Saturday, April 19, 2014

On Poetry: Publish However Much You Want

In his piece in the National Post “On Poetry:Publish Less” Michael Lista encourages eager young writers to not publish their work, attempting to save them from their own misguided enthusiasm and from “Canada’s Literary Industrial Complex.” So to celebrate national poetry month I’d like to completely disagree with him.

On a basic level I agree that it’s good to read a lot and to spend a lot of time writing because ultimately these two activities will probably help with your writing, yet I think much of Lista’s argument is flawed.

Section the First: On Arguments: Let’s Examine This One

Lista’s anecdotes about his experiences as a young writer do not prove that a writer’s age or the amount of time spent writing a poem or book are reliable measures of how good or bad that poem or book will be. Writers of all ages write good books and bad books. Dostoyevsky apparently wrote The Gambler in about a month, but not every NaNoWriMo novel is going to be super awesome, but maybe some of them will be. Who knows. To prove that the age of a writer or the time spent writing a book is a reliable predictor of the quality of a book would take an enormous amount of research, so I suppose you can get on it, digital humanists, if that seems like a topic worth investigating. It may seem like common sense—the more time you spend writing the better your writing will probably get. But I know that I’ve agonized over individual poems for months without ever being able to make those poems work, and I’ve been able to quickly jot down things out of the blue that I regard as my stronger poems. I’ve also spent time agonizing over single poems that eventually worked out well, and I’ve quickly jotted down cruddy poems. Poetry works in mysterious ways.

Next, the number of books published in any given year does not necessarily correlate with the quality of those books, positively or negatively. Literary editors and publishers are not infallible, selecting the universally agreed upon best books first then rounding out their catalogues with bad books to meet a quota. If Canadian publishers published half as many books there is no guarantee that the ratio of good books would be higher than the ratio of good books published at the current rate of publication. If only one book of poetry was published in Canada every year there would be no guarantee that it would be the best possible book to publish. (In fact I’m pretty sure that if we had some weird system that only allowed one book of poetry to be published in Canada every year that the book would be a bad one, because what kind of poetry would such a system choose? Please write a dystopian short-story on the subject for publication on your blog or in a literary journal of your choosing.)

Additionally, Lista’s complaint about the way that grants are distributed is a bit suspect. He argues that granting bodies encourage “a writer’s worst attributes,” yet Lista also reports that (what he calls) his own bad writing and attitude did not earn him a grant when he was in his early 20s. If his attitude and literary production at that time were exactly the kind of bad writing and attitude that grants encourage, then Lista should have gotten a grant. Lista offers no convincing argument that grants are consistently awarded to bad writers or that they encourage bad writing. I’ve read books I liked and books I disliked by writers supported by individual literary arts grants, and I’ve read books I liked and books I disliked written by writers who did not have funding. Who gets a grant is based on a number of fluctuating factors that would make this argument difficult to make one way or another (For example: Is the applicant a good poet but a bad grant application writer? Is an applicant a bad poet but a good grant application writer? Who is on the jury that year? How objective are those jury members when evaluating applications? How many writers applied for grants that year? How are the internal workings of the granting agency changing from year to year, and how much influence do these changes have on the way in which grants are awarded and in what amount? Etc.) And to admit any conflict of interest—I got a grant in my mid twenties for a project I think was worthy of support, and which I am still plugging away on. So maybe I’m part of the Canadian Literary Industrial Complex and can’t see the bad writing for my own bad attitude, although I’m confident that this is not the case. Incidentally, I’ve been working on the book for three years so I guess my actions ultimately answer to Lista’s pleas, but I digress. 

I would also push back against the insinuation that there is a Canadian Literary Industrial Complex that causes bad writing to flourish for the sake of the financial benefit of anyone involved. As a published poet who has also worked in publishing in a number of capacities, I am reasonably confident that almost no one is making it rain by exclusively publishing poetry—not the writers, not the literary magazines or small press book publishers, not the booksellers. I’ve neither met nor heard of a Canadian poet living today who makes a living off of writing and publishing their poetry exclusively and also in the long term. I could be wrong, of course, but the application forms for many provincial and federal grants in Canada say that you can only request enough money to subsist. Government subsidies are really not all that generous in the grand scale of things. They are better than the $50 or less you make some years giving readings and publishing your poems in magazines, but… subsistence level funding. If you get funding. The Canada Council Emerging Publisher Grants, which might be the type of grant that Lista is talking about with regards to the new press that wanted to publish his early book manuscript, are currently between $5,000 - $30,000, which is really not very much if you consider the cost of production, distribution, marketing, and the cost of living for the person or people who run the press. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to imply that these grants are very lucrative or that people are in small press publishing for the money. The press that wanted to publish Lista’s manuscript might very well have been genuinely interested in promoting his work, despite the writer’s distaste for that manuscript now. Maybe Lista’s early manuscript was good or maybe it was bad, and maybe the publisher had good taste or maybe the publisher had bad taste. We’ll never know.

