Friday, April 30, 2010

Winding Down, Revving Up

It's National Poetry Month, so every Friday in April I'm writing something about Canadian Poetry.

Well, today is the last day of of National Poetry Month and it's been a pretty good month, I think. And, even though the emphasized, focused look at poetry is winding down (not in all circles of course), it looks like this month has spawned some pretty good things to help keep poetry in the spotlight for a little longer.

First, the Poet Laureate of the Internet project. It was a democratic process, but in the end, the Internet couldn't decide and it was a tie: Canadian poet Sina Queyras and American poet Robert Lee Brewer. Both poets have blogs where they post not only poetry, but also about poetry and poetics and influences, etc. It makes for good reading and they both work to engage people in the greater discourse of poetry, as well as in the poems themselves. So congratulations to both Sina Queyras and Robert Lee Brewer; I'm interested to see how this year of Internet poetics will unfold.

The other post-April poetry movement I'm excited about is Influency Salon, an online poetry magazine. The magazine/website just launched its first issue, featuring reviews of poetry books, essays and poetry discussions. The site itself looks really sleek and the content is well crafted, with many of the contributors published poets themselves (Sina Queyras pops up here as both a reviewer and a reviewed).

So, National Poetry Month may be over after today, but poetry (and poets) don't seem to have any interest in giving up the attention they've been receiving this month. And neither should they. New and interesting things are happening in the world of poetry (Canadian and otherwise), and confining our attention to just one month would be a waste.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Métaphysique des tubes

Every once in a while, I'm in the mood to read something really weird. Not weird in an implausible or completely outlandish way, although I do have those moments, too; rather, weird in the sense that the story takes place in this world, in more or less this time and yet what happens could never really happen (or, if it could, it couldn't happen to me), but doesn't come across as anything by realistic. In literature, sometimes an unusual perspective or style of narrative is weird enough to hook me, without turning me off. Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is a master of this. Métaphysique des tubes is her sort-of memoir about her childhood in Japan, and it is weird.

The story starts with God. It's a condensed retelling of the Bible's version of the beginning of the world and lays out in a very short space a lot of explanation of what's to come (of course, hindsight is 20-20 and when I first read this I had no idea what God was doing at the beginning of such a story). After she introduces the reader to God, though, and reminds them of His power and magnificence, Nothomb introduces us to baby Amélie, who her parents think is brain-damaged. Baby Amélie doesn't cry or fuss, she doesn't move, she just lies there like a small pink-ish cylinder. The doctor proclaims her a vegetable and her parents are devastated. But they soldier on, nicknaming her Plant hiring a nanny to look after her.

Baby Amélie is waited on hand and foot and although she's small, she does grow. But, even though there's really nothing wrong with her mind, she doesn't speak. Baby Amélie has fully developed language skills in her head, but she doesn't bother using them because she doesn't need to. She's like a little god, whose ever wish is fulfilled before she ever need ask for something. Then, one day at the beach, she nearly drowns. And, upon being rescued by a family friend, she thanks him in perfect French - to the shock and awe of her entire family. Of course, this ends the god-like phase of her life. As soon as she demonstrates an above-normal linguistic capacity, she is expected to behave like other toddlers, and in Japan that means no more nanny after age 2.

It's fairly unusual for a book to be narrated by a baby and not have it be a book for children, which Métaphysique des tubes certainly is not. Rather, baby Amélie has a very sophisticated perspective on the world. And, because she is a silent observer for the majority of the narrative, she is exposed to more than most babies would be.

As I said above, this is a weird book, not least because of the point of view of the narrator. But, through its weirdness is a really detailed look at what it means to be alive, and how that definition changes based on where you are (physically, mentally and spiritually). It's billed as an "autobiography from age 0 to 3 years old," but it's much more than a look at what it means to be a baby. Nothomb's other sort-of memoir Stupeur et tremblements (about her return to Japan as young woman) is more widely known and also hilarious. But reading Métaphysique des tubes first explains a lot about the woman she becomes, and her writing style in general.

Métaphysique des tubes is unlike pretty much every other memoir I've ever read. But if you can get past that and lose yourself in the story (which isn't that hard), you get the important reminder that the life of a baby is still a life (and not a mere existence). And, if you're really paying attention, you'll realize that what Nothomb is actually saying is that a baby's ability to continuously learn and adapt and observe is something we should try to hold on to, because in many ways that life is much more sophisticated than the day-to-day life of an adult.

