New Acquisitions 3

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Speaking of excellent books from 2013 that I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read, here are some recent acquisitions, most of which I was alerted to by other people’s year-end favourite or “best of” lists, all of which I’m very much looking forward to diving into:

TwERK by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs;

It Becomes You by Dobby Gibson;

Timely Irreverence by Jay MillAr;

Parallax by Sinéad Morrissey;

Milk and Filth by Carmen Giménez Smith; and,

F: Poems by Franz Wright.

13 Favourite Poetry Books from 2013

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We’re well into 2014 and I’ve not yet posted my list of 13 favourite poetry books published in 2013. I had planned to hold off until I had time to write a few paragraphs about each book, but in the chaos of obligations and deadlines I currently inhabit, that could be a very long wait. And I want to direct more attention to these fine books sooner rather than later. So here is my list, alphabetical by author, without annotation, but with links to publishers’ descriptions:

Emily Berry, Dear Boy (Faber & Faber)

Jason Camlot, What the World Said (Mansfield Press)

Christina Davis, An Ethic (Nightboat Books)

Adam Dickinson, The Polymers (House of Anansi)

Catherine Graham, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects (Wolsak & Wynn)

Jamaal May, Hum (Alice James Books)

Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary (Graywolf Press)

Sandra Ridley, The Counting House (BookThug)

Yannis Ritsos, Diaries of Exile (archipelago books)

Mary Ruefle, Trances of the Blast (Wave Books)

Mary Szybist, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press)

Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes (BOA Editions)

Andrew Zawacki, Videotape (Counterpath)

Hopefully I’ll manage a post about each one in the coming months as I reread. Certainly, I’ll be rereading. And, frankly, I could use a bit more time to think through the source of the magic, and to process the effect of these brilliant books.

There are, of course, many excellent books from 2013 that are not on my list for the simple reason that I’ve not yet had an opportunity read them. And there will be many that I don’t even know to look for to read. So, please, expand my horizons by sharing your recommendations in the comments below!

My Poetry Reading Year Part 2: Highlights

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In this instalment, my focus is on highlights of my poetry reading in 2013 of works published prior to 2013, arranged more or less in chronological order by publication date.

Lorine Niedecker: All of Niedecker—the early dense surrealist stuff; the experiments with dialogue; the subversive nursery rhyme riffs; the stark, minimalist later poems that so powerfully evoke her watery Wisconsin landscape. I can’t choose, and so point you to the definitive Collected Works, a book that includes all of the poems Niedecker wrote between 1928 and 1970. And while you’re at it, also pick up Lake Superior, recently published by Wave Books. It contains Niedecker’s Lake Superior poem, and also her journal of a 1966 road trip around the shores of the lake from which she drew in writing the poem.

George Oppen: My quest to gain more context for Niedecker sent me to the objectivists (I hasten to note that in the realm of poetry the term has nothing to do with Ayn Rand or her political philosophy) including Oppen, and he was the one that took with me, so much so that I read his entire poetry oeuvre as well. The collection to which I keep returning is Of Being Numerous (1968) and, in particular, the long title poem that starts it off. I marvel at how, in so few words, he could be simultaneously broadly philosophical and also precise, material, imagistic. And it is, it seems to me, the city poem to end all city poems (though it also makes me want to write about my city). The early sections of the poem can be read here.

Mark Strand: I had heard of Strand, of course, but was familiar only vaguely with some of his later poems. Encountering his early work, particularly his second book, Reasons for Moving (1968), was a revelation. Taut, perfect narrative poems, some of them with plots worthy of Philip K. Dick—surreal, sinister, and thrumming with anxiety. Truly mind-bending stuff. After a few times through, my favourite poems from the collection include “Eating Poetry,” “The Tunnel,” “The Man in Black,” and “Keeping Things Whole.”

Charles North: My first and so far sole encounter with North’s work is in his recently published What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems but, containing selections from his books spanning 1974-2011, it seems to me to give a good idea of his range. And what range! I’m dazzled by his formal inventiveness and charmed by his weirdness. Reading him is emboldening.

Rae Armantrout: I read several of Armantrout’s collections over the course of the year, but Versed is the one that I keep coming back to. Spare, allusive, elliptical poems full of wordplay. Her meaning is often opaque to me but I don’t think it matters. Even if I’m not making the same connections when reading the poems that she’s making in writing them, I’m making connections, thoughts spinning out in every direction. Reading Armantrout makes my synapses crackle. Everything feels sharper when I emerge from her books, as if the optometrist has clicked the magnification up to just the right level to correct my blurry vision.

Mary Ruefle: I’ve been carrying Ruefle’s Selected Poems around with me all year like a talisman. These poems have everything in them: joy, sorrow, surprise. Reading Ruefle makes me giddy. I’ll say more in my next post, as her latest book, Trances of the Blast, is high on my list of favourite poetry books published in 2013.

