Friday, October 30, 2009

The Academy of American Poets Audio Archive



I am a big fan of the Academy of American Poets audio archive which contains hundreds of live recordings. I have bought several cds of favorite poets from Philip Levine to W.S. Merwin to Louis Gluck and I play them regularly in my vehicle as I go to and from work.

What strikes me most about each of these recordings besides the sheer excellence of the poetry and the delight of listening to the voices of poets I hugely admire, is the care in which each of these poets is introduced to an audience. Whether it be Gregory Orr introducing Larry Levis or Stanley Plumly introducing Philip Levine, each of the hosts goes well beyond a simple run-down of the poet’s biography or bibliographical information but contextualizes why each poet is important and clearly expresses what it is about the poetry itself that is remarkable and unique.

I guess what I find both refreshing and rewarding about this type of introduction of a poet to an audience is that the poetry, not the person, takes center stage.

I think we do see this kind of care and precision here in Canada at the readings for the Griffin Awards, for instance, but I would love for this idea to migrate outward to other reading series across our country. It would go along way to thawing relations between poets with different sets of poetic concerns and as a consequence, we as a nation would benefit from our poetry being taken much more seriously by all poets in our community - something I believe needs to happen first if we are to expect other countries to take our poetry seriously too.

If you would like to purchase cds from the The Academy of American poets, please order them here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John Koethe's "From The Porch"

Every small town I have ever lived in, and I have lived in several, was divided by a Main Street. Every time I think of Stayner, ON, the town I grew up in as a teenager, the first lines of “Proem” by Mark Strand come to mind: “’This is my Main Street,‘ he said as he started off / That morning, leaving the town to the others,“.

I remember feeling back then as if life was happening somewhere else in larger cities to people far more interesting and heroic and cultured than me. I couldn’t wait to move away. That is why I find the presence of that town, that childhood landscape, over and over, so peculiar in many of my poems.

In a book of essays called The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, he contends that all private poets have certain triggering subjects “which ignite your need for words” and he uses the example of one’s hometown.

Larry Levis clarified this idea further in a brilliant essay about place and childhood in which he very astutely suggests the lion’s share of English poetry since Milton has been “preoccupied with the loss of Eden” and that poems about childhood landscapes compensate for a dramatic shift in our poetry away from this very public myth to a private one. Our hometowns, the places where we grew up, stand in for “Eden” and, if they are good poems, testify “not merely to private loss, exile and knowledge, but to a collective and generational loss, exile, and knowledge.” In essence, it is because we can never go back to those places as they existed that we write the poems that we do.

Here is a poem by John Koethe from his book Falling Water that captures this very idea:


From The Porch

The stores were bright, and not too far from home.
The school was only a half mile from downtown,
A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer. In the sky,
The airplanes came in low towards Lindbergh Field,
Passing overhead with a roar that shook the windows.
How inert the earth must look from far away:
The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days
Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:
The photos in the album of the young man leaving home.
Yet there was always time to visit them again
In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars,
Or a life traced back to its imaginary source
In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book—
As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town
Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.
September was a modern classroom and the latest cars,
That made a sort of futuristic dream, circa 1955.
The earth was still uncircled. You could set your course
On the day after tomorrow. And children fell asleep
To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen,
While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine,
And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch.

- John Koethe

The poem opens with some fixed details or knowns about the town Koethe grew up in, “The stores were bright, and not far from home. / The school was only a half mile from downtown, / A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer.” These images are the initial glue that holds the poem firmly together but rather quickly Koethe moves away from them allowing his imagination to take flight which helps to create the immense distance he is looking to introduce as when he says, “How inert the earth must look from far away: / The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days / Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:”.

Next, he reminds readers that this poem is a myth, perhaps not a public one, but a private one as profound as any of classical mythology, which he makes a connection to in the following lines, “Yet there was always time to visit them again / In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars, / Or a life traced back to its imaginary source / In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book— / As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town / Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.”

