Thursday, April 29, 2010

Framing Thought: Anthologies and Influence

If you’ve ever studied English in a university setting, you’ve probably got at least one giant, brand name, brick of a literature anthology stuffed under your bed or holding up an off-kilter coffee table. These books are not only a pain to carry around, but they’re also a pain because of their closed approach to literature. Of course, an intro class cannot cover everything that there is to cover, but which texts make it into these anthologies is telling of our attitudes towards literature, and indicative of our approach to literary history. No matter which monolithic anthology you were required to purchase, chances are it purports to supply you with everything important that you need to read in English. Unfortunately, these anthologies usually fail in this regard, and not only when it comes to contemporary radical poetics.

Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, edited by Pamela Norris, avoids many of the pitfalls of big anthologies in its selection and presentation of medieval English poetry and prose. The first advantage of this book is that each poem is accompanied with either a manuscript illumination or a medieval painting. The inclusion of visual art with the poems not only makes this anthology far more beautiful than the typical first year anthology printed on low-grade tissue paper, but it also generates a more complex and less anachronistic reading experience. We are here reading poems from an era where books were rare, expensive, richly illuminated objects, and where many audience members relied heavily on visual arts to convey messages obscured by their inability to read text independently. It seems fitting that works from this era should be read alongside images that enhance the meaning of the text. There is nothing definite or absolute about the bland, times new roman presentation of medieval texts in typical literature anthologies, and rather than being an overwrought gimmick, the inclusion of visual art with medieval texts enhances the reading of these works.

By including or excluding works from an anthology, editors have the opportunity to construct a particular vision of the material from which they are selecting. In Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, Norris achieves an interesting if precarious balance between challenging our preconceptions about the Middle Ages, while at the same time avoiding a revisionist approach to history. While Norris samples from Chaucer several times in the slim anthology, she frames these selections with less frequently anthologised, anonymous poems. Of all her selections, the most interesting is the passage Norris has chosen from The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438) was a travelling mystic whose main calling card was having very loud, long, and public weeping fits. Her writing was known only in excerpt until 1934, when a complete manuscript was uncovered. Suddenly, we found that Margery, who in excerpt was described as an anchoress (a religious recluse walled into a cell) turned out to be a world-travelling rabble-rouser. In Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, Norris selects a passage where Margery takes to the choppy seas in a small boat, a selection that flies in the face of the centuries of the misquoting that Kempe’s text endured. Norris does, however, also include several misogynist clippings from chivalric romances and religious poems dealing with The Fall. By selecting a passage about travel from The Book of Margery Kempe, yet still including less savoury pieces deriding women, Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun reframes literary history where reframing is due, yet still avoids denying the unpleasant truth.

Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun is a well-edited and charming presentation of medieval verse, prose, and art. More importantly, however, this type of anthology can inspire a critical look at the standardised anthologies that we are often prescribed as the cure to English literature. Even when the content of the anthology is centuries old, the inclusion and exclusion of works from an anthology is no less political. Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun is not only pleasing to the eye, it’s a reminder that a critical eye should be turned to all anthologies, particularly those that appear to be presenting a neutral and factual canon.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

See This/Hear Me

Three Tight-Lacing poems were recently included in the very cool looking See This/Hear Me exhibit of visual poetry at Latitude 53 in Edmonton, organized by Trisia Eddy and Marita Dachsel. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to go see it myself, but here are some photos of the show from Trisia. First time I've had work in a gallery! :D

Carpal Tunnel, Carpal Diem?

photo credit

Working in an office kind of sucks, if only because my fingers, hand, wrist, arm, shoulders, and upper back are killing me. This pain is discouraging me from doing the extra-curricular poeting that I should be doing, which made me think of poor John Milton, dictating Paradise Lost to his daughter after going blind. I guess I shouldn't complain... at least I get physio.

John Milton
Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Spring

pencil, acrylic, pastels, and good ol' black pen.

