Monday, December 1, 2014

How Easy It All Is

Good news. I just saw a FB posting for a writing class offered by someone in the community. The outline of the course shows 6 classes, and here is the good news: It only takes 2 of those classes to get through the writing and then the 4 last classes are all about publishing and marketing.

And actually, you cover the "basics of writing" in the first class and the second class is all about "staying inspired."

I think what we should do is have musicians forgo learning their instruments as well, and skip right to costumes and makeup and the pose of the tortured artist for the twitter pics.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty stupid, but then the comments about it were all so sycophantic and ridiculous I had to follow it a little bit. I found one person who commented had recently posted on FB that she was excited about a new short story she was publishing through Amazon and to illustrate something (how excited she was probably, though I think it was implied this actually illustrated her commitment), she added she'd been working on it all morning!

To be fair, she might have meant the layout or the cover design, or many other things, but I kind of think she didn't.

It struck me as quite odd, of course, but then I realized it's not that different from how some writers who publish traditionally talk about themselves, too, and it recalled for me a bit from A Moveable Feast, where Hemingway wrote something like it made him sick to talk about writing. I understand that, because unless you're talking about a specific work then you are talking about "being" a writer, and that's ridiculous because so many people, talented and otherwise, claim that title, and then chatter about writing constantly, instead of writing.

And these are grownups, too, not the people I knew back in my undergrad who would introduce themselves as "poets" and then write inane and obvious observations about the world 6 inches in front of their face and how just observing it made them suffer so. Now, when they are grownups, it's pretty similar, but they write touristy things -- for instance, they are academics, writing 6 poems in 6 days because they went to a new location for a conference and must describe the injustices to everyone else in this world.

Now I was just going to write "They are heroes, really," but one problem these days is how to read things these days, how to find sincerity, how not to be bullied by a writer who appears instantly due to contemporary technology and whose uniform changes daily, one who responds to any sort of critique or engagement with contempt, implying the reader has mistaken satire for sincerity. So, we cop out all the time.

What all of this leads to is the notion that all writing is equal. There is another guy I know who is described sometimes as a journalist, though he does not investigate, or research, or discover new information -- all he does is write stuff that is meant to inspire. I suppose it is honest, but it's meant to inspire in the same way a motivational speaker does, or Jack Handy. He's not a journalist.

I was asked in the fall to read at the local library with some other local authors. It was pretty odd, because when I looked into it I realized that none of the authors aspired to write literature, and none of them had anything in common (aside from the fact that 2 or 3 were self-published). I asked the librarian who asked me to do it what his rationale was. He said he hadn't looked at any of the work by the authors. How does a librarian become a librarian without a bit of an aptitude for research, or even a tiny bit of curiosity? Anyway, he seemed annoyed that I did not want to be on a panel including self-published authors of self-help books, investment advice books, and books of religious inspirational stories.

Anyway, the message is you spend the morning writing, then publish it in the afternoon so you have time to market it the rest of the week, I guess.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Launching We Don't Listen to Them

I've read a couple of times this fall, and they both felt pretty good. I was down in South Dakota, returning to the school where I got my last degree, and it was a great time, meeting and talking to so many bright and committed writers, including the director of creative writing there, Lee Ann Roripaugh. (Of course I was not meeting her; Lee was one of the main people I learned from while I was getting my degree, and she turned me on to many great writers and also helped me put together my first collection of poetry. And just before I went down there, I received her latest book, which I had preordered what seemed like months before. The book is called Dandarians, and I was lucky enough to read much of it prior to its publication. What amazes me about Lee is the density of her work, and how the syntactic complexity and combination of diction from such a variety of registers always seems effortless--though that's probably the wrong word.) I read with Geoff Schmidt and got to know a little bit about him from dinners and drinks and so on, and his craft talk, which, as these things sometimes work, will help me a bit on my next novel, where I will use his geo-narrative ideas (or have one character use them . . . ) Then when I got home I was able to read Geoff's book of short fiction, Out of Time, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. There are so many things to admire in that book, but the first story especially really sticks with me: "Man in Gorilla Suit by Midnight." It's one of those great stories where the external oddities entertain and amuse, and that amusement leaves a kind of space at the end where the reader is suddenly more open to the universal human relations at the heart of the story.