Métaphysique des tubes
By Amélie Nothomb
First published in 2000 (cover image shown from Le Livre de Poche edition)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nancy Drew turns 80

It's hard to believe, but girl detective Nancy Drew turns 80 today.

Created in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew was ghostwritten by several authors under the name Carolyn Keene (who also turns 80 today, I guess). She has solved over 175 mysteries and provided countless life-lessons to girls (and boys) all over the world. I can't remember which one I read first, but I spent many years obsessively reading about the adventures of Nancy and her two best friends, George and Bess.

Going back now, the books are definitely dated (and pretty formulaic). But there's something about those old yellow hardcovers that reminds me of what it was like to be 10 and not quite sure how Nancy was going to get herself out of whatever trouble she was in. But she always did, often with the help of her friends or her father, and she always figured out the mystery. And for all the stereotypes of class and race that were often present in the novels, Nancy was a smart girl who was revered, not ridiculed, for her intelligence.

So, happy birthday to my first fictional role model. Thanks for years of adventures and convincing me, for a brief period of time, that I too wanted to be a detective when I grew up.

Cover image shown from The Secret of the Old Clock, the first of the books published in the original series in 1930 by Grosset & Dunlap.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Covers: The Next Generation

In honour of Penguin's 75th Anniversary, Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland started "Speaking to the Past," a project to show just how important book covers are.

Classic Penguin book covers are ubiquitous in used bookstores and well-stocked bookshelves. The old orange and white covers are simple in design, with clear titles and and little in the way of illustration. To celebrate these classic covers, Coupland decided to use their aesthetic to explain the world at 2010 to someone living in 1935.

"The Moon: We stopped going there 30 years ago" one cover announces (there are a lot of space-related ones). "1989 Communism Ends: An Anticlimax" proclaims another (politics is another popular topic, as is technology). Coupland's project site offers 30 examples of how simple language written in Gill Sans is all you need to explain the future to the past. He also gives anyone interested blank versions of Penguin covers so they can create their own (that can be subsequently posted to his Flickr pool).

Although we're frequently admonished not to judge books by their covers, most people do. What Coupland's project does is take that one step farther, simultaneously giving one-line history lessons and illustrating just how hard it is to capture important events and/or facts on a book cover. There's more to history than headlines, he seems to say; similarly, there are more to books than covers (although good ones don't hurt).

Image shown by Douglas Coupland as part of his "Speaking to the Past: A Penguin 75th Anniversary Project"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Canada Book Day

Despite an atrocious lack of press attention, today is Canada Book Day. To celebrate, here's a list of the great Canadian literature I've featured (so far) on Books Under Skin.

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill
The Birth House by Ami McKay
Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findlay
Hooked by Carolyn Smart

So, Happy Canada Book Day. I hope you read something great


It's National Poetry Month, so every Friday in April I'm writing something about Canadian Poetry.

Hold onto your hats: The
Toronto Poetry Slam finals are tomorrow night. And if you're into slam, that's kind of a big deal. The finals decide who will make up this year's TPS team (four plus one alternate) and therefore, who will represent Toronto at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.

Slam is basically performance poetry. A TPS slam event usually features 12 poets, all of whom perform and are subsequently scored during the first round. The top six poets then progress to the second round, in which they perform something else. In the third round, the top three poets compete for the win. There are always prizes (ranging from gift certificates to X-Files DVDs), but they're sort of the icing on the poetry cake.

Slam is a little raucous - audience members are encouraged not to be quiet - and it is a competition, which some people take issue with. There is a contingent of more traditional poets who don't approve of slam's poetry-as-competition format; a position that has caused some heated debate (page vs. stage, if you will).

I guess I can see both sides of it, but to claim that poetry is never performance is just nonsense. Any time poetry is read aloud as a form of diversion or entertainment, it is being performed. And as for the competition aspect, well, I've certainly entered more than one poetry competition in my life and I never thought that made what I wrote less than poetry.

So, slam comes down to a matter of preference. It's a genre of poetry, which - if the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word is any proof - has been largely welcomed in Canada. I mean, we even had slam poet Shane Koyczan perform at the Olympics in Vancouver.

