects.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

TD: It is different with dance/movement performance, art writing, and poetry/literary criticism. With dance/movement performance the criticism is so dependent on my mindset seeing the performance live—since there probably won’t be another opportunity to see it. So when I attend dance/movement performance I usually am caffeinated, take a lot of notes, and try to look back on those notes as soon as I am at home, or in a place where I can tell whether or not they can eventually be useful. If they are not useful, I try to supplement them with more notes and reflections on what I just saw, anticipating that I may be forgetful later.

With art writing, the situation is a little bit more involved. Usually, before I write a review now, if the artist is a contemporary (like, say, Mika Rottenberg) I request their press package and any media that may be procured from the gallery which represents them. In the case that the artist does not have gallery representation, I will try to contact them personally through Facebook or email or some other means. Of course there are situations in which one cannot be so deliberate, so what I am trying to express instead through the review is a registration of reaction or encounter. An example of this approach is a series of pieces I published at Art21 around consecutive museum visits to the New Museum, Harlem Studio Museum, and P.S.1, in which many of the works that attracted my attention during those visits were ones by artists whose work I’d never encountered before. In this case, what I tried to present through the review were impressions, hunches, and perceptions. There is a certain freedom that this kind of review affords, which I like very much, however it can also make me nervous—that I am being glib or irresponsible without more context. My ideal situation writing about visual art is to form some kind of relation with the work, a kind of process in which I am able to deepen my understanding of the work throughout the course of writing the review or conducting an interview with the artist. This approach is certainly true of the interviews I have conducted with Adam Pendleton and Guy Ben-Ner for BOMB, who presented me with a lot of challenges throughout the interview process, and overturned many things that I thought I knew or understood about their work. It has also been true about reviews I have written of Catherine Sullivan, who increasingly I approach more as a scholar than as a reviewer. Which is to say, I am increasingly interested in conducting research about and around her work than I am in responding to the immediate circumstances of the work presented in exhibition.

In terms of literary criticism and art writing in particular, “exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings” are all in effect. Most of all theoretical, reader response, close, and contextual. For me, though, all of these forms of criticism start from an idea, images, sounds, affects/emotions; they try to be useful at the level of concept, or how the object could serve something social, ethical, interpersonal, public, even political. Almost every critical offering I have made has gestured towards, if not laid bare, its political-ethical commitments, and how one might approach an object of cultural interest or value through a sense of its socio-political content. Certainly, that is a guiding principle. Though I would not want this sense of content to overdetermine the object. The subtlety, it would seem to me, of the critic, lies in their ability to maintain a sense of reality about what the object can do—or what it is actually doing or can do though its appearance within a particular context or milieu. Then again, I am an optimist, or better yet an affirmationalist, and if you suggest that an artist is doing something (or resisting something in certain ways) then I believe there is a possibility you may activate a particular reception or performance of the object. Wishes, or simply certain kinds of belief, in other words, can lead to action. And art works are active to the extent that we enable them to be; that we, in other words, interact with them.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

TD: I am pretty open to different styles of review. The reviews I find useful, when I read them (which is probably not often enough), inform one about the object, provide a sense of their investment in writing about the object, and reflect that object within a broader (and not purely formal) milieu. Passion, personal disclosure, investment, motivation, desire, even worship, I believe, can produce exceptional reviews. So can the ‘sober’ eye of a reviewer who is trying to be as generous as possible towards something that might be problematic, or just not quite working for them. Although ‘flaming’ reviews can be entertaining, I’m not exactly sure where they get us. This is an issue I have with many practitioners who use of the term ‘negative’ nowadays, since they are using it in the most pedestrian senses of the term. Whereas I prefer a negative criticism that literally approaches the object through its qualities of negation, or its refusal of certain cultural or socio-political imperatives. I find precedent for such a negative (or negational?) criticism in so many thinkers, writers, and artists that it would hard to enumerate them all, though the Frankfurt School is always a good place to start, as are artists like Robert Smithson, Mike Kelley, Hollis Frampton, and Martha Rosler, all of whom wrote criticism and essay as both a means towards and out of the making of particular works and projects. I guess what I am opting for instead of negative reviewing is ‘immanent critique’; the idea that one is complicit not only in the reception, but the production of this object by participating in its reception, thus its social and historical imbeddedness. And perhaps, a la Walter Benjamin, that a particular object not only can make visible our complicity with certain powers relations, but also holds the promise of a different world, different futures. My friend Dana Ward recently called this manner of transcendence a “redemption through fetish.” Benjamin pointed to the redemptive qualities of commodity culture through those “dialectical images” offered by any particular object of consumption. At bottom, I guess I believe that dialectical materialism can still get us somewhere—that we have not exhausted its possibilities—but dialectical materialist criticism resolves around thinking and not just rhetoric. Too much contemporary criticism would seem the result of rhetorical histrionics that extend from turf wars and personal gripes (and maybe this is all much of what we call ‘criticism’ eventually amounts to, unfortunately). Sometimes I wonder what would happen if before making a critical statement about something people took a step back and asked why they were making the statement, what the intended result of the statement is. For many, including myself at moments, I think this could be a potentially ugly moment of self-reflection, since I think most of us would find the answer is power—its attainment and maintenance. What if obtaining and maintaining power was no longer the principle motor of criticism and what replaced it were accountability to one’s actions, intentions, and decisions in regards to a particular phenomenon of cultural production and to those perceived as one’s community, friends, and peer group? Would criticism per se whither, because what one was doing was something else? (Nietzsche’s comments that one should “deserve” their friends and their enemies is relevant to what I am saying here.) I keep gesturing towards this something else whenever I have to reflect on the ‘purpose of criticism’ though I’m not exactly sure what it is yet. If nothing else it has something to do with ethics, and love, and (social) justice, and a sense that critical reflection can still act transformatively through a limited universe of possible actions.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