Reassuring Failure: CBC's Being Erica

Countless biographies, movies, and television programs celebrate the successes of great writers and literary figures. These odes track the lives of precocious and unique authors seemingly fated to brilliance, even when the poet protagonist does their best to throw it all away. Being Erica is not such a series. We meet Erica Strange, an English MA-holding call-centre employee in her early 30s, on the eve that she is fired, stood up by an internet chatroom date, and hospitalised after accidentally eating nuts, to which she is extremely allergic. While in the hospital, Erica meets Dr. Tom, a psychiatrist who asks her to make a list all her greatest regrets. After scribbling a long list of her biggest mistakes, Erica is sent back in time to fix them, giving her the chance to do the right thing. Her tasks range from helping out a drunk friend at a high-school dance to not picking sides in her parents divorce. What interests me most, however, are those stories that have to do with Erica’s failed attempts at writing, or at finding a career that suits her English major passions.
While the show’s premise of time-travelling psychotherapy sounds a bit goofy, Being Erica offers an honest look at the disappointments and tribulations that most writers face. Having failed to find a career in the literary field, Erica lusts after an old rival’s position as fiction editor at a Toronto publisher, and then goes back in time to try to steer her career more deliberately. Though Erica fails to rewrite her past into a successful present, she does manage to nail down a job as an editorial assistant at the fictional River Rock publishing house, where she makes coffee, files papers, and is bullied by her boss. Erica’s boss publicly mocks the overwrought stories Erica wrote as an undergraduate student, prompting Erica’s therapist to send her back in time to confront her overbearing poetry writing professor. Erica does not come back to the present a brilliant writer, but she does gain the confidence she needs to confront her new boss.
While Erica quickly settles in to her new job and even manages to get promoted to junior editor, in the second season of the show, the book she was responsible for editing and promoting turns out to be a flop. For this failure and some other workplace shenanigans, Erica gets the boot. She is subsequently sent back in time to see if she could have been a great novelist had she had the money and leisure to write instead of working, only to discover that money can’t buy writing chops or motivation. Erica also goes back to fix a major blunder that landed her in hot academic water, and to see if her MA could have been turned into a PhD and a career in academia. Turns out, Erica wasn’t meant for academics either. However, Erica finally decides a career in publishing is her real calling, and picks herself up to start her own small company in the third season of the show, which has yet to appear.
Erica Strange is an endearing character because while she is not fated to literary greatness, she isn't a total failure, either. Aside from the cutesy, fluffy entertainment that this show offers, Being Erica also provides realistic assurance for the average writer. This programs suggests that you don’t need to have published a book, landed a great literary job, or proved yourself to be a literary genius by the time you’re twenty-two in order to eventually find your stride as a writer and to find an interesting literary job that makes you happy. Like most of us, Erica is still getting there. It’s both fun and comforting to watch. Also, you can watch the whole two seasons free online through CBC.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Get Published