I came home with a few new writers to check out, including Brian Evenson. whose collection the Wavering Knife I am reading right now, and Laird Hunt, whose novel the Exquisite, I got in the mail last week. There is too little time to read right now, especially with all the new books, which seem to create an extra pressure so I skip from book to book without actually reading. Then I read with Karen Hoffman as part of the UBC Okanagan reading series and was especially grateful for the former students who came out in Kelowna. It seemed like a really great crowd, great energy. One of the highlights was meeting up with my former student Ryan the night before, and hearing about the work he's doing now and how his life is going. It reminds me, and I need reminding sometimes, that life is more than just reading and writing (though it sometimes isn't, of course) and feel a little less guilty about my lack of production while I am on leave with my second daughter.

Anyway, this all brings me to my next reading: Thursday, November 20th, at 7 pm. I am reading at the Bohemian Cafe in downtown Kelowna, with a friend of mine, John Lent. He's a poet, novelist, scholar, and singer-songwriter. It's a pretty humbling thing to think of all that has happened to me in the last 10 years, when I quit my job as a construction surveyor and went down to South Dakota to get my PhD, then was hired by Okanagan College and met John Lent, who has been instrumental in my recent development (who knows how much of this is visible in the work itself, but it's obvious to me; the conversations with John and with my colleague Jake about the writing that matters to them, and the writing that matters little, sustains me emotionally, that's for sure, but intellectually it is amazing to always be shown there is more to learn).

All this to say it will be a great pleasure to read with John and to hear him speak again about writing, and (I hope) hear from the work he is at now, which we have often spoke of, but which I have yet to read or to hear.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Another Award

I was really happy to learn that my first poetry professor, Christopher Levenson, is on the short list for the Governor General's Award for poetry. It's his book Night Vision, which I have yet to read.

I kind of didn't know there was such a thing as a creative writing class when I saw Chris's introductory workshop in poetry among the offerings at Carleton while I was there studying Journalism in the first half of the 90s. It was a class that changed my life in many ways, like a great workshop should, and like I hope some of my own classes do. Some of that has nothing to do with the teacher, really -- the kind of engagement you get from the students and how they work together and continue to work together after the workshop is over, that's often luck. But you had to submit a portfolio to get into Chris's class, which I don't think anyone does anymore at the level.

However it happened, there were a number of people in that class who would push me and encourage me and give me new poets to admire from their own group of books (that's the thing that was marvelous, really -- that all these people read on their own, outside of courses, and found poets to love and to hate and sometimes to imitate and then reject later).

Though Chris was above us in ability and erudition, he was like us in that his enthusiasm had not dampened, it seemed. This stuff, even in an undergraduate introductory class, mattered to him. I remember visiting his office and being encouraged by the clutter and amazed that he could pull a photocopy of a poem relevant to our discussion immediately from a stack of papers somehow.

He started me taking my work seriously and then I fell in with a great group of people and I can't remember all of their names, but Craig Carpenter, Jim Larwill, Warren Fulton, Malcolm Todd, and Rocco, I remember. I think they're all still working and reading,

Then suddenly one time in Vancouver he appeared at a reading I gave from my first book of poetry, and joined me for a drink with a J-School friend who now works as an editor, and one of my first creative writing students from Vernon, who studies now at SFU, I think.

It's enough to make a man sentimental. It really is beautiful to see him shortlisted for this award and remember what he started in my own life. His workshop led to my next workshop, one taught by Tom Henighan and Rick Taylor on short fiction, the form that has become my favourite. I met Jeff Ross there, and was introduced to the work of Par Lagkervist and Tobias Wolff.