Next, I think Canadian writers and publishers are putting out lots of great books of poetry these days. To provide my own anecdotal sample, I’ve read about 30 books of contemporary Canadian poetry this year so far, and I’ve hated only two of those books. And who knows if Lista and I would agree on the quality of those two books, or on the quality of those books that I read and loved. I suspect we would not because of Lista’s critique of the: aesthetic that presently predominates English-language verse, which values the elliptical, the runic, the evasively verbose, in which questions of aesthetic merit dissolve in a sociological and stylistic bath, poems that buy into what Ange Mlinko has called ‘the sense that the lid has been ripped off any consensual definition of poetry, and that for a new generation it has been a test of one’s authenticity to write poems that evade all criteria for a “good poem.” ’

This passage feels like a snare set to catch experimental writers, and I don’t really know how much it’s possible to argue with the critique since no examples of this alleged perfusion of bad writing are given. My favourite books by Canadian writers and from Canadian presses that I’ve read lately might fit into Lista’s ‘post-Humanist aesthetic.’ It’s pretty easy to argue the merits of the kind of poetry described above, and besides, what is this consensual definition of poetry? And who gets to make it? If people agree by consensus that the type of poetry that Lista and Mlinko are dismissing is indeed poetry, then is that not a consensual definition of poetry? Personally I don’t care what style of poetry people write in or like to read, but it’s irritating when someone dismisses entire unnamed, potentially well-developed and interesting writing traditions with a couple of unsubstantiated sentences. I’ve read some bad neo-Romantic confessional free verse poems, and some bad rhyming, metered poems, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t do that kind of writing well. They can and they do and good for them. To add to that, arguing that Canada’s collectivist attitude is a drag and that it encourages bad writing, and comparing the American Edison to the Canadian Bell to make this point are also flimsy arguments. Light bulbs are great but telephones have proven to be quite useful and indispensable as well, so perhaps the analogy isn’t perfect, but that happens, so whatever. More importantly, many modes of writing aren’t built on the notion of individual geniuses expressing themselves intentionally in iambic pentameter, and these modes of writing are equally valid. Found poetry can be great, conceptual poetry can be awesome, Oulipian poetry can be mind-blowing, visual poetry can be stunning, Dadaist poetry can be transcendent, and non post-Humanist poetry can be bad.

And to build on the issue of collectivism, I think having a community and publishing your work early on are important and beneficial for both individual young writers and for our literary culture in general. I do indeed think that we generate our literary culture together, and that this is a good thing. Getting new people involved is beneficial—it reseeds the literary landscape and ensures the future health of our literary culture by adding new voices, new styles, new writers who are either already strong writers or who may become strong writers in the future, as well as adding numbers to our readership. If only a limited number of people in their 30s and up were publishing poetry our lit culture would stagnate. Will everything everyone publishes be successful? Will everything everyone publishes meet my or Lista’s or anyone else’s standards of what we consider “good”? Probably not. But I don’t think that’s damaging or threatening. For young writers, getting a chance to work on a student magazine or on a local magazine or for a local reading series will be great experience if they want to keep doing these things later on. Publishing work early will similarly allow young writers to go through the process, and to learn how to deal with the reaction from their readership—be the reaction positive, lukewarm, negative, or if there is no reaction at all. Participating in a literary community can also be fun and rewarding, and why shouldn’t it be? If you make friends with other writers you’ll be able to spend time chatting about poetry, you’ll get valuable feedback from your peers, and you’ll be motivated to keep up the good fight because writing will become a source of enjoyable community and cultural engagement that can counteract the many hours you spend alone as a writer. If a young writer gets involved in a literary scene via publishing work that is maybe not so hot, the worst that can happen is that somewhere a poem is being published that is not so hot. But getting involved early on in their career will probably help a young writer get better at writing, in which case we can all benefit from there being more good writers in the mix. And if you are a young writer and you have time to work on your writing and to publish your writing and to participate in lit magazines or readings or related activities, please do it. Because I’m finding that every year my other obligations (and the length of my public transit commute every day, ugh) sap more and more of my time and energy and I have less to put into my writing and basically nothing to put into my local writing community. When I was in undergrad I had time to write, time to participate, and I learned a lot. I can now draw on that experience because I no longer have the time or leisure to live the way I did back then. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of time that I had in my early 20s and I’m here to be the ghost of Christmas future—write and volunteer if you’ve got spare time while you have spare time! BooooOOOooo.

