Friday, August 12, 2016

On Writing #103 : Bruce Whiteman

On Writing
Bruce Whiteman

I am neither young nor old, i.e. I am at that point where no one much notices what writing I do. Young poets deservedly occupy the limelight, or what there is of limelight for poetry in Canada today, they and the revered dead, who occasionally get statues erected to them in Queen's Park, near where the business of provincial governing goes on. The statue of Al Purdy stares at the statue of Edward VII.

Bitterness is to be resisted. What lover of William Carlos Williams's poems doesn't cringe at the thought of his Autobiography, written when he was a crabby, self-pitying old man? Better to get your memoir out of the way when you're still young, like Lautréamont. Then forget about poor Narcissus, his "dim fragrance/And the dim heart of the river."

I began writing poetry out of emotional need: a confessional, a talking cure, a vague aspiration to shrive myself without help from anything or anyone save words and rhythms. It took a long time to figure out that that impulse often made for boring poems, whatever psychoprophylactic benefits it might have had. Sitting on the sunny deck of a summer cottage somewhere north of Toronto in the early 1980s, I decided quite consciously to give up that kind of poetry, and to try to open up my writing to something more encompassing than personal experience and private grief.

So for thirty years I built a long poem in prose and tried to convince myself that this was better, that it made my poems more interesting, less gnarly with unfettered feeling, more prospective, more philosophical, more--dare I say it?--beautiful. With seven books of that poem now in type and an eighth in progress in a notebook, it has not seemed to make much commotion in the world. But as Stephen Rodefer says in a Keats-inspired poem called "Poetry and Sleep," "The universe may turn its head around one/Of these perpetual nights,/And I want to be ready." Probably it won't. Rodefer doubtless had Catullus in mind too: nox est perpetua una dormienda. That's more likely.

Maybe those incredibly productive Victorian novelists spent the greater part of their waking time writing. Most poets don't, though they wander through their days being poets even while they're looking after babies or grocery shopping or walking to the post office or making their frequent visits to the LCBO. I just mean that one is conscious of noise, attentive without even thinking about it to how a phone number tapped into an old-fashioned telephone can sound like a melody, alarmed by birdsong, sometimes painfully immersed in the soundscape, distracted by kids playing audibly in a nearby schoolyard even when their actual words are not discernable. The world speaks and poets listen.

"For Christ's sake, you can read/it all in his poems." That's Rodefer again, this time translating François Villon, the final line of his epitaph, "Cy gist" (Here Lies). It does all get into the poems, things the ear hears and processes: the music of the everyday, the residue of what's been heard.

There's more of course. There's what we retain in our primary auditory cortex of poems we've read throughout our lives, not so much the content as the music: cadences, tessitura, consonance and dissonance, phrasing: emotional alliances, sonic aspirations. And there are dreams, understood not through the contemporary activation-synthesis hypothesis, but by the older and surely lasting view, that dreams are partly the remains of the day, partly the recrudescence of old emotions, and partly creative writing itself (the dream work). And there is childhood, which is emotion and imagery, the pull of what is remembered as well as what is not, source of metaphors that are often more profound than we even know.

Beauty is an unpopular word today, but really, without beauty, what is there to make us go on writing poems? Elaine Scarry has said that beauty demands of us "acts of replication," that is, we experience it and we want to make it again in a different form. Perhaps many things in the world make us want to replicate them, but beauty seems especially crucial for poetry.

On Beauty

The dead are silent, and there is no prayer
to chivy heaven and make our need known there.

Silence begins as the trees end their painful reach,
each branch an indecipherable scribble on the air

where it stops, pointing nowhere, a scratch
on the void. Sometimes

I do lose heart, start to think I am a ghost with
no past to account for me, no body to stop a

hand or bullet. Don't, the heart says
unconvincingly, give up on beauty.

Bruce Whiteman is the author of many books of poetry and cultural history. His last book was entitled Tablature (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015). He reviews regularly for Canadian Notes & Queries, The Hudson Review, Pleiades and other journals.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