Jeff and I would argue until closing time at the pub after class, and to meet someone who cares so much about writing and literature to talk so long and so passionately, it was amazing. It was a thing I didn't know would become rare in my life once I left school. I miss it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ten Books

There are these things going around on FB and so I thought I would list the 10 books that changed my life here. In no order, and off the top of my head, as, I think, the rules state:

1) Lord Foul's Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson. I was a fantasy fan in my teens and this character Thomas Covenant seemed so real and flawed. It was a revelation and was great for me at the time so I could understand that morality is not simple.

2) The Foundation Trilogy, by Asimov. Not sure why. I feel like Dune and The Empire of the East by Saberhagen changed me too, but back in those days every book or record did, like when the Cult's Love came out.

3) Pastoralia, by George Saunders. This one is just so good. "The Barber's Unhappiness" is one of the best stories ever, so honest and so hard to read at times.

4) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. I hadn't read Carver long ago when I started writing short fiction in a class taught by Tom Henighan during my undergrad. He was a model and I didn't know it. I think he'd changed things so much I was copying his copies.

5) Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley. I still think she is horribly underrated, like she should be mentioned before Carver every time, and before Saunders, and before all of them except maybe Alice Munro (who is not on this list because I don't remember her books, just some stories. I've read her books so many times I feel like her work exists just like short fiction should -- as a life-long collection of discrete stories. Anyway, back to Paley. It was so great to hear her name from Gish Jen when she read with Tobias Wolff at the last AWP.

6) Swarm, by Jorie Graham. For better or worse, changed the way I read and write poetry, and led to my finding her other work, like the poem "At the Cabaret Now."
7) 60 Stories, by Donald Barthelme. "The Glass Mountain," "The School," "See the Moon?" "City of Churches," "Me and Mrs. Mandible," the one with Paul Klee in the title . . . they are all so good. Somehow he manages to be so clever and so funny without being cold.

8) Nine Stories, by J. D. Salinger. I cannot get enough of "For Esme, with Love and Squalor." Every time I read a book about war, or a book where characters try to live after some kind of trauma, I cannot help but think of this story.

9) The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

10) Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

Short Fiction from the Car Wash

My new book, We Don't Listen to Them, will be published in a few short weeks.

It's a book that's taken a long while to write. I know some people write collections from the outset, knowing a book will result. I really believe short stories must stand alone, so the timeline of this book's composition is hard to be sure about, but I know have been writing short stories all along, and my first book of stories was published way back in 2002, so that's a while.

I am trying to look at them objectively right now. That's hard, for some reason, until the physical book is in my hands. But it is nice to see this little review.

Also nice was a great review of my previous Thistledown Press book, The Ditch Was Lit Like This, published in the Fiddlehead.

The process of publishing and promoting can be demoralizing in some ways, so the see a one of your books read so attentively years after its publication is a great encouragement.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Things

"The accurate representation of reality is, for the artist, the highest morality. It is immoral to conceal the way human beings live, or what human beings think." -- HelenVendler

I sometimes feel like a dilettante. I have read only a portion of the books I should read, and though I write poetry, and read poetry, my first love is short fiction, so I am especially behind on poetry. That's okay. It helps me remain open to surprise. I can still discover things. One of them is this book by Helen Vendler, an anthology and intro textbook to poetry.

It makes me want to read Kundera's essay on Francis Bacon for the first time again, or the same with John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, or Rust Hill's book on writing in general and the short story in particular (I think that's the title but not sure) . . . all books that charged me up at some time and made me think this irrelevant work in my small room was important.

Anyway, just reading this, and children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections, by Renee Sarojini Saklikar. I have notes all over this book, and nothing intelligent to say right now, but it's one of those challenging books that changes the way I approach both poetry and narrative, I think. I'm still trying to figure out how it works, but I know it's related to the Vendler quotation above, and also to Kundera's essay.

Monday, February 10, 2014

During the Death Match

Last week's battle in the Broken Pencil Deathmatch ended oddly, too, with one gang of anonymous voters calling the other gang of anonymous voters cheaters. It was really a poor end.

I think the exercise is pretty goofy, but who cares about the votes anyway? It's nice to get a story out there, have it read, and who cares what else happens. There are always people hiding behind the anonymity to say things that they would not say to a person's face.