Section the Second: On Personal Experience: Mine Is Different Than Lista’s

Lista offers himself up as an example of why a young writer should not pursue publication, telling us that his first published poem sucked even though he liked it at the time, and telling us that the first book manuscript he completed sucked, and that he is relieved that an older writer friend intervened to save him from himself and the small press that wanted to publish his work.

I can easily counter Lista’s story with my own. Lista published his first poem at 22 and now hates that poem, so much so that he won’t give the name of the magazine, and I published my first poem when I was 21 or 22 (I don’t know what month the magazine came out, I’m afraid) and I still love that poem (it’s in filling Station issue 41 and it’s called “Squash” and I regret nothing). 
Yes, I took this photo with a cell phone. I'm phoning it in!
I dedicated the poem to my mom because she’d given me the idea for the poem. She was cooking squash and remarked that she thought she’d better get that squash cooked because “squash doesn’t keep forever.” I thought the comment sounded like an idiom so I wrote this poem and I included it in my next workshop submission for my creative writing class. I almost didn’t include it, fearing that the poem was too odd, but then I stuck it in at the back of my submission anyway because I liked it and I experienced a surge of self-confidence that was uncommon for me at that age. As it turns out my prof liked it, the class liked it, the magazine I submitted the poem to liked it, and when I read the poem at readings people responded well to it. I learned to trust myself a little bit more and the experience motivated me to keep writing.

My first book came out a few years later and I’m still happy with that publication as well. It hasn’t received universally glowing reviews, it didn’t win me a GG or the Griffin, and I hope it’s not the best thing I ever write because that would be a bummer for me since I will hopefully be alive and writing for some time yet, BUT I’m happy with the work I did there. I’m proud of that book and I’m at peace with it. Writing the book was interesting and rewarding, I like the way it turned out, and I had a marvelous experience working with Snare and the awesome editor/person Karis Shearer. Snare is now an imprint of Invisible Publishing and Invisible is great too. The book has been assigned as course reading at five different universities and colleges that I know of, and I’ve had the chance to speak to three creative writing classes as a result. And unlike Lista, who tells us that he encouraged the kids he spoke to at Trent to not publish, I encouraged the students I spoke with to become active members of their writing communities. I can’t recall that any of them asked me specifically about publishing, but if they had I would have told them to go for it.

I encourage students for a number of reasons. Unlike Lista who had the self-appreciation to throw two parties in his own honour when he published his first (by his own evaluation) bad poem, I was shy and lacking in confidence when I was in my early 20s. Completing the creative writing program at the University of Calgary, publishing my work, giving readings, and becoming an active member of the writing community in Calgary was a valuable and life changing process for me. My mentors taught, explicitly and implicitly, that whatever made you a weirdo was probably the same thing that would inform your best writing and your style, and I cannot over emphasize how important a lesson in self-worth that was. More importantly for this argument, I find that this lesson has proved to be true. My writing has improved dramatically since I stopped writing poems on what I thought were the approved topics and in what I thought were the approved styles for poetry. For these reasons, I will pass this lesson on to younger writers whenever I have the opportunity to do so.

Each time I’ve spoken to a class, the students who have most eagerly engaged with me and come up to chat with me after the talks were young women. In one case the prof had to introduce the student to me after the talk because she was a bit too shy to approach me herself. I ask these students what they're working on, and they've all told me about really cool projects. I tell these students as much, and encourage them to keep at it. If I could publish a book in my early/mid twenties that I am still happy with in my late twenties then they can do the same. They might very well write a better book or create a better art project than I am capable of now or was capable of at that age. I encourage them because I genuinely believe in them and I believe that their work sounds great. I encourage them because I think young women deserve to be encouraged to participate in public life in the area of their choosing, because there is a lot of discouragement going around. When I was that age I needed encouragement, and I felt like I needed someone to give me permission to put myself out there, because patriarchy is a thing and it is a thing I had fully internalized at that age. With all due respect to Lista (who I fully acknowledge did not say that he said the following to a group of young women mkay?), I will never again listen to anyone who tells me to “[l]earn to respect the silence you want so badly to break. Once you don’t burn for it, you’re ready,” and I encourage all young writers to ignore this advice, especially young writers who are women, or who are not part of the majority in whatever way shape or form. If you have something you need to say, say it. And if you want to say it in a poem, that’s great, because poetry is great. I don’t know if you’re going to write or publish a good poem on your first try or on you 2748th try, but you might as well go for it. In the case of women, you can have a glance at CWILA’s stats or VIDA’s stats to see that we respect silence far too much, or that others are invested in trying to teach us to respect silence. Silence is a lesson I am always trying to unlearn, and it is definitely not a lesson that I think should be taught. I’m afraid to publish this blog post for instance. Why is that? I hate that.