On Writing #102 : Karl Jirgens

Writing Lives: Writing Lives
Karl Jirgens
I wrote this article in response to a thought-provoking question rob mclennan asked me about the recent interest or “drift” toward poetic or creative biography, which involves innovative or lyric approaches to narrating lives of public figures. Good question, and I’ll do my best to answer, albeit a bit indirectly. But first, a few words about the title of this modest piece. The word “lives” is both noun and verb. And in a way, that’s what shapes the kind of writing that rob wanted me to comment on. Writing about lives requires a kind of double-vision. You see the “thingness” of the life you’ve chosen to write about, but life is kinetic. And writing about a life is a kind of nominative action, both noun and verb. Does this matter much? Maybe yes, because it helps contextualize some of the reasons for a growing  interest in writing about actuality. So, for this literary approach, what’s out there? Well, just recently, biographically based non-fictions include accounts such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, or, John Doe’s Under the Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, or, Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, or, A.J. Somerset’s Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, or, Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. There are bio-books on politics, health, black civil rights, environment, Indigeneity, spirituality, murder, royalty, the middle-east, athletes, musicians, film-makers, and the list goes on. Think, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Eldridge Cleaver, Truman Capote, Betty Friedan, and so many more. Think, Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, Last of His Tribe. Or, maybe think of Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs.

But, let’s take a quick look at several types of non-fiction. Marlene Kadar, in the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (U of Toronto Press, 2003), lists related forms that have been named or developed by different writers and thinkers, including “life writing” [Robert Kroetsch], “self-portrait” [Susan Jackel], “life-narrative” [Shirley Neuman], “bio-text” [George Bowering], “autographie” [Madeleine Gagnon], “biofiction” [Regine Robin], or, “filiation” [Gabrielle Fremont] (662). One could add autobiography to the mix. As Kadar, Buss, Jackel, and Neuman, have pointed out there is some porosity in the generic boundaries of autiobiography, and those other related forms. And, there are also cross-overs and blurs between what we typically think of as fictive and non-fictive expression (prose, poetry, or drama). Consider Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, bpNichol’s Martyrology, Lepage’s  The Geometry of Miracles, or, Needles and Opium. Literary borders are porous. There are different ways to deliver biography, autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals, anthropological data, oral testimony, and eye-witness accounts. Each of these approaches has its own characteristics, but it seems to me that the “drift” towards, or interest in non-fictive expression has always been with us. I think of the cave drawings of Altamira depicting successful hunting expeditions, or the love poems of Sappho, or, Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice to a young prince (still a best-seller), and, it seems to me that non-fictive expression has engaged us since our earliest days. Further, I think it should be apparent to most that any biography or bio-text becomes as much a depiction of the author as the subject. Consider Frank Davey’s remarkable How Linda Died, or, When Tish Happens.
Cave drawing from Altamira (c. 35,000 B.C.) [ ]
I’d like to turn the topic inside out, and briefly look at how biographical input enters into fiction. Novels often include disclaimers which insist that all characters depicted are purely fictitious, and any similarity to actuality is purely coincidental. But why include disclaimers, unless there are direct correspondences to actuality? So, we say, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” But such disclaimers sometimes mean the opposite, and are often included to avoid litigation. Despite disclaimers, fictions still depict actuality. I think of Rudy Wiebe’s question about “Where is the voice coming from?” Inspiration. Expression. Fusion. Meantime, creative life-writing, biographies, autobiographies, and other non-fictional forms, feature a different type of disclaimer; “Although the author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at press time, the author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause.” The difference between fictive and non-fictive disclaimers invites some consideration. For example, non-fiction uses many of the same methods as fiction. In non-fiction, information can be inflated, deflated, included, excluded, over-stated, under-stated, and so on. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your memory of your own life works much the same way. You may have exaggerated views of some things, sublimated others, and either revised, or entirely eliminated other events. In many ways, your memory of your past life is a fiction. The border between fiction and non-fiction is permeable and intriguing. It’s where I situate my own writing. I love exploring that liminal zone.

So, why the recent “drift” in interest for non-fictional or biographical writing? Put simply, our interest in actuality trumps our interest in imagined scenarios. Our stories are part of our cultural identity. They are ways of “naming,” “renaming,” or even “un-naming” ourselves, as Barthes put it. But how can we carry out such self-identifying if, as some argue, fiction has exhausted most of its own possibilities? The death of the novel has been repeatedly announced by writers such as José Ortega y Gasset (Decline of the Novel, 1925), Walter Benjamin (Krisis des Romans, 1930). Later, in the same century, the novel’s demise is discussed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Roland Barthes, John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, among others.

In his essay, “Trapped inside the Novel,” Tim Parks affirms David Shields’ contention that any community of readers will consider novels with jaded eyes after being barraged with mass-media sound-bytes or video-bytes depicting “reality” montaged through “quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama.” Parks states that he feels confined by the literary conventions of novels:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge [].

A quick survey from José Ortega y Gasset to Tim Parks suggests that at least some people feel that the novel has exhausted itself. Other prominent writers disagree, not exactly with that premise, but with the reason for the premise. For example, Salman Rushdie has argued that assumptions concerning the death of the novel are founded in First-World literary assumptions which are not particularly relevant when applied to literature beyond the west. Fair enough. 

