Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Katia Grubisic's WHAT IF RED RAN OUT

Katia Grubisic's initial collection, What if red ran out, reminds me of the work of Karen Solie, Ken Babstock (image, allusion, overview), and several other contemporary Canadian poets. Heady comparisons, but it can work against one, as well. The Banff Centre -- amongst other people and organizations -- is thanked in the postscript, and a derivative feel, if not an outright workshop-fretted editing process, prevails. It's to Grubisic's credit that invention frequently overcomes the well-worn path, if we can posit an anxiety of influence towards writers only a decade into their art: "[T]his one hewed out a burr,/between a reed and a bittern,/the rasping of wheat and the wear/of a rubber belt in the heart/of a machine" ("Raven on the Watertower") is a finely worked rhythm. But invention without control is like a dream -- sometimes vivid, but also disconnected, and in danger of evaporating. And even the inventive images can be blinded by preciosity, as in this from the closing "To take away, or be slowly taken": "I revert/to that night, closer to its ancient glittering eye, when I tried/to resuscitate the dark's ancestral smell." This is synesthesia on performance-dulling drugs. As one honouring concrete detail, Grubisic shines. In this vein, check out "Strawberry Jam" and "Prelude to Jumping in the River". The best poem in the book is "Paradise, Dam, North Shore", where action is marvelously tied to thought in a surprisingly deft late metaphor.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Mailbag #4

Dear Tribal Hack:

I hear poets constantly praised for nuance of meaning. But is it just a covering virtue for not knowing what the behaysooz they're talking about?

-- Frieda Illusion

Dear Frieda:

Frieda, the audacity! Don't you know that those deeper meanings, anti-meanings, no-meanings, multiple meanings, relative meanings, purposely confused and confusing meanings are only opened up when you've tiptoed through the minefield of French theory? Failing that, every poet has his or her own mythological geometry. There's more to the world than is contained in your philosophy, etc .... Except when it's the poet's.

Dear Tribal Hack:

I'm an established Canadian poet who's been reading on the circuit for decades. Lately I've noted a disturbing trend taking root from Victoria to St. John's, so it's not just a local fad. Hecklers are more frequent, but rather than direct engagement, the agitator will cough loudly and then hold up impeccably crafted calligraphy of popular retro bumper sticker and button fare: "Vote For Nixon!"; "Arms Are For Hugging"; "Free Willy". What's their real message? And what can I do about it?

-- Frank Lee Miffed

Dear Frank Lee:

Who cares about the intent? Don't let them mess with your head. Just like rock stars responding to audience suggestions, treat them like sincere requests spontaneously answered. Before your next gig, construct a few hundred poems, each bearing the title of the most popular slogans you've encountered. Honour the attitudes behind the several words. Should be fun. Here's one example to give you a feel for it.


Love, the clear and splendrous thing,
or so it goes, a wedding ring
or musical bed the seal
to the cynic's "let's make a deal".

But love is a deal, too, my friend,
more complex than a battlefield end.
In fact, that field can fester
with sly, self-conscious gestures.

Better to leave love to the brave,
those who rout short circuits, and rave
about your ideals to the pews
populated by new age crews.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


First off, a big thank you to Zach Wells for recommending this book to me. Perhaps he remembered that I'd earlier mentioned how much I appreciated Tony Harrison's poems about the Brit's father. Like Harrison's bravely searching poems, Coles' 1991 letter to his dead father treats their estranging differences with honesty, anguished memory, shifting mood, and persistent love. The dream metaphor of the titular image is haunting and troubling, its "ash-pale/feathers and ashen, downy breast/picking its way stiffly". The tone in Little Bird is intimate yet universal, and the constant, sad plea for communication is moving not only as addressed to his imagined father, but also to himself and to the reader(s). A few more amazing lines: "father --//a curious thing. Since/you died, all/the faces you ever/wore for me//have changed."; "So watching your mouth/move this way//is odd, guessing how/its trying to say/its lost poems."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Role Models

More sports. Tiger Woods, yesterday, apologized in a staged, scripted thirteen minute video delivery in a broadcast which probably pulled as many viewers as the Fab Four in their first Ed Sullivan appearance. It was boring, and maybe Woods was sincerely contrite, but I found myself, during its replay, muttering, "why should anyone believe you?", to several points he addressed, since he's obviously been a practiced, successful, relentless liar to his wife and kids for years.

There are many intriguing angles to the Woods' soap opera, but I'm interested here in something Woods said, because most everyone seems to believe -- with Woods -- in the premise of the issue: that not only is it OK, even cool and right, that sports stars should be role models for children, but that the notion of role models is, itself, worthy, even necessary.