As National Poetry Month chugs on you may be thinking, “Poetry Month! The perfect time to finally get my poems published!” Or maybe not. In any case, my time as a poetry editor has taught me a few things about what you can do to get your poetry submission from the slush pile to the pages of a magazine. If you’re beginning to send your work out, here are my tips.
-Don’t send more than 5-10 pages: It’s up to you to identify your most publishable work. Pick your best poems and nothing more, or you will risk alienating your reader.
-Include practical information: If your work is accepted, the magazine will need your biography and mailing address. Send your bio written in the third person, and keep it to five or six lines. Present yourself professionally in your biography, even if you’re submitting to a quirky magazine.
-Give a short introduction to you and your work: Include a cover letter with your submission, but keep it to a few short paragraphs. Include a brief, objective description of your submission, and a short paragraph of relevant details about your experience as a writer and why you chose to submit to the magazine. Be neither self-deprecating, nor aggressive and pushy. Simply give a short, professional introduction to yourself and your work.
-Include a link, but just one: If you publish a blog of your creative work, feel free to mention it in your cover letter or biography. I have, on occasion, asked for work that I spotted on a blog when I was just about to send a rejection notice. Don’t overdo it though—one link is enough.
-Don’t send the same poems over and over: A rejection letter might invite you to submit new work in the future. However, numerous poets receive their rejection notices and immediately submit the same poems. This won’t help. Pick a different piece to submit the next time.
-Read submission guidelines carefully: If the magazine accepts neither multiple submissions, nor previously published material, please don’t submit work while claiming in your cover letter that it has already been published.
-Don’t spell the editor’s name incorrectly: You’ve probably found the editor’s name on the magazine’s website—just copy, paste, and avoid getting off on a shaky foot. Same goes for the title of the magazine.
-Submit electronically: If you have the choice between submitting your work electronically or in hard-copy, email it. This will make it easier for the editor to keep track of your work, to contact you with any questions, and to send your work to other key individuals like the managing editor or graphic designer. If your poem is published, sending an electronic copy will also ensure that things like line breaks and spacing are reproduced correctly.
-Be patient, but not too patient: Many small magazines work on a volunteer basis, so don’t be anxious if a month or two goes by without a response, and don’t send numerous inquiries about the status of your submission after only a few weeks. If it is the magazine’s policy that they only contact successful submissions, please respect that policy. If the magazine responds to all submissions, however, and several months have passed, feel free to ask for an update. Email problems occasionally arise, and you may want to confirm that your submission arrived safely.
-Only submit to magazines you read: The editorial collective and I have, on more than one occasion, rejected competent submissions because they were not stylistically appropriate for the magazine. Don’t submit visual poetry to a hyper-conservative magazine that only wants nature poems, and don’t submit confessional, lyric poems to a magazine of experimental poetry. Your poems don’t just have to be good, they have to be a good fit, too.
If you send your perfectly polished cover letter, biography, and 5-10 poems into the world and get nothing but rejection notices, don’t be discouraged. Try, try again. Read as much poetry as you can, find magazines that publish work like yours, write, edit, edit, edit, and submit. Eventually, you’ll see you poems in print.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Poem Poems

Since the ‘90s, April has not only been the month folk longen to goon on pilgrimages, nor just the month that lilacs are bred of the dead land… it’s also National Poetry Month here in Canada. While it’s great to have a whole month dedicated to fostering an appreciation of poetry, poets certainly didn’t wait for Poetry Month to show their love (or self-love). A casual flip through most intro-to-poetry textbooks will reveal almost as many poems about poems as it will poems about graceful, unattainable women. Poems about poems share many thematic points with love poems. Poem poems range from selfish and jealous to pleading and desperate, painting the writer’s relationship with poetry as everything from a plate-throwing, fiery mess, to a an arm-in-arm stroll along the beach at sunset. Whatever their take on the relationship of the writer to the word, however, all of these poems explore the hold that poetry has on the writer. In fact, love poems and poem poems are often blurred, so that it becomes difficult to tell if the writer is more in love with the subject of the poem, or the act of writing. In honour of National Poetry Month, here are a few of my favourite odes to poetry.

from A Kite is a Victim
by Leonard Cohen

A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer…

A kite is the last poem you've written,
so you give it to the wind,
but you don't let it go
until someone finds you
something else to do.

Poem Poem
by Milton Acorn

Yesterday a bust of breath
Poems broke from the white dam of my teeth.
I sang truth, the word I was;
And with each shout curling my tongue
Heart and fist thumped together.

But the poem I write today grins
While I chop it like a mean boy,
And whittles my spine.
Insinuating friend or stranger
It is truth, the word I am not.

from Sonnet 18
by William Shakespeare

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

from Ars Poetica
by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

from The Thought-Fox
by Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness

from Eunoia: Chapter I
by Christian Bök

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism,
disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks -- impish
hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn't it glib?
Isn't it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits,
writing schtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz - griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white