Selima Hill: I read as many of Hill’s books as I could get my hands on this past year. Again the descriptors surreal and sinister are apt. Hill employs bizarre images to delve into the darkest corners of intimate and domestic life. Her poems are dark, sometimes violent, yet frequently funny. Also powerfully, though not explicitly, political. She just gets better and better, so I’d point you to her most recent collection, People Who Like Meatballs.

Ange Mlinko: Occasionally, I get sufficiently lost in a book to miss my subway stop—usually a suspenseful, plot-driven book, say, a murder mystery. Mlinko’s Starred Wire has the distinction of being the first poetry book that caused me to miss my stop. In Mlinko’s poems, it’s the richness of language and allusion, the layering on of words, that so captivates me. How could I not fall head-over-heels for the work of a poet who has the audacity to put “dudgeon” and “burgeon” in the same line? I immediately acquired two more of Mlinko’s books and they too are proving a treat.

Ana Božičević: Božičević strikes me as an utterly fearless poet. She will go anywhere in a poem and the reader, certainly this reader, will go with her. Each poem somehow feels at once a joyride and deadly serious. At the moment, I’m particularly taken with the two long poems, “Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn” and “The Stars that Come Before the Night,” that open her first collection, Stars of the Night Commute.

See what a stimulating year of poetry reading it was? And I haven’t even reached the 2013 publications yet. That’ll be Part 3.

My Poetry Reading Year Part 1: Year-End Tally

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I mentioned in my first post that I’d been reading a lot of poetry in the past year, more than I ever had before. I maintain a yearly reading log and, now that 2013 is at an end, I can be more precise. Of the 108 books that I read in 2013, 61 of them were poetry. Just to offer up a basis for comparison, in 2012 only 14 of 115 books read were poetry, and in 2011 a scant 2 of 100. So, a precipitous rise, and what joy it has given me.

I read new books and old books. I’d gone on poetry reading jags in the past, but usually they took the form of immersing myself in old favourites. This time around, I wanted to better acquaint myself with contemporary poetry, and to read the work of poets I’d never encountered before. There, I definitely succeeded. Two-thirds of those 61 books were published in the 21st century, a goodly number of them 2013 titles. But I also went further back to fill in some gaps in my poetic education.

How did I find my way to these books? I followed up on reviews that sparked my interest in newspapers, magazines, and on blogs. I listened to poetry podcasts. I solicited suggestions from poet friends and other discerning poetry reading friends. (I’m particularly grateful to Jennifer LoveGrove, Stuart Ross, and Paul Vermeersch for steering me towards some fantastic books.) And some of the best suggestions weren’t directed explicitly to me but were garnered by eavesdropping on Facebook and Twitter conversations between poet friends in which they talked up this poet or that poem or the other book.

I read the complete works of three poets: Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, and Philip Whalen (the Niedecker and Whalen thanks to Hoa Nguyen’s workshops). I also made a dent in the collected poems of W.S. Graham and Louis MacNeice. I read multiple books by a number of poets including Rae Armantrout, Ana Božičević, Inger Christensen, Seamus Heaney, Selima Hill, Ange Mlinko, Dennis O’Driscoll, Mary Ruefle, and Mark Strand, and single books by many, many more. I also read chapbooks, and dipped into anthologies and magazines.

The lion’s share of the poetry books that I read were by U.S. poets, and a substantial number by Canadian, English, and Irish poets. I also read books in translation by Dutch, French, Greek, and Polish poets. The gender balance was pretty even. And nearly all of the books were published by independent presses. Some I borrowed from the library; most I bought. I’ve definitely done my bit this year to keep independent presses and bookstores afloat!

In my next post, I’ll highlight my most stimulating reading experiences in the past year of poetry published prior to 2013, and in the post after that, I’ll list my favourite poetry books published in 2013.

Reading and Writing Poetry with Hoa Nguyen

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One of the great pleasures of the past year for me was participating in two of Hoa Nguyen‘s Reading and Writing through… Poetry Workshops, the first focused on Lorine Niedecker, and the second, Philip Whalen.

Hoa structures her workshops such that each weekly meeting is comprised of one hour of reading followed by one hour of writing. The reading component involved reading aloud from the collected poems of the poet upon whom the workshop was focused, each participant reading a page in turn, thereby working our way through the entire oeuvre over the course of several weeks (handily done with Niedecker’s minimalist 300 page volume, more of a challenge with Whalen’s glorious 800 page doorstopper!). We didn’t discuss the work—just read and listened and soaked it in (though Hoa recommended plenty of resources for those who wanted to further explore the poet’s work on their own). For the writing component, Hoa provided a series of prompts drawn from the selection of poems we’d just read aloud. We’d all write for a while in response to the reading and the prompts, then at the end of each session Hoa invited us to share what we’d just written with one another.

Listening to the work that participants chose to share each week proved a perfect antidote to the misplaced fear of influence that one so often hears beginning writers express. Only rarely (and then as deliberate experiments) would the poems generated by the workshop sound like imitations of Niedecker or Whalen. Instead, we’d be treated to an astonishing variety of work, much of it likely different than what the writer would have written had they not been under the influence of Niedecker or Whalen and inspired by Hoa’s prompts, but unquestionably their own work in their own voice.