I don't get it. This seems one of those deeply personal beliefs based on what each has learned, felt, experienced in those wonderfully chancy days when our minds more resembled the simplistic developmental philosophy of Rousseau than that of conformist Oedipal Lacanians. For purposes of time and economical effort, one sports anecdote will suffice, though I could easily produce many more. I remember attending a hockey game at the old Vancouver Forum (PNE grounds) where the Canucks played in the now defunct Western Hockey League. I was around nine, with my older brother, and after viewing the testy contest (several fights), we ventured down to the first row where the Canucks were leaving the bench to the tunnel to the dressing room. Some middle-aged guy yelled to Canucks' journeyman Hank Cahan something like, "Hey, Cahan, ya chicken shit, why don't ya ever stick up for yer teammates?" Cahan, looking up: "come down to ice level and say that, you fuckin' yellow cunt!". Now, as a boy already in love with manipulating words on paper, I admired Cahan's vigour, cadence, ironical swiftness, and concision. Poetry, not didacticism.

Woods could have learned a valuable lesson, from Cahan or someone similar, in speaking from the heart and related viscera were he still in his formative years. Instead, Woods grinds out the cliches, references his fall from Buddhism (??), doesn't talk with his carefully selected audience, and basically reveals nothing. Behaviour to emulate?

In happier circumstances, my admiration was reserved for those absorbed in the moment who demonstrated rather than pontificated, who were joyful, unassuming, exploratory. I could rarely apply those latter adjectives to the big'uns. And frequently the ethical authority of adults, which supposedly made up for the dour demeanor, collapsed. Hypocrisy has been a particular pet peeve of mine since I was a child. Which generation should be filled with lively role models to which?

A long time ago I read an account of a man who recalled a conversation with a Judaic scholar who explained that Moses' "thou shalt nots" were mistranslated and misunderstood. "Thou would not .... if" is more accurate, meaning we don't abstain from murder, infidelity, thieving, etc., because of God's command, but because it is in our own nature not to do those things. We don't need to be protected from our dark side, the nonsense of "original sin", we just have to trust our own natural ethics. People are or do good, and an extrinsic code is credited. But the code is just a setting down after the fact of who we are in our day-to-day lives before any morals are agonizing over and wrestled with.

Kids, adolescents, even adults, don't need role models, they need heroes. Heroes are flawed, that is to say, human. But they have many qualities missing in the plodding, virtuous crew. Even an athletic machine crushing dimpled white balls could be one. Aside from his family, Woods doesn't owe anyone an apology. Except for being insufferable.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shane Koyczan's Olympic Feat

After yesterday surfing the fascinating links to and from Shane Koyczan's "We Are More" slam verselet, I began to think of two dominant meanings of the word "consumer". The first meaning is what we immediately and intimately acknowledge, that of material purchase and use. But goods are attractive and available depending on the consumer's own resources. Desire is often powerfully modified, lessened, even eliminated (though, also, certainly not in many cases) when the means to acquire the goodies -- and those goodies themselves -- are nestled amongst the higher branches.

The second meaning of this contemporaneously important word is more powerful, more subtle, and more devious. It acts as a stimulus for the first meaning, as well as being the prime impetus for many wars and religious straitjacketing. But "We Are More" is after different medals.

When Old Man Moses, or God, if you will, exhorted H/his flock to "go forth and multiply", the practical necessity was obvious for the continuation of the species. In undeveloped and developing countries today, practical reasons are also in play: mom and pop need a good crop of young'uns to pick up the slack on the farm when they become feeble, health care is rudimentary, there are scary infant and childhood mortality rates, and there are no social security or retirement benefits. But we're now in catastrophic overshoot. The first and most pressing reason not only doesn't apply, and hasn't for over a century, but the reverse is the case. The multimillionplus consumers who still buy the "go forth and multiply" mountaintop poem are doing so out of a misguided, outmoded, and ultimately dangerous collective belief in the everlasting, unchanging sanctity of scriptural authority. Just as the pen is mightier than the sword, so, too, is "hope" more powerful than salmon or a beet.

Which brings us to Shane Koyczan's pre-approved Olympic moment with (ironically) clustered rain clouds as backdrop, beseeching .... three? four? .... billions of variously receptive earthlings. I found it fascinating that the effort downplayed the real and trumpetted the schmaltzy Sunday school aspiration. The upwardly-mobile ad flack lays the lines down like pre-cooled fudge in a child's hand: we're not just about fishing off the Atlantic and playing shinny on the frozen backyard pond, we're more, "an idea in the process/of being realized". Koyczan then goes on to sugar the product until the nauseous closing line, "we made it be". Made what be? Has Canada not only solved all its responsibilites and problems, but done so in perpetuity? But when the chintzy rhetoric mill is rolling, who cares about elementary reflection and thought?