TD: A book of criticism that I really love—and unfortunately don’t have in my possession, because it never came out in a softback, and the hardcover is really expensive—is Peter Quartermain’s Disjunctive Poetics. A strength of Disjunctive Poetics, is Quartermain’s approach to criticism through exploring a single poem, in some cases a single stanza or line of a poem. There is a lot to be said for this method, especially when it can relate the entire body of work. This is certainly the case of the canonical American texts by poet-critics: W.C. Williams’s In the American Grain, Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishamel, Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: on Shakespeare, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (and I’m sure we could add quite a few others to this short list at this point). That there is a poignant sense of scale; that a single word or phrase can address the whole work—as in the case of Howe taking up Dickinson’s “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” or Zukofsky the ‘play within a play’ of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sometimes I think I would like to write a book in a similar spirit, but I don’t know how to go about it in a way that feels right for our present circumstances. I have taken all of the approaches you mention, but with contemporaries (and I write about contemporaries quite a bit) I especially love to consider the entire body of work to date, and to try to articulate what I think holds it all together. I have attempted to do this especially in the magazine I co-edit with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger, ON: Contemporary Practice (which actually advocates this approach to a contemporary’s work as opposed to single-book reviews), when I wrote about the work of Brenda Iijima in the first volume of the magazine and Bhanu Kapil in the second. How a writer or artist gets from point A to point Z, which is to say, how they approach their problematics as artists horizontally in many cases, is fascinating to me. Yet, there is also the sense sometimes that a writer or artist is pursuing discrete problematics simultaneously, and it is exciting to identify and articulate what these discrete problems are too.

On the other hand, there is a simple pragmatics when writing criticism, a kind of ‘bottom line’, especially living under certain labor conditions both within and without the academy in New York City (I work part-time as an archivist while adjuncting and writing criticism on the side). And this pragmatics has to do with the fact that certain labor conditions allow you to write certain kinds of criticism. Living in New York, I feel that my life as a critic is very much contingent on other forms of labor I need to perform in order to subsist. It is also contingent on who asks me to do what, and what leeway I have given a particular assignment. Sometimes I feel under pressure to perform more as a journalist, sometimes more as an academic/scholar, sometimes more through my practice as a poet. Criticism, here, becomes largely about ‘audience’, but it is also about who is editing you and where you are publishing. Oftentimes an editor is incredibly helpful in shaping your piece; other times you are seeing what you can get away with. These dynamics produce constraints that both can help and hinder the result of any attempt to write criticism. Fortunately, even though I have had to make compromises, I don’t feel like I’ve written anything that I would ‘take back’, and dread a day when I do. Feeling compromised, to my mind, would involve an editor asserting something I completely disagree with, but letting it go because I am in need of the income or have become tired of working on a piece. Occasionally I dream of having all of this time to work on a more extensive article or book length project, something that would only become possible for me through the award of a grant at this point in my life, or finding a full-time job that did not pull me in a thousand different directions. But then I wonder, what would I even pursue? And would this even be useful—to have so much time at my disposal? I joke with my friends that what I am doing now is “small game hunting,” but maybe it’s the small game—blog writing and essays for little journals and correspondence—which eventually leads to the “big game” (or whatever to call it). I love this only half-serious metaphor of the hunt (which I lift from Catherine Sullivan), even though there is something bitter sweet about not being able to write through more sustained projects, or what one would perceive as a ‘project’.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