I hadn’t read either Niedecker or Whalen before, and it was an extraordinary way to become acquainted with their work, by complete immersion, in the company of fellow writers. I connected immediately and deeply with Niedecker’s work. Despite not having encountered her poems previously, I did have a strong sense of the poetic traditions that she wrote within and against, and I could connect some of the details of her biography with what I knew of the lives of other women writing in the same time period. I didn’t connect in the same way with Whalen’s poems, but reading him has had a more immediate effect on my own writing. I found his wildness, his excess of words, his refusal to be constrained by conventional forms profoundly liberating. In line with what I said about influence above, the poems that I’ve written in response don’t sound a bit like Whalen, but they involve experiments with form that I don’t think I would have undertaken had I not read him.

Hoa’s next workshop, beginning in January, is Reading and Writing through James Schuyler‘s Collected Poems. Schuyler is an old favourite of mine and as a consequence I’m a bit giddy at the prospect of this one. I’m curious to see how differently I’ll experience a workshop focused on the work of a poet that I already know well. Certainly, I expect it will mean engaging with Schuyler in a different way, not least because I wasn’t writing poetry when I last read him.

If you fancy signing up for the workshop, I understand that registration is still open. If you’re in Toronto, you can attend in person; if not, that doesn’t rule out participation, as many attend online. For full details about the Schuyler workshop, and more on Hoa Nguyen’s teaching methods, see her website. I anticipate that this workshop will be every bit as pleasurable and challenging and rewarding as those I attended this year.

Inger Christensen’s alphabet

Alphabet_ChristensenOne of the poetry books I’ve been marveling over is Inger Christensen’s alphabet, first published in Danish in 1981, then translated into English by Susanna Nied and published by Bloodaxe in the UK in 2000 and New Directions in the US in 2001. Christensen set herself two mighty constraints in the writing of the book. The structure is based on the Fibonacci mathematical sequence in which every number is the sum of the two previous numbers. So the first section has one line, the second two, the third three, the fourth five, the fifth eight, and so through fourteen sections. In addition, each section corresponds with a letter of the alphabet, also in sequence, the fourteen sections running from a to n. The sections aren’t restricted to, but are dominated by words beginning with the corresponding letter. (To get a better idea of how this looks/reads, see the sample pages posted on the New Directions website.)

I confess to being generally skeptical about the effect of such constraints. While they may make the writing process more challenging and interesting for writers, they don’t necessarily offer a similar benefit to readers. The books that result can all too easily be eclipsed by the ideas that generated them. Not so with Christensen’s alphabet. Each constraint has discrete effects, but I think it’s the combination of the two that adds up to something stunning. The sonic effect of the alphabet constraint, and the sense generated by the Fibonacci structure of words and lines piling up and layering is mesmerizing. And the move from details of the natural world to the artificial toxins and the human interventions that threaten it, followed by repeated subtle circling back, makes for jarring juxtapositions that pose an invigorating challenge.

I read alphabet straight through once, again aloud, and a third time with a copy of the Danish original on hand for line-by-line comparison. I don’t understand Danish, so I wasn’t checking the translation for sense, just wondering about how Christensen’s constraints translated, wanting to see the relative concentration of Danish a-words, b-words, c-words, and so on, and how the Fibonacci accumulation of lines looked on the page in the original. I’m always in awe of good translators, especially of poetry, and it seems to me that in this instance Susanna Nied rose to meet an almost impossible challenge. (See some of Nied’s reflections on the process of translating the book here and here.) Both Christensen and Nied have created something magical in alphabet.

Back to Blogging

Once upon a time I was a prolific book blogger. I started Kate’s Book Blog in June 2005 with no particular expectations but I quickly got caught up in the enterprise. A couple of years in, I was posting four or five times a week, and taking enormous pleasure from regular participation in a lively and interesting book blogging community.

Eventually though, my blogging energy flagged. I posted slightly less frequently, then precipitously so, and finally not at all. No doubt that ebb was closely tied to dissipating my online energies across multiple forms of social media. Facebook put in the first dent, and within a few years Twitter had finished the job.

But now, I fancy beginning again. To that end, I’m endeavouring to pull the dispersed fragments of my online life back together under a single umbrella, this website, with a revived book blog at the centre of it. I’m making no grand promises, but I do plan to post with some regularity about the multitude of poetry books that have, in recent months, become the central focus of my reading life.

I’ve always read poetry, but I’ve never written much about it, I think because I felt that I didn’t have the requisite critical vocabulary at my disposal. But I’m writing poetry again after a couple decades of focusing exclusively on fiction, and reading more poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, than I ever have before. So long as I’m reading not just for pleasure but to learn, it seems important to articulate my responses rather than just let thoughts swirl vaguely about me. And what better vehicle for trying that out than a blog? Also, I’m reading some great stuff that I ought to be recommending far and wide. So it begins.