And this is where the "patriotic" attack the negative nellies. "It's supposed to be kitsch, to be a feel-good parallel to the Olympic can-do spirit". Well, the answer to that, of course, is which Olympics are we talking about? Amateur athletes (not the men's hockey players -- I enjoy pro hockey, but NHL players have as much connection with the founding Greek spirit of the games as an MP3 player has to Uranus) are to be applauded for their perseverance and work under often spartan support. Congrats to the non-doped winners. But what has this got to do with Canada's greatness? Pakistan and Ethiopia are also competing in Vancouver, but in those two countries (among others) that representation consists of one (1) participant. Is one person Pakistan or Ethiopia? Or is Koyczan saying that the mere fact Canada "won" the Olympic bid in itself meretorious? And the Olympic games are a competition. How are we better than specific other countries, and in what specific ways? I find a curious lack of nuance and development of those ideas. (A real tribute to Canada would have drawn out those realities.)

Canada got the nod because it made financial sense to the pork trough IOC and the sponsors the IOC had to sell it to. Period. Oh, and because Canada, being Canada, didn't piss off the Grand Dukes of the committee. They smiled, waited, and cheered the hosting prize. It's ironic, fortuitous for Chicagoans that Obama's entitlement statement after a last-minute flight to Europe in an attempt to score the (second-next?) summer games were turned down by an equally Royal IOC offended that this constant grandstander had the audacity of hope that he could charm the scammers. I say "fortuitous", of course, because the Olympics have become more expensive to produce everywhere, as the first meaning of "consumerism" has exploded ever since it was concocted immediately after WWII in the U.S., with -- twin consumer blocks of use and idea -- credit card initiation and Madison Avenue proselytizing. A one billion dollar overrun on the Olympic village and another almost one billion on security are only the hot numbers, the obvious scandal amongst a multi-pronged systemic sploogefest.

To make the parallel more direct, naked, Obama's successful "hope" campaign byte is the same as Koyczan's "dreams" and "ambitions" idea (and whatever other buzzwords the abstract revivalist sermon hit on). "Go forth and multiply" was a necessity. You could even be a tad grandiose (to steal a page -- oops! is Collins listening? -- from Koyczan's book) and say that Moses operated on a keenly felt spiritual imperative. But what Obama and Koyczan, no less than presidential speechwriters and Coca-Cola copywriters (the slam versifier is of course both initiator and vocalist), have in common is a formula for successful ideational consumerism. One need only to click on the comment-box replies to the Koyczan story in the official Olympic sponsor The Globe and Mail to see the overwhelming support for "We Are More", in many cases 40 for, 2 against. Even if one allows for a somewhat different ratio, taking into account statistical problems of sample size, motivation of respondents, and skewed bias of the readers, the fact remains that P. T. Barnum was a smart man. And Koyczan is well aware of that fact. Oh, Canada.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Mailbag #3

Dear Tribal Hack:

I'm a prominent retired athlete who's been put in an unfortunate dilemma by certain local connections. I'm to write an occasional poem celebrating the Olympics. If I refuse, I'll incur the wrath of my fellow athletic community; if I accept, I'll be seen as a suck-up and a third-rate hack (the latter with which you can certainly identify). Please advise.

-- Florin d'Oro

Dear Florin:

You don't indicate how prominent were your feats of muscular derring-do. Are we talking fringe pro call-up now marooned in a rank booth as a "colour" commentator for Tier Two hockey, or respected and revered former star?

If the former, you need to press the lumber on the collective lumbar region of the sports media and executive class, both. What have you got to lose? Are they going to demote you further to manning the phones at old-timers' alumni charity bake-offs? Rid your spleen of boring, aerodynamicaaly correct, body-suited medalists telling the world of their six a.m. wind sprint routines. Know what rhymes with routine? That's right -- poutine. And I'd rather be scarfing down that heart-attack-in-a-bowl sludge than committing to masochistic diurnal heart-hammering intrusions into the lives of sleeping swallows.

If the latter, your hands are tied, and you'll have to drop a huge, steaming pancake of cowshit between the pages of your daily rag or Vancouver Society bulletin.

Dear Tribal Hack:

I'm currently writing a Spenserian-length poem in heroic couplets on the subject of dos and don'ts of appliance usage. I'm stuck on page 162. Seems I introduced the Maytag repairman, and I need propulsion. Any tips?

