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Sunday, 13 December 2009

My favourite poetry collections of 2009

Here is my top 10 poetry collections of 2009. I want to preface this list of personal favourites with the same disclaimer as last year’s: I'm probably forgetting something here, and I haven't got around to reading all the books I've meant to read this year, and I do have a stack of books I've bought but haven't read yet, so try not to take this too seriously. If your book isn't here, I apologize. You know I think you're brilliant. These are not ranked (stopping at ten is arbitrary enough), rather, they are listed in alphabetical order by author:

1) To Be Read in 500 Years by Albert Goldbarth (Graywolf Press)

2) A Village Life by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

3) Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon Press)

4) Lousy Explorers by Laisha Rosnau (Nightwood Editions)

5) Mr. Skylight by Ed Skoog (Copper Canyon Press)

6) Pigeon by Karen Solie (House of Anansi Press)

7) Something Burned Along the Southern Border by Robert Earl Stewart (The

Mansfield Press)

8) Reticent Bodies by Moez Surani (Wolsak & Wynn)

9) Selected Poems by Dara Weir (Wave Books)

10) Always Die Before Your Mother by Patrick Woodcock (ECW Press)

As usual, I don’t include books that I’ve edited for my own imprint with Insomniac Press, though I think these are also wonderful books, and I recommend them to you as well:

Wanton by Angela Hibbs

Porcupine Archery by Bill Howell

Naming the Mannequins by Nic Labriola

Honorable Mentions

There are simply too many fabulous books to fit on a list with only ten slots. Here are some other books that I loved from 2009, and I hope you will love them, too:

God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinsky (Nightwood Editions)

The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall (Coach House Books)

Word Comix by Charlie Smith (W.W. Norton & Company)

This Way Out by Carmine Starnino (Gaspereau Press)

Mole by Patrick Warner (House of Anansi Press)

Friday, 11 December 2009

James Dickey internet poetry round-up

While many people today know James Dickey best at the author of the novel Deliverance (and as the sheriff in the film version of that novel), James Dickey was first and foremost a poet, one of great primal urgency and emotive power whose poetry achieved enormous popularity in his own lifetime and beyond.

I am a fan of James Dickey's poetry, and I have noticed that there are a great deal of excellent resources for readers interested in his poetry on the internet. I have gathered here what I consider to be the best available. If you're a fan of Dickey's like I am, then I hope you enjoy where these links take you, and if you're new to Dickey's work, then I hope they lead you to his books, where you are sure to find more of his fabulous work.


"For the last Wolverine"

"The Sheep Child"

"May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County by a Lady Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church"


"The Heaven of Animals"

"The Hospital Window"

"The Lifeguard"

"The Strength of Fields"


"The Dusk of Horses"

"Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek"

"The Shark's Parlor"



"At Darrien Bridge"

"Buckdancer's Choice"

"In the Marble Quarry"

"In the Tree House at Night"

Poet and novelist Maria Hummel offers a marvellous essay on Dickey's poem "The Sheep Child" (a personal favourite of mine) at The Poetry Foundation's website. I encourage you to read it after you've read the poem a few times.


Bronwen Dickey on her father's legacy

CNN audio archive of James Dickey

The James Dickey Library, University of South Carolina

The James Dickey papers, Washington University in St. Louis

The James Dickey Society and Newsletter


Saturday, 21 November 2009

Authorial intent, snark, and missing the point on purpose.

Well, thanks to a little something called "reading week" I finally have a few days to myself, and I thought I would catch up with what's new on my bookshelf. Let's start with three books I picked up today.

Selected Poems By Dara Wier

Wave Books has done the world a favour by publishing this book. I hope this selection of Wier's poems brings new readers to her work.

Stuart Ross pointed her work out to me years ago, and I've been reading it ever since. Some of her works are difficult to come by in
Canada, though, so when I saw this on the shelf at Type Books, I snatched it up!

Wier doesn't appear to be interested in being a mere traditionalist, but she doesn't seem interested in doing something new for the sake of doing something new, either. Rather, it seems likes she's always looking for the way the poem wants to be written. Almost never is a word, a line-break, or a punctuation mark out of place. These poems are technically neat as a pin, but the thoughts they contain seem to rage and wander and fret and sometimes moon the world. Her poems are funny without being trite, startlingly beautiful without being overly dramatic about it, and thoughtful without rubbing the reader's nose in philosophical pretentions. Rare traits all. I recommend her poems highly.