So, if you want page poetry, you can have it; if you want stage poetry, slam is growing in popularity all across the country; and, if you're like me and you want both, even that isn't a necessarily a contradiction in taste.

Image used: a live-painting (done on stage) entitled Canadian Festival of Spoken Word by Sharon Hodgson

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Secret Garden

It's Earth Day, and of all the nature-y books out there (some of which I've written about), The Secret Garden is one that never fails to inspire. I don't know how she did it, but even as Frances Hodgson Burnett takes you into Mary's psychological world - and all the emotional intangibles that entails - she takes you outside so you can feel the dirt on your hands and under your nails, and the damp breeze on your cheeks.

Mary Lennox is a pretty well known literary heroine, I think. But then, her story fascinated me when I was younger (well, it still kind of does), so maybe I take it for granted that everyone knows all about her. Just in case, though. Mary was raised in India, where she was incredibly spoiled by the attention of her parents' servants. In all of children's literature, I think Mary is the only thin, blonde child who is described as ugly (as much in attitude as in appearance). Anyway, at the beginning of the story, everyone in Mary's life dies from cholera, virtually overnight. And that is how Mary comes to find herself at Misselthwaite Manor, staying with her uncle on the edge of the English moorland.

As I've already said, Mary was not a pretty child, and she had a terrible temper. After being waited on in India, she had a very hard time adjusting to life in a house where none of the servants were paid to dote on her. She barely saw her uncle (whose wife had died tragically come years before), so she was very much alone. After puttering around and throwing several tantrums, Mary gets bored with her old ways and sets out to something. The Manor has large gardens and Mary starts digging around. One day, a robin shows her a door in a wall, but the door is locked and after trying to get in for a few minutes, Mary gives up.

The outdoor activity is good for Mary and she starts to perk up. Martha, one of the younger servants, introduces Mary to her brother Dickon (who has a way with animals) and they become tentative friends. Mary shows Dickon the door in the wall and they decide to try and find a way in. Mary does some poking around in the house and finds a key, which proves to fit the lock. Mary and Dickon open the door to the secret garden (which is encased by high brick walls) and go in. After playing in there for a while they decide to look after it and start trying to restore garden to its obvious former splendour.

Meanwhile, in the house, Mary has been hearing strange wailing noises at night. After being woken up several nights in a row, she decides to follow the sounds and discovers that she has a cousin named Colin. Her Uncle, Mr. Craven, is a hunchback and his son is similarly disfigured. So Colin is kept confined, away from everyone, so no one can see his condition. Because he's lonely, Colin is prone to tantrums (much like Mary was upon arrival at Misselthwaite). But as Mary slowly befriends her cousin, drawing him out of his shell and eventually out into the garden, his health also improves.

Clearly, this story has a happy ending. Colin's health improves so much that he is actually able to walk up to his father, and Mary is pretty and has friends for first time. It's fairly predictable, but as far as classic children's stories go, the moral is much more interesting.

Burnett places a huge importance on the children's life outdoors. Neither Mary nor Colin really begin to improve until they start spending time outdoors, in the company of other children. And it isn't just their health that improves from the exercise and fresh air, but also their temperament and emotional well-being. Essentially, Burnett is extolling the benefits of spending time with the natural world and illustrating how important it is for people to stay in contact with the Earth.

It may be a book written for children, but The Secret Garden is almost more important for adults. Kids are always reminded to play outside (whether in the park or their backyard) but it seems the older we get the more time we stay indoors, which often as a negative affect on both our moods and our health. Reading The Secret Garden when I was a kid made me wish I could find a place like that to look after and revel in; now, it makes me want to build something like that - I would even settle for a window-box garden, at this point. Or, I guess, sitting outside and reading.

The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
First published in 1911 (cover image shown from that edition)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Playing at Optimism and Succeeding

It's National Poetry Month, so every Friday in April I'm writing something about Canadian Poetry.

Not very many people are asked how optimistic they are about they jobs. Usually, we take those kinds of things for granted. We like them or we don't (or it depends on the day), but optimism and pessimism aren't usually things we feel toward ourselves as teachers or lawyers or administrative assistants or whatever. Poets, though are different.

The Optimisms Project (hosted by is asking young poets to be optimistic about poetry. And if they aren't optimistic, they're asked to fake it, just for one day. The project is being managed and run by Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney, who says he isn't really optimistic either, but is willing to fake it for a whole month just to see how it goes.