-- Lou Gubrious

Dear Lou:

What's the problem? The inner demons of the Maytag repairman should provide you with unlimited narrative and spiritual material. Boredom as art; thought as analgesic; the fantasy of a hanging while dropping through the washer hole; waiting and waiting and waiting for the husband to drive to work at 8:45 a.m. ; the whiteness of white; basements I have loved; rats on parade. It's all there. Good luck.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Pre-Approved Olympic Poem


Once every two years we can lock
International strife into a vault
And celebrate Olympic jocks
By the TV, slurping McDonald's malt

(I'm lovin' it!) and retro Coke
(It's the real thing!), every Panasonic
In the land fixed on spiraling smoke
Shading the hooped logo simple as phonics

Rules and demonstrations (spurn that pizza joint!)
Which box in the joys and union
Of a world joining hands. Only a coy quoint
Would delink and grouse. An onion

By my eyes when I saw Ben Johnson
(No need for a Doc) streaking under the wire.
Canada, all along the Shield, lit Ronsons
And sang the Molson (Coors) ditty! Not for hire

Our perfervid band, in spontaneous lockstep
With "I am Canadian!", and Sleep Country, all.
No desire for a poetic rep,
And though some whine about Montreal,

This athletic confederation kisses
A globular amalgam of human growth.
Whores moan under the flood of cash. We miss
The Virgin Islands, and we're loath

To switch from BCTV, La Tribune,
The Globe and Mail, Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
Fill that Purolator with my Juicy Fruit!
Just do it! (Check.) And get in the mix.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday Mailbag #2

Dear Tribal Hack:

In many poems I've lately read, sub-genres within sub-genres within offshoot schools within reactionary schools against so-called traditional poems and poetics have made it so that only the writer and her/his God or god or spirit or lucky charm of choice know what the fuck the words mean, or even refer to. Is this desirable? Or am I being hopelessly old-fashioned?

-- Gerry Mander

Dear Gerry:

Get with the program. Opacity is mystery. And we all know that mystery in a man or woman leaves a lasting legacy of sexual intrigue. Yesterday's "New Critics" tried to elucidate for readers unschooled in Modernism's antecedents. Today's theoreticians have vanquished the past. No more the boring old staples of sanity, thought, trope, tactile fact, sensuousness. Make your Lacanian text into a wizard had in the porto-potty. The unconscious is unconscious. But I regress.

Dear Tribal Hack:

How many poets does it take to change a lightbulb?

-- Ham Pere

Dear Ham:

A class of 25. But the process of changing is more important than the final illumination.

Dear Tribal Hack:

Last week's answer to poetical sartorial splendour encouraged me to put your image of exuberant audience display in play. I was thrown out -- after the meat-draw-winner-wrap-up, and before the intro to the first of five poets -- when I tried to disabuse a furred lump of his pewter metrical abacus by borrowing a stray bead to try on as cool coffee-house ear stud. Envy on their part? Or lack of tact on mine?

-- Nick Stone

Dear Nick:

That's cool. What you attempted was true performance art. Performance art has, unfortunately, acquired an unjustified bad rap from closeted versifiers who make Bodhidharma seem a social butterfly. Performance -- the Greek etymology refers to a furnishing (and all good poetry venues should be tastefully furnished) and to a completion (not a boring ongoing "text"). It's time you took your gig on the road. Take your microphone, but frisk for, and apprehend, cameras.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Though narrative detail is important in his work, David O'Meara is a poet of evocative mood. "I Used to Live Around Here" is a good example. Nothing much happens, yet everything matters. O'Meara's able to mesmerise through inner states -- the way a mind reflects on loss and regret and muted enjoyment -- into present images. That's why I respectfully disagree with his claim in "Root Cellar", where "We're tourists/to our past for the little/we come here now". He's done a wonderful job of illuminating that past in Noble Gas, Penny Black.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Speaking of Ideologues ....

Another sampling from one representative -- LH in her comments section -- of those who're shut out of poetic discussions in this country:

"The lack of female voices in general poetic discourse in this country is not something one can argue with can they? Look at the blogrolls" (LH)

The lack of female voices of those starting and maintaining blogs is the fault of men? Who's to stop aspiring bloggerettes from saying whatever they want, whenever they want, on their screens? As for other poetic discourse in this country, what does she mean? There're a staggering amount of women writing and publishing poetry in this country. Or is she again bringing up that old shuck and jive about misogynist men who control the levers of critical publication and dissemination in Canada?