(Although at least one person has gotten called a name on the internet for disagreeing with this article. Vehicule Press changed the original title but it's still in the url because the internet!)

Section the Third: On Conclusions: Here’s Mine

So, if you’re a young writer, write. If you feel like you're ready to publish your work, then send it to publishers and see what happens. If it gets rejected try again. Read books and go to readings and volunteer at magazines if you are able to, and soak up all the writing you can. If you’re not happy with your writing then edit, or write some different poems, or ask your writer friends to read your poems and get their input. Have fun with your writing and have fun in your writing community. But don’t think that time and age are the only things that make good writers, and don’t become paralyzed by self-doubt (there be dragons and endless anxieties). And please don’t ever respect silence. It’s done nothing to earn your respect. And finally, if you break your silence with a sort of goofy or bad poem it's totally okay. Just write another poem.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Google Street View of every address in "Walkups" by Lance Blomgren

Each of the vignettes (or little short stories or however one would define them) in Lance Blomgren's book Walkups (2nd ed from 2009, Conundrum Press) is entitled with the address of an apartment in Montreal. Here screen shots of the google street views of those addresses, in the order in which they appear in the book.

#4-345 rue Lachapelle
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the closest available address.

3444 avenue Coloniale

2120 rue Clark
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected.

5574 boulevard St. Laurent

78 rue Villeneuve E.
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

 12 avenue d'Orléans
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

 6296 rue Casgrain

#802-10 rue Ontario O.

5170 rue Durocher
Google Maps directed to a location in Parc Ex but this address is located in Outremont.

#2-383 rue Edouard-Charles

#5-1609 rue St. Hubert

3134 rue St. Zotique E. 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. 3133 was visible but 3134 was not. 

#8-223 rue St. Viateur 

340 rue Ottawa 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

 #1-1949 boulevard St. Joseph E. 

"An Apartment in the Village" 
I selected an apartment in the village of personal significance to myself. 

#11-2021 rue Atwater

4531 rue St. Dominique

5433 rue Waverly

7856 rue d'Iberville

4863 avenue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville

6102 rue Jeanne-Mance

5746 rue Clark

7432 rue Garnier

6296 rue St. Dominique 

6542 avenue Papineau
The exact street number is not visible. Closest possible address shown here between 6540 and 6546.

868 rue Champagneur

8561 rue René-Labelle

 5155 avenue du Parc

1027 Côte du Beaver Hall

2353 rue de la Visitation 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. It is possible that the building occupied the now vacant lot in the right hand side of the image. 

266 rue Fairmount O.

586B rue Peel 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. This street is across the field from the corresponding odd numbered addresses.

4533 rue St. Dominique 

1861 rue St. Grégoire
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

6709 St. Laurent

8393 rue St. Michel

 4312 rue Rivard

6287 rue St. Dominique 

88 boulevard St. Joseph E.

4289 rue St. Émile
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

 254 rue Berlioz
Google Maps placed street view at the slightly wrong address. This is likely the correct address though the street numbers are not visible in all cases. 

#304-3620 avenue Ridgewood (Le Four Thousand)

#100-7 rue Notre-Dame

5949 rue Hutchinson

5449 rue St. Urbain 

67 rue Dupré
Using Google Street View the road could be located but no buildings with street numbers on them. 

3442 rue St. Dominique

5162 rue Casgrain

1037 rue Gertrude 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

805 avenue Antoinine Maillet

2233 rue St. Mathieu
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

48 rue Haliburton
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. Google Maps would not even try. 

5236 rue St. Urbain 

#1-4163 rue St. Urbain
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the closest possible given the other street numbers nearby. 

Somewhere in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve
Address randomly selected: 2335 avenue Bourbonnière

444 rue de Bienville
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

4808 rue de Grand Pré
Using Google Street View this street number could not be found. This is the location Google selected.

 5729 avenue du Parc

5162 rue de la Roche 
Using Google Street View no such address could be found. This is the location Google selected. 

1008 avenue Van Horne 

4821 avenue l'Hôtel de ville 

486 rue Beaubien 
Est or Ouest not specified in the text though Est seems more likely. Using Google Street View the street number could not be seen, though numbers above and below 486 are visible. 

Note: Apt. d'Amours
The title Apt. d'Amours is used throughout the text. A photograph of the apartment at the beginning of the book reveals that it bore the street number 1000. At the end of the book in "Author's Notes" we read that the building was, "not far from the bike path in Rosemont." No apartment with this name could be found via Google Street View at the address 1000 on any of the intersections in Rosemont. Pictured here is 1000 boulevard Rosemont, located beside the bike path. The structure appears to be a new condo development.