Track & Trace by Zachariah Wells

This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautifully produced trade paperback editions of a poetry book I have ever seen published in Canada (and with publishers like Gaspereau Press, Pedlar Press, and this book's publisher Biblioasis on the scene, there are more beautiful trade paperbacks around than ever before). When I first heard it was being illustrated by Seth, I worried the result might be a little too gimmicky, but no. Seth's stark, simple illustrations work well as a counterpoint to Zach's meticulous craftsmanship. As for the poems themselves, Zach has definitely built on the burly aesthetic he demonstrated in his first book (which was edited by me, incidentally). This is an aesthetic generally characterized by an assertive (even, at times, severe) approach to metre that is enhanced by an ardent attention to sonic effects like alliteration, syncopation, rhyme, etc., and his control over such a severe metre is both admirable and remarkable (only on a couple of occasions does it sound too conveniently clippity-cloppity to my ear). And verse with such a robust physicality is well-suited to his subject matter: woods, ponds, floods, cormorants, slugs, briars, ice floes, etc.

I'm recommending that you order one today.

Mister Skylight by Ed Skoog

If you haven't heard of Ed Skoog yet, memorize the name. This is his first collection, and it is stunning. Thanks to a tip from my good friend Chris Banks, I read some of Skoog's work in APR a while back and just loved it.

The poetry of both Dara Wier and Zachariah Wells, although very different to one another in style and technique, leaves the reader with a tangible sense of the intellectual vigor and material craftsmanship that went into it. Not so much with Skoog. Not to say these poems are not wonderfully thoughtful and well-crafted, they are! Often with tremendous formal constraints and schemes ("Canzoniere of Late July" will blow your mind). But Skoog manages to make it appear effortless, natural, protean -- It's an illusion, of course, and a good one, and one that makes the strength of the work all the more powerful for the reader. Skoog brings his combination of innate talent and acquired skills to bear on a poetic debut that's truly exciting and memorable.


From the University of Calgary:

Following Al Purdy’s death in 2001, The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust was formed in order to save the poet’s home in Ameliasburgh, Ontario from the wrecking ball by transforming it into a writer-in-residence retreat. This retreat will offer Canadian authors and critics a secluded, historical setting in which to develop the manuscripts that will shape the next generation of Canadian literature. Towards this end, the After Al Purdy Poetry Contest offers poets the chance to engage textually with the legacy of one of Canada’s most important poets, while also contributing to the fundraising initiative to save the A-frame.

The Contest: We are seeking previously unpublished poems that engage in some direct way with Al Purdy’s poetry, poetics, and/or poetic legacy. There is no limit on the length or number of poems submitted as long as the appropriate entry fees are included. The judges will select the top three poems in each category (see Categories, below). Event, The New Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review will each publish two of the winning poems in 2010. The winners will also receive a selection of titles from Harbour Publishing (including Paul Vermeersch's forthcoming The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology) and Freehand Books.

Categories: Entries will be judged under one of two categories: emerging poet or established poet. An established poet is someone who has published a book of poetry (longer than a chapbook), or has one forthcoming with a confirmed publisher.

Contest Fee/Donation: Entry fee is $10/poem, with all monies thus collected going directly to The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust. Further donations to this initiative are welcomed and encouraged. Tax receipts will be issued, upon request, for any submission fee/donation of $50 or more. Cheques and money orders must be made out to The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust.

How to Enter: Send a cover letter identifying under which category your poem(s) is/are to be judged, along with one hard copy of each poem, and the appropriate entry fee ($10/poem) to:

After Al Purdy Poetry Contest,
Department of English, University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, AB T2N 1N4

Please include your contact information, including your name and email address at the top right-hand corner of each submitted poem. Email submissions will not be accepted. Please keep a copy of poem(s) submitted; entries will not be returned.

Contest Closing Date: Entries must be post-marked by Friday, November 13, 2009. Winners will be announced by January 1, 2010, and will have their winning poems published in 2010. Entries will be judged by University of Calgary English Department graduate students and faculty:

Suzette Mayr, Owen Percy, Robyn Read, and Tom Wayman.