"look at the Cage Match and the inability of either candidate to weave the poetry of ANY women into their thinking." (LH)

Yes, Carmine Starnino certainly fits the bill, doesn't he? Scroll through the Signal Editions catalogue this century and see the paucity of distaff representation on the lists. (Sarcasm alert for the thick.) And both of the participants mentioned LH. Talk about ungrateful ....

"People can say all they want but their thinking reveals the lack of ability in general, to engage with work outside of their own immediate interest.

This is fine for the average person--engage with whomever or whatever you want. On the other hand, if you're a public intellectual, a critic, an academic, someone purporting to speak on behalf of an art, or literature, and then--well, it's shocking." (LH)

And what would that immediate interest be? Has LH blogged about any or many poet(s), for instance, who're already pushing up daffodils? And if not, why not? Is it because the current crop of poets are more "compelling"? If so, how is that different from hidebound narrow-interest public intellectuals rooting for their own corner? Do poets become irrelevant when they kick off? Or is it that dead poets can't provide favours? And see how easy it is to damn by (often) inaccurate suggestion?

"And embarrassing." (LH)


Howard Zinn (1922-2010)


There're many who make their marks in life
By driving stakes through hovering djinns
And those who promise peace through strife
Like the hypocritical Howard Zinn

Who collected seven figures plus
From Western towers railing on sin.
The Damon (no mat) and Ed Vedder fuss
About A People's History, kin

Of credulous cretins rolling in dough
While shedding croc drops for the oppressed, pinned
By posters' "Greed!" from limousine 'hos
Who hack and shape facts into a ginned

Code of sickle or star over Frankenstein
Corpses piled in roadside ruts and bins
And the twisted flow of non-linear lines
Passed over by the disciples of Zinn.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Mailbag

After a trickle of devilishly demonstrative pleas for a Q & A session initiated by my fabulous fans' concerns and conundrums, every Monday (if I have the time) henceforth will be devoted to a representative smattering of readers' mail, with appropriate responses. Without further ado, I do unscroll and spatter a very small sampling of recent fare:

Dear Tribal Hack:

I've become despondent over the lack of good, I mean really good, bowling literature out there. For years, I puzzled over why this should be so. Media bias? The despicable stereotype of bowler as rube and trailer park reject? Then, the light went on: it's PM Harper's fault! To my recollection, he's never said a good word about bowling! With his leadership and following, he could turn this sport around in the public's eye. He's probably never read any bowling lit before. I'm planning on sending him a bowling book by an expert, one every fortnight, for the next ten years, or until he's political toast. Any recommendations?

-- Phil Gutter

Dear Phil:

First off, I sympathize with the parlous state of bowling lit in the public eye. Have you thought of organizing placard-waving marches at Downing Street, with provocative slogans such as: "Spare Me the Oblivion!" or "If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley, You Can't Beat 'Em in the Bookstore!"? Aside from that, I'd say to send along the best of the best to the Right Hon grand poobah. Titles I've perused and been bowled over by include "The Phallocentric Pin: A Misandrist's Guide to Constant Strikes", and "Alley-Oop!: Striking a Romantic Match by the Shoe Dispensary". Good Luck!

Dear Tribal Hack:

When will you finally review a book of poetry on favourite referents of academic revolutionaries breaking down the wall of traditional encrustation without resorting to imaginative reason and escalating subjectivity?

-- Ben Drinkin

Dear Ben:

When any number of those authors can do successful triple lutzes while naked in church foyers during Lent.

Dear Tribal Hack:

I attend many poetry readings, but I'm more and more sartorially confused. Tweed is passe; shower clogs and flourescent shorts means trying too hard to be surreal. What's your solution?

-- Frank Taylor

Dear Frank:

Listen to your inner haberdasher. Try a wide range of gear: everything from hemp dresses soaked in tar to bolo ties on a floral vest. Remember, though, always tip your porkpie hat to the reader, then tip it forward to disguise your closed eyes. When the reading is exceptional, pass the hat around as "an organizational rep" collecting dues and stray garters with phone numbers etched on the inner band. Speaking of inner bands, any ipods should be inconspicuously attached, perhaps disguised as catheter tubes rerouting urine through your ears. I hear that's not as rare as you may think. Don't stampede the podium for autographs, but wait for the audience to approach you after the reading. Though ambiguous in timbre, laugh at appropriate moments in the verbal text. Never open your umbrella, but shake it out occasionally as if to make it clear Mary Poppins has nothing on you in dramatic possibility. If you must chew gum, pop it only when applause is deafening so's to add to the sizzle and communal approbation. Don birkenstocks or Doc Martens, don flak jackets, don you now your gay apparel.