Finally in the poem’s conclusion, Koethe acknowledges that although he can faintly hear the familiar voices he associates with that period of his life, those people and those times are gone, “To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen, / While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine, / And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch”. If you enjoyed this poem, please pick up Koethe’s latest book Ninety-fifth Street published by Harper Perennial.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

TNQ and The Literary Type



The New Quarterly has started their own blog called The Literary Type and people like me are just now starting to discover it. The New Quarterly has always been a magazine dedicated to publishing new and established Canadian voices. They publish a lot of poetry, short fiction and essays that speak powerfully about what it means to be a writer in Canada, and some work which occasionally infuriates me, which in truth is probably an indicator of a well-rounded, even-keeled literary magazine. I think the editors are doing a really great job which is why TNQ is one of several Canadian magazines that I subscribe to regularly. Check out their keen new t-shirts which I am still meaning to pick up for my wife and myself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Pope of Hess Village




My good friend and Hamilton poet Adam Getty has a reading tomorrow night in Toronto, part of Edward Nixon’s livewords series, which I will be attending. Adam is one of the first readers of all my poems and his thoughts on Canadian poetry are always lively. Both philosophical and provocative, his latest book of poetry Repose is an exploration of how employment impacts our lives and our freedoms. Adam will be reading along side Sonja Greckol and Blair Trewartha. The address is Sage West, 924 College Street and it is from 7:30-10:30 pm at night. Don’t miss it!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Towards The Within

I wanted to write a little note about how much I enjoyed Don Domanski’s essay “Poetry and the Sacred” in Arc 61 that came out last year. The ideas of mindfulness and of poetry as a transcendent act are concerns found in my own work, especially in the poems from my last book The Cold Panes of Surfaces, but such ideas can sometimes fall on deaf ears.

Nowadays, poets of my particular vintage divide their time between writing poems and puffing themselves up on their web pages, or padding their CVs, or else writing the now ubiquitous snark, see here and here, that tears down the work of some senior poet in this country, the mythological implications of such attacks, it seems, totally lost on them.

It is also disheartening to find so many young people now concerned with only the surface effects of poetry, as if a poem is nothing more than a kind of puzzle or arithmetic equation that can be easily solved by counting syllables or by employing a formal rhyme scheme. What is even more troubling is to see how many are overly concerned with their own sense of prominence. Unfortunately, our culture encourages such poets by telling them it is far better to be a face on a billboard, an image in a magazine, or a name on a page than a flesh and blood person quietly concerned with the long standing relationships between the spiritual and the corporeal, consciousness and reality, imagination and metaphor.

I expect it is no wonder we have raised a generation of young poets now happily posing for photos with microphones in hand and indulging in all manners of poetic trappings without ever exploring in any truly meaningful fashion those hidden sources that animate our lives and our poetry. In fact, a good many of them would ridicule this very idea for it has become quite fashionable to do so.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

River Rock Press Broadsides



Well, I am turning forty this year so for my mid-life crisis, I elected not to buy the El Camino to “soup-up” in my garage or to start training for an Iron Man triathalon but to invest in a small reconstituted letterpress from Don Black Linecasting. Perhaps not as macho as the first options, but infinitely more practical.

Here are a few pictures of my Kelsey Excelsior 6 x10 and a broadside of a poem I wrote and printed on it called “The Old Life”. I’m not using hard type because it is too expensive and I do not have the space in my house for a large letterpress shop. I’ve opted instead to go with the photopolymer plate-making services of Boxcar Press. I bought a Boxcar Base that fits easily in my Kelsey’s chase and it has allowed me to design my broadsides using Quark without limiting me to fonts, font sizes, or spot illustrations. As I am not planning to do a lot of printing, this was easily the best option for me as the photopolymer plates ink beautifully!

Sorry about the picture quality but I still need to run out and get a tripod. Broadside projects looming on the horizon include poems by Adam Getty, Carleton Wilson and Paul Vermeersch. I also plan to hit up Todd Boss and Al Moritz for a broadside if they are game.


Chris Banks, our hero and co-proprietor of River Rock Press, printing up broadsides in the basement.



"The Old Life" A hand-printed broadside by Chris Banks (4.5 in. h x 8.5 in. w) in a limited-edition of 50 copies.

Madrid

Taking a cue from Edward Byrne’s wonderful blog One Poet’s Notes, which offers crackerjack analysis and recommended readings on contemporary poetry, and from Lemonhound’s ongoing guest blogger series on how poems work, I have decided to post my impressions about poems I have especially enjoyed over the years. For starters, a poem I find myself thinking about all the time is Reginald Gibbon’s “Madrid” which I found in his new and selected poems Sparrow. I first read this poem three or four years ago but I often go back to my bookshelf to seek it out as it still haunts me. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Madrid

Through stone portals and under colonnades
into the old central plaza in cold December
came gypsies and outcasts with green branches.