Six days a week (every day but Sunday) for the whole month of April, The Optimisms Project presents the ramblings of a poet explaining why they're optimistic about poetry. It sounds like it might be silly, but it's actually really good. And every day you know you can go back and read about what makes people optimistic enough to do what they do (despite the general appearance of cynicism). To be honest, when reading some of the missives I actually wondered how many of these poets actually convinced themselves with their words - more than a few, I hope.

There are lots of things to be optimistic about as a reader of poetry in Canada. Is it harder to be optimistic when you're a poet? I guess that depends on what day of the week it is.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Becoming a pop culture writer is a pretty gutsy move, I think. Everything you write, whether about music or movies or fashion or whatever, will immediately date you. And thus, date your publications. Your work may be cutting-edge when it comes out, but if you endorse the wrong band, in ten years (when everyone knows they were the wrong band) your work becomes giggle-worthy and irrelevant. If you're Chuck Klosterman, though, you embrace that potential and run with it. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman's "low culture manifesto" is a little dated now, but it's dated in the best way possible: it reminds you of what it was like to be there, in the late-'90s, early-'00s, and then gives you Klosterman's perspective on how we got there.

What I like most about this collection of essays is how argumentative they are. Klosterman has an opinion on most things, it seems, and he goes on the attack for every one. When you agree with him, it feels a bit like you have a champion in your corner ("Yes! There is relevance to country music! You tell 'em Chuck!"); when you find yourself disagreeing, you find yourself talk to a book ("Well that's a stupid reason not to like Coldplay"). Either way, though, if you have any interest in pop culture (mostly music and TV in this collection), you will be engaged.

A lot of what makes this book so successful, though, isn't the subject matter, it's the writing. Every once in a while I'll pick Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs up off the shelf with a hazy idea of rereading one specific section whose name I've forgotten. So, flipping around, skimming pages for key words, I'll stumble onto something like the essay on Saved By the Bell and end up reading the whole thing - completely abandoning my previous goal.

Incidentally, what Klosterman says about Saved By the Bell is that it's a reassuringly bad show. The audience doesn't expect it to mean anything or make any sense; rather, we watch it because it's predictable and that somehow validates our own ideas about growing up and going to high school, etc. It's when the show tries to be creative, he suggests, that we see through it. But at the same time as he's deconstructing what made the show so bad, he's also admitting that for a period in his life he watched it four times a day and goes on reminisce about episodes in pretty specific detail. Klosterman critiques and comments on pop culture from the inside, taking himself and his nostalgia down with everything else, which is a refreshing perspective.

In between each essay, Klosterman includes a little "interlude." They're short (usually less than one page in length) and meant as a kind of palate cleanser, so you can move from reading about the porn myth to a brief ode on cereal without being jostled too hard (a short piece about socks kind of softens that transition). As a whole, the interludes are probably my favourite part about the whole book. I like punchy little tangents, though, and sometimes I flip through and just read the interludes, skipping all the essays. The book is better as a package, but if I don't have an entire afternoon to indulge my nostalgia, I'll take the little wordbites I do have time for.

And that's what this book does really well. It takes you back and lets you have a nice, nostalgic conversation with someone who cares as much (or more) than you do about whatever '90s or '80s phenomenon you miss. Apparently my generation is experiencing an early nostalgia for our youth (many theories as to why that is hinge on the rapid pace of technological growth and 9/11), and although I'm sure we aren't the first group of people to harken for a simpler time, reading Klosterman sometimes reminds me that it's alright that we've moved on.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
by Chuck Klosterman
First published in 2003 (cover image shown from Scribner edition)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spring Reads

I know spring officially started several weeks ago, but it hasn't really felt like spring until now. The buds are all bursting, making streets glow with that early-leaf green, roadwork as started up again, sunny days are almost more prevalent than rainy ones and temperatures are staying more-or-less above 10 degrees Celsius. Those are all the normal signs of spring. For me though, I always know it's officially here because just as my work is ramping up with the weather, I realizing I'm starving for a good read. And even though I don't really have the time, I start gobbling up books left and right.