TD: We have discussed this before Sina, particularly during our blogging stint at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet weblog, but as I have written before, a lot of the work I produce as poetry writing is ekphrastic, or rather represents a kind of ekphrastic mode which does not seek to describe the object, so much as wonder what the object would say about the conditions of its making. The object, then, becomes a subject in a certain way; or flickers off-and-on subject/object, subject/object. I think this contributes to my own sense of objectivism, and my sense of “sincerity and objectification” (to take-up Zukofsky’s terminology). That a lot of things can form relationships of sincerity with the poet (not least of all the words of the poem themselves), but especially other objects of cultural production. During a lecture about Jack Spicer for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s Monday night series, Kevin Killian said that he was personally “dictated” to by the Ted Turner Broadcasting Network. There are a lot of things that certainly dictate to me—one of them is friendship, another community, yet another my reading practice—but so, too, does visual art, and perhaps less often film, music, and other forms of art and media. I’m sure this is because I am writing about visual art more than I used to, but also because I am attracted to a form of synaesthesia which one can cultivate through an ekphrastic practice. It is interesting to me, in many of the things that I’ve written, that the emphasis actually tends not to be on the image, but on sound and semantics and idea; as if the image ‘track’ was too easy to simply describe, and to avoid or withdraw image was to forego a description that may be all too visually arresting or identifiable (too ‘easy’, as such). Another way I have thought about poetry writing in relation to visual art is as a kind of pre-scriptive device, or as a processor. Before writing more discursively about a work of art there can be a more direct or intuitive comprehension of the object through the recourse to poetry. The process I am referring to is both alchemical and constructive, mediative and meditative. I usually don’t publish the ekphrastic work without considerable recursion and revision. I often find that it is easier to write the criticism after having wrestled with the poem; likewise, poems often come at some point during or after the process of writing criticism. In this way, ‘poetry writing’ and ‘critical writing’ form a kind of circuit or feedback loop with one another.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

TD: One can always be more or less generous to an object they have elected or been asked to critique. And I normally try to be as generous as possible, to start from a position of generosity rather than closing myself off. That said, it is hard to resist hating when you see something or someone being favorably reviewed and you just don’t understand why that person or thing is gaining favor. I think this is where most ‘negative’ reviews come from—a knee jerk reaction to something new, or illegible, or simply outside one’s sensibility/solidified set of values. I try to resist saying something critical unless I think I understand, and suspend judgment until I have found some point of entry that would allow me to understand what a writer or artist is attempting to do. Then again, as I find with many books of poetry, poets are still calibrating their practice early on, so what a negative review would serve a younger or emerging writer is beyond me, except maybe to keep that person from a job, or further publication. Then again, I think it was Anselm Berrigan who said that in our current moment the worst review one can receive is not to receive one at all, because it seems like you don’t exist, or no one cares enough about your work to say anything at all—whether ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I look forward to situations in which people can be led in their critical practices by their sense of having a conversation with others, in which arguments and agreements can depart from this point. Most of my own work as an editor—both with ON and with a new project I recently launched called Others Letters, which features the correspondences of contemporaries—is geared to producing such moments of interface and dialogue that may make a larger field available to those within and without particular communities and coteries.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

TD: The question you are asking seems to have to do with consumerism, which I don’t think is what reviews should serve (and again, maybe the problem is with the review itself as a format, because it grows out of a culture which oftentimes seeks to make objects irresistible to the consumer). That said, often when I am shopping for music, it will be helpful to read about what a group ‘sounds like’, or who their ‘influences’ are. I have been persuaded on more than one occasion to make a purchase of a LP or CD based solely on a description at a local music boutique like Other Music in NYC. I think another way to think about this would be to throw less emphasis on the review/reviewer, and more on the press, which obviously injects a book of poetry with certain values before you know who the author is, let alone the work itself (a friend who is a visual artist, but who is also familiar with contemporary poetry, once remarked that presses were like galleries in the art world, and full-length books of poetry like having a solo show). Same is true of magazines, schools, other institutions. We seek things out because they interest us, or are well made, or have a quality we can’t easily account for. And this goes back, I think, to Dana’s sense of redemption through fetish, because I think most of us would have a hard time imagining our lives without this relationship to certain products, which partially constitutes us as subjects, and which is not easily reconciled by an imagination of alternative economic possibilities, consumer habits, etc.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