We have arrived at 1001 x 1001 ways to re-tell our stories, but the fundamental forms abide, and even the innovations of what has been called “postmodern” can be read as reactions to those older forms, with meaning dependent on earlier literary convention. The unconventional only has meaning when placed beside the conventional. One could say more about form, but what about subject matter? Agreed, you can’t separate the dancer from the dance. Form and subject are integrated. But, too often the material out there seems like yet another psycho-drama, some writer’s invented crisis, created perhaps more to sell books and less for the art of story-telling, designed more for entertainment and less for our instruction, to paraphrase Plato’s and Aristotle’s views in a single clause. So, with a world in crisis, expression that avoids actuality feels escapist, maybe even a little irresponsible. I’ve heard it said that all art is masturbation. Up, down, or down, up, repeat, climax. Some audiences grow leery of reading yet another jerk-off story or poem, while “Rome” is burning. Or, if not Rome, then maybe the rainforests, but you get the “drift.”

So, to return to the growing interest or “drift” towards bio-texts, life-writing, or non-fictions; what’s the draw? Well, maybe non-fiction seems more socially engaged, or “engagé” as Satre put it. When one half of global wealth is in the hands of 62 people (as confirmed by Oxfam Davos), when the sustainability of the planet becomes a daily concern, when questions recur involving the military industrial complex, endless warfare, related “terrorist” events, banking autocracies, global food and pharmaceutical oligarchies, and daily mass-media mind-laundering, then then, maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the non-fiction, have a bit of a reality check-out at the local library or bookstore. I’d be interested in reading a bio-text on Bernie Sanders, for example. Such writing can arise from diverse sources, illuminating disturbing actualities. Anne Frank. Gil Elliot. Romeo Dallaire. Maya Angelou. Gerald Vizenor. Naomi Klein. David Talbot. Anne Applebaum. Timothy Snyder. Evan Osnos. Katherine Boo. It’s impossible to mention so many other important non-fiction or bio-text writers in this short space.

But! To be fair, it’s important to remember that fiction, poetry and drama are often equally “engagé.” Socio-political engagement is one of the fundamentals of drama. It is the raison d’être for satire. There is an inspiring history of socio-politically engaged poetry, fiction and drama. Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Harlem Renaissance, George Orwell, Edward Bond, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ben Okri, Anne Waldman, José Saramago, Barbara Kingsolver, Ron Silliman, Khaled Hosseini, or Chimanmanda Ngozi Adiche, among so many others. Or, closer to home, think of the Automatists, Carol Bolt, Joy Kogawa, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, Barbara Godard, Jeanette Armstrong, Lillian Allen, David Fennario, Dionne Brand, Steve McCaffery, Thomas King, Gail Scott, Erin Mouré, NourbeSe Philip, Tomson Highway, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, or Stephen Collis. The list of plays, poems, or tales of Handmaids and others is seemingly endless (and I apologize for the dozens I haven’t included here. Tomorrow, I’ll think of dozens more excellent examples). Nonetheless, why the recent drift in interest towards non-fiction including creative biography and/or autobiography? It might have something to do with a certain vérité, dropping any need for an artificial suspension of disbelief, while disregarding the literary fourth wall, and having the opportunity to walk hand-in hand with a forthright author talking about the actualities of how we how we struggle, live, die, fuck, sustain, and love in this dangerous time.

Karl Jirgens, former Head of the English Dept., at U Windsor, is author of four books (Coach House, Mercury, and ECW Presses). He edited two books, one on painter Jack Bush and another on poet Christopher Dewdney, and an issue of Open Letter. His scholarly and creative pieces are published globally. His research on digital media investigates literature and performance. Jirgens also researches 20thC and WWII genocides, as featured in his novel-in-progress on the Cold War. Since 1979, Jirgens has edited Rampike, an international journal featuring contemporary art, writing and theory. He currently serves as Associate Professor at U Windsor.

Monday, August 01, 2016

We Who Are About To Die: kevin mcpherson eckhoff

kevin mcpherson eckhoff sometimes oogy-boogies and othertimes ugga-wuggas. His most recent book is their biography: an organism of relationships (BookThug 2015), which is “wide-ranging” and “fun” according to The Globe & Mail. His shit has been shortlisted for the Relit Award and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Jake Kennedy is his bestfriend for life, and together they collaborate on all sorts of literary shenaniganery, from unpoem performances to guest editing deathbed issues of Canadian journals. kevin lives in British Columbia with a mommoo, two boys, three dogs, a hedgehog, and a few regrets.