Spring reading is different than summer reading, though. In the summer - so the theory goes - we read a lot, but the books we read are generally lighter. Summertime comes with a different routine, and reading a book we don't mind putting down, or spilling something on, or filling with sand, goes along nicely with that more laid-back lifestyle. Spring reading, on the other hand, seems to grab me and push me into overdrive. If I'm not reading a book a week as well as working, I feel like I'm not taking advantage of whatever it is spring is giving me (increased daylight, the ability to read outside without a sweater, I don't know).

Although it will be a little while before my work wraps up and I'm able to unpack and prioritize all the books I want to read this season, I am giving myself some leeway. After all, reading is ultimately beneficial and should be indulged like any craving. Otherwise, I'll just keep looking fondly over at my book, thinking about where I left off instead of the task at hand, which is the least productive use of my time.

For some spring-reading suggestions (much more useful than suggestions of the cleaning variety) check out the archives of this blog, the National Post's "Spring Books Quarterly" and "The Walrus Reads."

Image shown from the cover of the National Post's "Spring Books Quarterly" (illustrated by Pascal Blanchet).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Canada's Poetic Landscape

It's National Poetry Month, so every Friday in April I'm writing something about Canadian Poetry.

Yes, I have written about how landscapes are treated in Canadian literature before, but when it comes to Canadian poetry things are a little different. Canada's many landscapes have been an integral part of our national poetry since pretty much the beginning of Canadian time.

Way back in 1867, when the Confederation Poets (such as Charles G. D. Roberts, Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman) got going, the wrote some pretty landscape-heavy poems about the scenery or the wilds or the vastness of what surrounded and confronted them. I once argued that the Confederation Poets were Canada's Romantics (something I stand by) and that their turn to look out at the land instead of in at themselves affected how Canadian poetry has progressed.

Now, that's not to say that the inner landscape doesn't exist in Canadian poetry, because it most certainly does. But that is not what this post is about.

In both the April edition of The Walrus and the most recent edition of Geist, Canadian landscape(s) poetry and poets are nicely featured. First,The Walrus features a lovely little piece on Al Purdy, one of Canada's foremost poets who wrote extensively about the Canadian landscapes that interested him. Geist, on the other hand, is featuring a Jackpine sonnet contest. The form was invented by Milton Acorn (another celebrated Canadian poet) and basically gives permission to poets to write irregular sonnets (which sounds like it should be an oxymoron, but instead is probably exactly the way Canadian sonnets should be written).

It's easy to think of landscape poetry as old-fashioned or somehow cliche, but really, in a country as vast and varied as Canada, the landscapes are a huge part of how we identify. And landscape poetry isn't all flowery. Robert Service wrote some amazing poetry that was rooted in a particular landscape but about more than projected emotion ("The Cremation of Sam McGee" comes to mind). A lot of our history as a country is also rooted in the landscapes of Canada, from the mountains of the west coast, to the arctic, the prairies, the oceans and the forests that carry almost right the way across. Really, if our poets weren't writing about it, we'd be missing out.

Image shown painted by Leanne Shapton

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bluebeard, Revisited

When I was a kid (and I guess now too), my parents were big supporters of books. Pretty much any kind of book I wanted to read or be read, they were happy with, although I'm sure they steered my taste a little. At some point, though (I might have been 5), I got a box-set of Brothers Grimm fairy tales - there were four soft-cover illustrated books, I think, each with four stories in them. And like any kid who grew up with books instead of TV, I loved them. And so did my parents. Well, except the story of Bluebeard, the misogynist who murdered his wives and then kept their bodies stacked in a secret room. In the only act of censorship I have ever encountered on the part of my parents, my dad was so horrified by the story of Bluebeard that he threw that book into the recycle box and refused to even mention what the story was about for years.

So, although I had never actually read the story of Bluebeard, it took on this weird, mythic quality and I became very curious about it. Four years ago, I discovered (through a class) Angela Carter's book The Bloody Chamber. It's a book of short stories that reworks classic fairy tales (such as Little Read Riding Hood, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) so that the female lead is the one with the agency. Carter takes her heroines and, rather than making them a vessel through which the story and moral develop, makes them proper characters who think, feel, live, etc. The first story in this book, which is by far the longest, is called "The Bloody Chamber" and it's about Bluebeard.