TD: I think it is less that there is a quality in reviews that I haven’t found, and more a sense that the review, as a form of criticism, should whither. In fact, what I really want more of are forms of literature that enfold their critical reception, and especially their reception as it is inflected through community, friendship, and civic responsibility. What if the poetry book included the review (the blurb is an unsubtle device gesturing at this)? What if the book disappeared into its reception and distribution as, for instance, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies seems to do in some ways. What if, in other words, the work itself started to constitute an act of meta-discourse that intends to present its role in exchange, community, correspondence, reception, distribution, and its complicity in all of these events. What if distributed authorship (or choral modes of criticism—a term I have been using recently to describe a recent trend within contemporary poetry) made the perceived object disappear, dissolved in a network of others, in becoming, in archive and collective performance and the desire for emergent modes and models of subjectivity? Perhaps, for many of us, that is what the poem already is. Though there is nothing announcing this formal quality through its context within a book, magazine, or wherever else the poem may be encountered. The problem I’m identifying involves a crisis of the media itself, which continues to ‘implode’ in relation to the US’s current oligarchic political system, but perhaps also points to the unsustainability of anything which does not acknowledge its connectivity through higher forms of organization, systematicity, and corporatization.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

TD: I don’t think I would continue to write reviews and essays if I didn’t think it was somehow useful for my own and others’ practices. One way that I believe criticism can be useful is that it can help you define a set of questions and concerns, and relate them through other forms of work—whether these be writing, teaching, performance, library science, curation, or any form of cultural production one performs (in my case, all of the above). The payment question is tricky, because I do think people should be paid for their work, and especially if they do a ‘good job’—which is to say, invest time, care, and effort. But the way we evaluate things—the way prestige and authority is invented and maintained—seems pretty out-of-wack. And the fact that people compete for resources which may or may not in fact exist doesn’t help this situation. I think people should write reviews largely to serve their own practices and concerns, as well as their friends, peers, and community, because with art and writing in particular, it is not clear who else you would be serving by writing a review except a potential consumer or, at best, a larger public who prefers to consume poetry rather than a Hollywood movie or baseball game (at least in the US). When I see people gunning to appear in widely distributed and some would say ‘prestigious’ publications such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review (whether reviewed or reviewing) I wonder what they are gunning for, and if competition is not to blame for a lot of the ill behavior that goes on and ideas about how criticism can and should function. My critique here reflects much larger concerns that I have for ecology, where competition, speed, over-consumption, immiseration, misuse of resources, and an inability to see things in relation are (literally) killing us. These ways of approaching things need to be rethought, and I think writers can do their part by modeling certain practices and conducts. I am talking about aesthetics here; the problem Wittgenstein referred to when he cited ethics and aesthetics as being one and the same thing. Criticism, too, partakes of this equation.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

TD: I would hope that reviews could bring new readers to writing and art, but partially because they also like the review—something it says, the way it presents the reviewer in relation to the artist/writer/performer/work. I think especially that reviews can be important for a younger readership, who are still figuring out what things they are into, and the styles or problems they are compelled to pursue. I also think reviews can draw attention to things that one loves and that one believes deserve more attention. They can create a readership, in the best possible sense. Reviewing blends with editing at this point, for me, where it also becomes an act of adding crucial context for the reception of an object. Right now, for instance, I am working on editing a book by Robert Kocik, a midcareer polymath (he designs furniture, buildings, and sets; makes drawings; writes about philosophy, history, philology, theology, science, poetry, art, dance, and medicine in tandem) who, despite the fact that he has generated a ton of material, is barely published in book form. I would like to change this fact. And I believe some combination of good editing, crafty distribution/advertisement, and critical reception is one way to make Robert’s work legible to a readership which has yet to exist, but which I would very much want to exist. Making legible is crucial here, if only because readers will be encountering this work in medias res, which is to say, well into its course and without a lot of previous work to refer to and thus provide a contextual backdrop. How to provide context? How to attract the readers who will take something away from this work, who are not just poets and writers, but architects and performers and theologians and people on the cutting edge of experimental and controversial medical research? I am seriously wondering about this question right now—out of both a sense of friendship and moral commitment (because Kocik’s work might change the way we think and act)—and how to rise to the occasion without a lot of resources at my disposal (ON publishes at a loss, and out of the pockets of myself and my collaborators, as I suspect most publishers devoted to poetry/poetics also do). The critic, in this case, becomes a mediator between the work and its possible receptions—though of course the work may eventually stand alone, without the help of review, editorial, design, promotion, or anything else. And this is actually the best possible scenario I could imagine as a critic, publisher, and editor—that a work need no help from a review or other critical mediation. That whatever is said about the work may be in addition to a readership’s use and appreciation of the object.

Thom Donovan lives in New York City, where he edits Wild Horses Of Fire weblog and co-edits ON Contemporary Practice, the third issue of which will be devoted to the work of Robert Kocik. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series. His criticism and poetry have been published widely. Currently he is working on a collection of critical writings, Sovereignty and Us: Critical Objects 2005-2010, and on the Project for an Archive of the Future Anterior (with Sreshta Rit Premnath). His book The Hole is forthcoming with Displaced Press this spring. He teaches at Bard College, Baruch College, and School of Visual Arts and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from SUNY-Buffalo.