They had broken off boughs of pine and spruce
along their minor routes to the city.
They had stripped copses and groves and plantations.

They camped on the cobbles, they lived in tents and wagons.
They sold the branches and a few small trees; some begged.
Little fires flickered in their artificial forest.

They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza
the stillness they had torn out of the woods,
as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.

Overheard, their voices sounded raw and smoky, used up.
But late, rising above the noise of cars and of children
playing at all hours, there might be a guitar and singing.

Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children
improvised intricacies of delay, so as to praise and hawk
the scent of green, so as to implore and beguile.

I was outside their thoughts, I was outside their ways.
We judged each other, I bought the wasted pine boughs.
The children stole my money, I stole their image.
Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.

- by Reginald Gibbons

What I think I like most about this poem, besides its passionate engagement with a foreign city like Madrid through visceral images like “Little fires flickered in their artificial forest”, or its fusion of sound and meaning through noteworthy alliteration like “Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children / improvised intricacies of delay”, is its creation of a dual consciousness and its use of time.

First, we enter the poem with the speaker, as if through the speaker’s shared “I” and the shared attention of we, the listeners, the past is delivered up momentarily whole. However, midway through the poem, we become suspicious that the time-fabric of the poem is not a solid unbroken line afterall but a stitch-work of stolen moments as when Gibbons writes “They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza / the stillness they had torn out of the woods, / as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.” It begins to feel as if these gypsies, and the speaker, exist outside of time’s confines.

These suspicions are confirmed in the poem’s last lines “The children stole my money, I stole their image. / Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.” as it becomes clear this is only a reproduction of time and of feeling. All at once, there is the speaker experiencing the historical moment in the poem but also the mournful voice of the poet elegizing that moment which happened long, long ago. As Tess Gallagher eloquently puts it in her essay “The Poem As Time Machine” in Claims For Poetry: “This is the sadness of the photograph: knowing even as you look, it was not like this, though it was. You stand in the “was” of the present moment and you die a little with the photograph.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Birthday Hannah!


Hannah Paige Banks turns one year old today!

"Make ready for your gifts. Prepare. Prepare." - Theodore Roethke

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Contemplative, the Narrative and the Lyrical

Well, I have reluctantly joined the blogosphere after swearing off blogging for years. I am a luddite when it comes to blogging, wikis, texting, and tweets so you will have to forgive me if I just ease in slowly. Even, my students at school cannot comprehend how I can go a single day, let alone an entire high-school English class, let alone five whole minutes, without ever making use of a cell phone. They look at me with a mixture of pity and bewilderment, as if they really, truly, do not understand how I am able to function without one.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we live in changing times and as such, I feel it is time to start writing about the kind of poetry that first drew me to writing poems. The contemplative, the narrative and the lyrical. Such poems are not always in favour here in Canada but I hope to remedy that.

Honestly, I am not a big fan of blogging so I don’t imagine I will be doing much of it. I have always thought blogging in Canada was more about profile-building than about any real discusssion or dialogue between poets. The early days of Bookninja were promising when it felt like George Murray had invited over a handful of poets from across the country to hang-out in his “backyard internet fort” and talk at length about poetry. I hang out there much less now that the fort has become more of a large mall.

I suppose there are places on the web where people are still openly talking about poetry that delights them. I know Sina Queyras over at Lemonhound is really trying to keep lines of communication running, pointing to favorite poets, poems, and pop culture relics, the very things that give her pleasure, while also handing the reins to guest bloggers from time to time to write about their favorite poets or poems. I think this is admirable. I also appreciate Paul Vermeersch’s blog for introducing poets, especially young people, to books they might not otherwise have heard of and for making strong arguments with real candor for the kind of poems he enjoys reading.

As for my own blog, I intend to use this space largely to talk about those poets and poems, both American and Canadian, I find most beguiling, haunting, worldly, and poignant. I also plan to post some photos of my broadside projects, which I have been printing on my Kelsey 6 x10 letterpress, and a miscellany of antiquarian books and broadsides I have been collecting over the last fifteen years.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by my little fort.