Sponsored by the English Department at the University of Calgary, Freehand Books, Harbour Publishing, The Antigonish Review, Event, and The New Quarterly.

Visit After Al Purdy Contest on the web at www.english.ucalgary.ca/afteralpurdy
More information on The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust can be found at www.alpurdy.ca

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Mooney and Banks have new poetry blogs.

to describe the eating of something mildly exotic like, shall we say, a bowl of spicy pumpkin soup (you know the kind: 'I plop a dollop of cream in its middle...' FUCK OFF!). And thank goodness for that! To the contrary, Rosnau's poems are never content with mere fantasies of suburban prettiness. She brings a psychological depth and gravitas reminiscent of William Stafford's or James Dickey's disturbed rural precincts into the residential corridors of southern British Columbia, and that makes me very happy.

Living Things by Matt Rader

If this book is any indicator, Matt Rader and I share a lot of thematic preoccupations in our writing, so of course he has my complete attention. For his second collection, Rader has crafted poems in tune with the physical world, the wonder of nature, and the constantly rolling crest of history's wave. I like Rader's first book very much, but this one? I absolutely love it!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Albert Goldbarth talks about his toy spaceship collection and reads his fabulous poems

überpoet and extremely cool dude Albert Goldbarth, whose latest collection of poems is To Be Read in 500 Years, is the subject of a PBS poetry series feature on Jim Lehrer's show in which he talks about his collection of toy spaceships and reads a few poems from his new book; be sure to watch the streaming video!

Monday, 20 July 2009

New on my bookshelf

John Ashbery's Collected Poems 1956 -- 1987

It's a mountain of Ashbery. It's magnificent, vital, fun. Defies description. An absolute must have.

And it's Library of America, so the binding is GORGEOUS!

Chronic by D.A. Powell

Those who know me well enough know of my fascination with the poetics of the physical body and its relation to the natural, physical world. Powell addresses similar preoccupations in his new collection (actually it seems like somewhat of a departure for him; his previous work struck me more as "social poetry" in its aims... think O'Hara, think Hoagland, only the aesthetic was Powell's own), so naturally I was drawn to it.

I'm really enjoying the fluidity of his syntax and his ability to roll along in little eddies of image and sound.

T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems 1909 -- 1962

Okay, so he's a bit of a poncey wanker... but he has chops.

I needed it... you know... for reference.

Douglas Dunn's Selected Poems 1964 -- 1983

Out of print. Used.

I picked this up in Balfour's and read about a dozen poems while standing in the ailse. I quite liked them, so I bought the book. I'm looking forward to digging into it when I get the chance.

It has since been supplanted by a more recent selected.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Dennis Lee approaching seventy

Jacob McArthur Mooney weighs in:

To see septuagenarianism looming in Dennis Lee’s near future is as inarguable a sign of time’s passing as exists for Canadian culture. His breakthrough success (1972’s Civil Elegies, the entirety of which Lee plans to read at the Scream) is so evocative of a certain point in the history of burdened optimism that it forever fixes its creator to a specific time and place ? as the perpetual radical twentysomething buzzing around Yorkville in the years before Canada stopped concerning itself with questions of what it meant to be Canadian.

Even more important than its introduction of Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies is memorable for its reintroduction of anger into Canada’s literary arsenal. A real, blood-and-spit kind of anger. And not just personal anger, either, or domestic anger. Instead, a massive, coast-to-coast, national anger. Anger as unifying theme. Lee’s early-career masterwork hums with a volatile disappointment that imposes itself on its readers, and that drags them into hard and surprising new territories. The humanism in Elegies is the kind that’s willing to put its head down and charge, unflinching, through to the far reaches of its philosophy and arrive as a kind of reactionary anarchism; as an anger that presents itself as both pout and polemics, before settling into its heartbreaking final movement as one young man sits in a public square surrounded by his fellow citizens and tries to give voice to his loneliness and rage.

Read the entire essay here.