Upon reading the story, I realized a couple of things. First, that the original Bluebeard fairy tale was incredibly violent; and second, that Bluebeard was essentially a psychopathic serial killer who tricked his wives into "allowing" themselves to be murdered. If you aren't familiar with the whole story (as I was not) it plays out like this:
Bluebeard marries some pretty young thing and takes her home to his castle. Things are good for a while and then Bluebeard has to go away (on business? it's never really explained) so he gives her his giant ring of keys and says that she can go into any room in the castle she wants, except the one this specific little key opens. Naturally, her curiosity is piqued and after a couple of days she decides to see what's in that room (he'll never know, right?). Well, in that room are all his previous wives, dead and hanging up. She's disgusted and terrified (naturally), and just as she tries to leave, he returns and kills her. That's the story, in a nutshell, although there are variations on how he discovers she's found his secret wife-stash. I guess the moral is obey your husband or something.
Anyway, Carter was clearly as fascinated by this rather disgusting story as I was. In her version, though, she gives some backstory to the young wife, as well as incredible description and detail about her short life in the castle. Carter's Bluebeard also defies the original story. He does not appear to be a viscous, hate-filled monster, despite the many violent and tortuous murders he has committed. When he discovers his wife has entered his secret room (the key was damaged in the lock), he is upset, but not merciful. He tells her to go bathe, put on a white dress; her fate, he says, will be decapitation.

But she is saved. Not by his supposed grief (he truly is a psychopath), but by her mother. They had spoken on the phone the previous day and she had sensed that something was wrong (the moral of this story might be: never underestimate your mother). So she came to her daughter's rescue, killing Bluebeard before he could swing his sword down on his wife's pretty neck. Although the ending is quite violent, it is also a happy one, in its own way. Celia (the wife who lived) inherited Bluebeard's enormous fortune and she and her mother and her lover live quite comfortably in his castle.

I won't say that I wish I had been allowed to read Bluebeard as a kid, because it really is the stuff nightmares are made of. And, even if you convince yourself that it's just a story, all you have to do is turn on the news to discover that it's a little too close to some realities to be coddled away. As a man with three daughters, I'm not sure my dad could have done anything but throw the story away and hope it never became part of our consciousness. But it did, because horrible things have a way of creeping in. But "The Bloody Chamber" is a reasonable antidote, although the sex might be a little to vividly described for it to ever become a children's story.

Carter has a way of putting words together that makes certain descriptions stick with you. This can be both good and bad. But her real gift is that of a life to previously passive, unanimated characters. Call it what you want, but Carter does an excellent job of both preserving the original stories and turning them completely around, which makes this book both interesting to read once and almost hypnotic to reread.

The Bloody Chamber
by Angela Carter
First published in 1979 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Griffin Poetry Prize: The Shortlist

The Griffin Poetry Prize is the largest poetry prize in the world for an English-language (or English translation) first-edition poetry collection. Each year, two awards of $75,000 are give out: one to a living poet residing in Canada and one to an living international poet. The prize purse increased this year (the prize was formerly $50,000 for each winner) and for the first time ever, each finalist will also receive a cash prize of $10,000. The prize was launched in 2000 as a way of recognizing the importance of poetry and the role it plays in society.

This year's judges are Canadian poet Anne Carson, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and American poet Carl Phillips. The shortlists for the 2010 awards was announced today.

International Prize shortlist:
Grain by John Glenday (Picador)
A Village Life by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Sun-fish by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (The Gallery Press)
Cold Spring in Winter by Valérie Rouzeau and translated by Susan Wicks (Arc Publications)
Canadian Prize shortlist:
The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall (Coach House Books)
Coal and Roses by P.K. Page (The Porcupine's Quill)
Pigeon by Karen Solie (House of Anansi Press)
The Griffin Poetry Prize also publishes an annual anthology of works by the nominated poets. All the proceeds go to UNESCO's World Poetry Day, which is another way the Griffin Trust works to promote poetry.

The Prize will be awarded on June 3, so check back here to find out who wins.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Toronto's First Free Bookstore

April is quite the embarrassment of riches for book lovers in Toronto. Not only is it National Poetry Month, but it's also the Keep Toronto Reading Festival.

Clearly, just as every month should theoretically be a poetry month, every month should celebrate literature and literacy. But, since that doesn't happen, it's great that the Toronto Public Library took the initiative to place importance on a love of reading. There are all sorts of great events planned (including a book swap and many, many readings) which are not only a great excuse to get out and enjoy books but also to just get outside, since the weather is so nice these days.