Where are you now?
I am in my bedroom inside a house built in 1920 on land within Splatsin territory. 

What are you reading?
James Franco’s Directing Herbert White, but only for the purpose of destroying it via Oulipian mutations. I’m also reading a lot of Jan and Stan Berenstain, as well as text messages from various family members. I wish, however, I were reading Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora or Ethan and Malachai Nicolle’s Axe Cop.

What have you discovered lately?

I have discovered that lava can be as hot as 1250°C, that Triceratops may have been omnivorous, that dumbbell flies can be done on a declined bench, that my partner would love to be a doula, and that the period is likely going extinct.

Where do you write?

What are you working on?
Pretty much too much: a series of autostereogrammatical visual poems, some short anti-stories, a growth chart, Redirecting Herbert White, a writer’s grant for the Canada Council of the Arts, supper, a children’s picture book, a collaborative performance with Moez Surani tentatively titled Enactments, a speculative YA novel about a future wherein the speed of light has severely decelerated, patience, and a suite of poems built from faux amis between English and mostly other Romance languages.

Have you anything forthcoming?
Why, yes. Something called The Pain Itself should be emerging sometime later this year or early next from Insert Blanc in LA. And thanks to the Kickstarter campaign, it looks like I’ll be signing at least one copy in my own blood.

What would you rather be doing?


unhold fiends (german)
           after Sebastian B’s “Double-faced” series

genial gift


          after, rumpf
fast brand









see, wand



Thursday, July 28, 2016

the return of rob mclennan's poetry workshops: August-October, 2016

After nearly a year, I return once again to offering poetry workshops. Originally held at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, this session will be held upstairs at The Carleton Tavern, 223 Armstrong Street (at Parkdale).

The workshops are scheduled for Sunday afternoons, 2-4:30pm: August 28; September 11, 18 + 25; October 2 + 16.

$200 for 6 sessions.

for information, contact rob mclennan at or 613 239 0337;

The course will focus on workshopping writing of the participants, as well as reading various works by contemporary writers, both Canadian and American. Participants should be prepared to have a handful of work completed before the beginning of the first class, to be workshopped (roughly ten pages).

Participants over the past few years have included:
Amanda Earl, Frances Boyle, Chris Johnson, Roland Prevost, Christine McNair, Pearl Pirie, Sandra Ridley, Marilyn Irwin, Rachel Zavitz, Janice Tokar, Dean Steadman, N.W. Lea, David Blaikie, James Irwin, Claire Farley, Barbara Myers and Marcus McCann.

For those unable to participate, I still offer my ongoing editorial service of poetry manuscript reading, editing and evaluation.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Writing #101 : Daniel Zomparelli

On Writing
Daniel Zomparelli

To be very honest, instead of writing or having a process I just work very hard on my anxiety: both suppressing it and fuelling it.

I fuel it by letting my thoughts go as far as they need to. Whenever I am walking down the street, I think about what object could come into contact with my body to destroy it. The crane building a new high rise, that could easily fall on top of my body and crunch it into the earth. A car running off the road. The earth crumbling inside itself.

I take all these thoughts home with me, and clean my apartment, and make to-do lists, and stare at my emails. And then I don't write anything at all.

Today I thought about whether I even liked writing or the idea of writing. Nothing came from that thought. I ate a doughnut.

Maybe I don't write when I'm happy. I am happy. Or, I am in a state of happiness.

I have written 168 words. 170. 171.

I'm not writing today, just like yesterday and the day before. I won't write later today, and I won't write this weekend. I will fear about 20-40 random things will destroy me today. I will focus on that.

I am very good at administrative tasks. When I think about that, I think that maybe my calling was just being in administration. If everyone read books via spreadsheets on Excel then I'd be prolific.

Side note: I love doughnuts and wonder if I should be spelling it "donuts."

Writing processes are foreign to me. I'm impressed by writers who have a writing process. I think maybe if I did have a process it would be that I write nothing for as long as I can until I feel shame and feel like I've failed at being a writer by not even doing the thing that makes someone a writer and get very weird about it. Then I write. In other words, when my anxiety is high, my writing usually follows immediately after.

All of this is just to say, sometimes the writing process is not writing at all.

Daniel Zomparelli is the Editor-in-Chief of Poetry Is Dead magazine. He is a co-podcaster at Can’t Lit. His first book of poems Davie Street Translations was published by Talonbooks in 2012. He co-edits, a collaborative poetry project. His collaborative book with Dina Del Bucchia, Rom Com, was published by Talonbooks in 2015. He is currently completing his first short story collection.