There is an odd space in which authors exist, except the ones already anointed, deserving or otherwise, and as I have been thinking about this spectacle I think I've come to like at least one thing about it--it makes public the usually silent grumblings that particular people voice about the work of their peers. Interesting in the last round was how the Ottawa independent community came out to defend their competitor's story.

I don't think it should matter if you know a person or not, that's my problem. In fact, that is the problem with all literary communities (small or large): their loyalty and support becomes ridiculously suffocating and incestuous. You must like my work and I must like yours. We pat each other on the back, while hoping that if we praise someone outside of our group that favour will also be returned so that we can move out of our small community and into the larger one, meanwhile the agents and the big publishers look for stuff that looks exactly like the other stuff, supporting Can Lit as if it's a network of vending machines, replacing stale cheese-flavoured snacks with fresh cheese-flavoured snacks, and asking their authors to make more snacks.

Anyway, it's nice then to see some of this stuff in the Death Match. It may not always be great, but it's raw, and the writers are writing it because they are moved to, not because they want a job as a writer.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

This Is True

"I felt that I was packaging something as delicately pervasive as smoke, one box after another, in that room, where my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me--to give the mundane its beautiful due."

Here is John Updike, and I believe him. That's the kind of work I want to do. This is a beautiful part of writing, looking at the world and paying attention. I have never been one of those writers, though, who claim the character just took over. Never. I am not transcribing thoughts or speech from someone who does not exist, although as a young person I sought this, definitely. I'd been reading about the tragic life of Robert E. Howard and some description of him writing the first Conan story quickly and without thought, as if he were taking dictation. I knew he'd lived a hard life and ended it himself, yet I was too young for that prospect to seem close enough to worry about--it was just part of his narrative. So I read this story about his writing and thought it was the proper life, to give yourself to this imaginary world. I thought of him as heroic, and of living a life that defied the impoverished world in which he lived.

I don't think that any more. And I think Updike's quotation above is perfect.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Death Match again

I wasn't born an intellectual, and don't think of myself as one right now, though reading comments on the internet sometimes makes me reconsider that. But I bring it up because there was a time when I read without a program; I was just a young person learning by reading. But I didn't know it. I was a just a young person reading, as far as I knew.

But the reading I did mattered to me often in the same way as music did, though I am not a musician. I remember finding records that were hard to like, and in the end those records became ones that I loved and returned to often. I had to figure out what these people were doing, and it took time, and it brought a kind of pleasure different from the immediate pleasure of a pop song that gets in your head easily. An example is New Day Rising, by Husker Du. It was hard for me to find the melodies there, but I did. It was so different from the hair metal bands I'd loved a few years earlier. Now "Celebrated Summer," "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," and "I Apologize," are with me forever.

I read a lot then, and it was in print, about these bands, and Saskatoon had a legitimate independent commercial radio station. That didn't last long. But there were still the university radio shows and you could read their lists of records in the Sheaf, the student newspaper, and you could figure things out. But the beautiful thing was people wrote about these bands, too.

Right now it's a little hard to feel the same thing in literature. I cannot read Notes from Underground for the first time again. I can't get the collected poems of Charles Olson at the Saskatoon Public Library and read them on my own, alone, knowing nothing of this man's background or importance or affiliations. I can't discover him for myself. As a matter of fact it feels like it's impossible to discover anything anymore.

I try to recreate similar experiences for my students, telling them nothing of the book we are to read until they have gotten a substantial way into it. I am not sure if it works since some of this likely doesn't matter to the students, because the classes they take from me are requirements and not their real interests.

Yet I do believe the purpose of art is defamiliarization, a return to some theoretical unmediated perception of reality, so the first response to a difficult text should be feeling in the dark of some unknown room for edges and bits of solidity to be used as references. If you enter with a map in your head the probable outcome is your groping will confirm that map rather than discover a hidden room.