And check out this event in this year's Scream Literary Festival. Lee will read Civil Elegies, Un, and Yesno in their entireties.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

New on my bookshelf

Poems 1959 - 2009 by Frederick Seidel

Sometimes I don't know what to make of Frederick Seidel. Just when you think he's cracking off some bit of eye-rolling Muldoonish clownery, swoosh! Out comes the switchblade! (or sometimes vice-versa). He's been called both a "ghoul" (by Michael Robbins) and the “the best American poet writing today” (lots of people). His writing is extremely complex, not only in its poetics, but also (probably even more so) in its psychology. All this is compounded by the mystery of the author. I went out today to enjoy a coffee and read the introduction to this substantial volume of collected poems. But there was no introduction. No context or commentary. No welcome mat. No doorway in. Just the poems to wrestle with... and readers better be ready for a royal ass-whooping.

House of Anansi didn't have its annual poetry bash in Toronto this year, so I'm only now getting around to the rest of their 2009 poetry titles after first reading Karen Solie's Pigeon.

Gun Dogs by James Langer

Langer is a poet clearly energized by the present-day Canadian renaissance of New Formalism in lyric poetry (which is the hot topic in CanPo according to its champions ...and only 25 years behind the Americans who have long since moved on to more interesting discussions). The mode, however, suits Langer to a tee. Forget whether or not it's fashionable right now (and right now, it is); he's just really very good at making the sounds of language do his bidding, and reading very good writing of any kind should be a welcome pleasure for anyone, shouldn't it? Occasionally the style wins out over substance (a few poems are like scrimshaw -- rustic and ornate, but what do they do?), but overall this is an extremely polished and eloquent book.

Mole by Patrick Warner

There must be something about Eastern Canada that lights a fire in well-rounded poets like Patrick Warner. He strikes me as the same kind and calibre of poet that those other Easterners Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan were at their very best: equal parts Romantic and Modernist, equally at ease with a tight quatrain or a whirling and lunging stretch of free verse, but also deeply and empathically contending with the haunting material substance of their worlds. Best of all, he possesses the ability to surprise the reader with small yet sublime revelations. Like a beam from a lighthouse, wherever Warner fixes his poetic gaze, he exposes the jagged rocks in the seemingly placid shallows.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

New on my bookshelf

Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes

Hughes' classic 1967 work on the writing and teaching of poetry is back in print. For me, the first chapter (called 'Capturing Animals') alone is worth the price of the book, but there's a lot more. It's always a pleasure to read a book like this by a great poet who is also a great commentator on poetry. Delightful.

Fish Bones by Gillian Sze

Taking their cues from painted scenes, photographs and portraits, these poems bring the quiet tableaus of their subjects' private lives vividly to life. Often, poems that describe still images are overly static themselves, claustrophobic with stagnant austerity... but not these. Sze's poems are often tender, funny, erotic or ardent; this is another encouraging debut by a writer who isn't content to ignore the physical world or the readers who inhabit it.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Some recent reviews I've written for the Globe & Mail

Love Outlandish by Barry Dempster

"...it could be argued that love has been the principal subject matter of poetry since we began writing it, and from Solomon to Sappho, from Shakespeare to Sexton, many poets have made it their specialty. To that long list we may now add Barry Dempster.

Love Outlandish
, Dempster's 10th collection of poetry, contains (let me count the ways) exactly 60 poems, and each one aspires to approach the well-charted subject of love from a new direction. In order to accomplish this feat, there are at least 4,000 years' worth of sap, sentiment and cliché to navigate around. It's a very tall order."

Read the rest of my review here.

This Way Out by Carmine Starnino

"What is surprising is how much more free-wheeling and playful Starnino the poet seems to be than Starnino the critic. For example, the poem Doge's Dungeon brilliantly uses this emoticon (:-o) as a kind of conceptual end-rhyme with the word “terror.” And the poem Heavenography is a stream-of-consciousness prose poem about “working-class” clouds. It's a rollicking, surrealist vaudeville of a poem that has more in common with experimentalist sensibilities than Starnino the critic might like to admit, but its jazzy freeform lightheartedness suits the poet so well that we should all hope he'll write more like it soon.

I like this version of Carmine Starnino best: the good-natured poet, full of beans, approaching his aesthetics with an air of carefree mischief. It's so refreshing, one has to wonder..."

Read the rest of my review here.