But when Toronto isn't openly celebrating literature and the library goes back to its usual function (which, it must be said, is still very valuable), there is one amazing institution that continues to encourage a love of books: The Children's Book Bank. The Book Bank is an amazing place for children and parents alike. It encourages not only literacy but an ownership of literature, thereby promoting a life-long love of reading that comes most freely from knowing that you can keep your favourite book with you forever, reading it as often as you like.

The Book Bank doesn't replace a library; rather, it works with the library system to allow children from all backgrounds to engage with literature in a way that excites them. I interviewed Kim Beatty, who started the Book Bank, and a seven-year-old customer, and they both had far more to say than could be included here:

The Book Bank accepts donations of gently used books. To donate, visit the Book Bank at 350 Berkeley St. (at Gerrard Street).

Friday, April 2, 2010

It's National Poetry Month and the Shortlists are In

It's National Poetry Month, so every Friday in April I will write something about Canadian Poetry.

The shortlists for the Gerald Lampert and Pat Lowther Memorial Awards were just announced, and as awards for Canadian poetry go, these are two biggies (more so because of what winning means and not because of the $1,000 you get for winning).

The Gerald Lampert Award goes to the best first book of poetry published in the given year. The shortlist:

The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall (Coach House Books)

Gun Dogs by James Langer (House of Anansi Press)

Soft Where by Marcus McCann (Chaudiere Books)

Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names by Soraya Mariam Peerbaye (Goose Lane Editions)

Inventory by Marguerite Pigeon (Anvil Press)

Something Burned Along the Southern Border by Robert Earl Stewart (Mansfield Press)

The Pat Lowther Award is given to a female poet for a collection of poetry published in the given year. The shortlist:

God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinsky (Nightwood Editions)

Permiso by Ronna Bloom (Pedlar Press)

Expressway by Sina Queyras (Coach House Books)

Paper Radio by Damian Rogers (ECW Press, a misFit book)

Lousy Exploriers by Laisha Rosnau (Nightwood Editions)

Pigeon by Karen Solie (House of Anansi Press)

Relatively speaking, there are very few big poetry prizes given out each year, which means that the ones that are awarded are steeped in importance. But it also means that not all great poetry collections have an opportunity to shine in the public light. Canada has a long and proud history of producing very good poets, and it's a shame more people don't know that.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


People's interior lives are quite fascinating. Some people are quite different in their private worlds than the persons they project might lead you to believe; conversely, there are some people for whom you wish this was the case, only to discover that they are as ugly inside as out. In Hooked, Carolyn Smart challenges your perception of inner and outer lives by placing you inside the heads of seven real women and giving you a taste of who they were and what made them so.

When I think of Smart's body of work, I always think about her confessional poems. She writes with an impressive honesty about situations and emotions that are hard to quantify in words. In each of the seven poems in Hooked, Smart takes on the persona of the woman she writes about and, demonstrating an incredible ability to distill research, gives each of them a wholly unique voice.

What brings me back to the book again and again is the sense that I am experiencing seven entirely different lives, none of which I actually desire to experience in real life. All of these women are consumed (or hooked, if you will) by a passion that eventually brings about the demise of their body or soul.

And as awful as it sounds, not all of these women are people you particularly want to save - even if they are fascinating. Take Myra Hindley (the UK's Karla Homolka) or Unity Mitford (an English devotee to Hitler and his cause), for example. The voices Smart evokes when she embodies these women is perhaps most striking because where you judge them, she does not. Rather, she lets them tell you about their motives and sadnesses, making you almost complicit in the horror of their lives.

But not all the women Smart chose to focus on are so awful. "Rickety Rackety," written about Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott's wife) is quite sad, although the language is beautiful in its cadence and the images it strikes in your mind: vivid at the centre and blurring slightly around the edges.

In our society there is a tendency to type-cast people - men and women alike - so they become known as one thing forever. In Hooked, Smart goes beyond the roles these women filled and explores their inner lives, in a way explaining how they became to be known as they were. Her poems, written in sections, piece together the times and places and people that frame the women she chose to write about, and the picture that forms is one of passion and compulsion. For all the things that these women may have done or not done, let there be no mistake about it: Each one of them lived, and lived a life worth reading about.

by Carolyn Smart
Published in 2009 by Brick Books (cover image shown from that edition)
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