So I made a bit of a retreat from traditional channels of publishing to an internet-based voting contest over at Broken Pencil, the idea being to, I hoped, connect with some people who were at the at DIY stage of life and still finding meaning in literature without having it prescribed before their reading. I like that idea, and it takes me back to my days in Ottawa, when I was hanging out with people who thought what they did was important, and worked at it, and critiqued my work and the works of others with the honest goal of at least working out their own aesthetic. I hung out with people like Jim Larwill, Jeff Ross, Craig Carpenter, and others, and learned from all of them (Jim reinforced the idea that this was work, which for some reason was hard for me to believe because it was also play; Jeff challenged me to consider now and then a plot in my fiction; Craig taught me to be a bit more open to writers I didn't immediately embrace, which was valuable precisely because I didn't realize I was closed to some things).

Anyway, this contest seems like an odd way to do that, but I still think it's a tonne better than a Canada Reads contest where novels are voted in (like a few years back when you get shameless vote-grubbing from authors who could not take the time to acknowledge that, wait a minute, maybe asking other novelists to vote for my mediocre novel as an important Canadian novel 10 times a day via social media, is insulting), or even now, the predetermined champion, which was being hyped before it was published and contains such cliched writing that we should all be embarrassed . . . never mind that it's the typical historical novel aimed at letting us feel better than our ancestors because we are such better people now . . . why not read They Called Me Number One, by Bev Sellars, instead, and remember that the violent legacy of our country's founding is not safely in the past?

So now I am in this contest for which the last round was moderated by a one-named character who fancies himself hard, insulting widely any opposing opinions and presenting it as "truth." I guess I am old. He is what's called a troll, and old guys maybe assume sincerity where they should not, and are baited into responding. That part was fun, though. I think the more you poke those people the more they reveal themselves, and most of the silent people reading are reasonable, I hope.

But prior to that, last week, I had a couple conversations with writers I admire, and it's encouraging; there is this shadow world that the mainstream media does not notice, and in this world real people read the work of challenging writers and share it. It matters more to them than more likes on an author's FB page, say. In this world people read a book by accident, or by wandering and following links in other works, etc. and are transformed by it, and share it, and there are prose works, too, that have the kind of fugitive life that has traditionally been poetry's . . . and I suppose it's not all bad. Alice Munro and Lynn Coady are celebrated, and they are real artists, not book-club authors.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Death Match

The Deathmatch has begun over at Broken Pencil and I am looking forward to my own quarter final round match, which begins on Feb. 10th. I am ambivalent about the whole thing, but with slightly more anticipation than dread.

The dread is not about having people say things about me or my story. First of all, who cares what anybody thinks about me. Second, I am not sure I trust their judgement on fiction--but that's only so far, seeing what's been written about so far in the comments section.

But what can you say about it, when for some reason we celebrate Jodi Picoult-type fiction as literary? It works its way right down to the so-called indie presses, where things are celebrated as "edgy" because there is someone in there drunk or having sex. A long time ago my English teacher in high school told us every generation thinks they invented sex, and I see more and more that he's right.

On the first page of a recent celebrated novel--the first page after the faux-poetic opening--you find this phrase: "the bile of curses that pour from my mouth . . . " This is cliched, empty writing, but we celebrate it. Orwell's advice, maybe every good writer's advice, to avoid phrases you have heard before, would really help this book out. Bile is such an overused word and maybe this use is only new in that it isn't that most cliched use, where the bile rises in the throat, though I expect that phrase occurs later in the novel. Another trick this novel uses is the present tense as a way to make the ordinary seem urgent.

Anyway, I have made an effort to read this book, and the plot seems interesting, but in the end I just cannot care enough to even speed-read it; the letting the overwrought sentences pad the novel and bore me. So when Nicholson Baker's novel Travelling Sprinkler arrived in the mail I switched to that, and am amazed that this book about one contemporary man's mundane life is so much more compelling than this other historical plot-driven text.

It will take a little time to figure that question out. I stayed up and read half of the Baker novel, really enjoying it, but feeling nostalgic for the first novel of this hero, Paul Chowder, the Anthologist, which I loved. So far this one isn't quite as good, but that's just my first, quick, impression.