Friday 28 September 2007

Big Brouhaha at Poetry Society of America. . . and what it has to do with Seinfeld

It goes like this. The board members of the Poetry Society of America are leaving in droves. It all started a couple of years ago when it was suggested they give a prize called the Frost Medal to John Hollander (pictured). See, it seems Hollander has been quoted as saying places like Mexico, Central America and West Africa are "cultures without literatures," which prompted at least one reported to "paraphrase" him as suggesting that maybe there isn't much quality poetry coming from nonwhite poets these days, and if that's really what you meant, John, that's a bloody terrible thing to say.

But maybe he meant that developing nations have insufficient publishing infrastructures for.... oh never mind.

Well, now the president of the board of the PSA, William Louis-Dreyfus, has stepped down, too. No, not because he too is upset about what Hollander has perhaps suggested, but because he thinks the other board members are being a bunch of reactionary, McCarthyist crybabies. And yes, William is the father of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on Seinfeld, and he also happens to be on Forbes' list of the wealthiest people in the world.

And that's when the name calling really begins. It's like Thurston Howell III, Daddy Warbucks, and Montgomery Burns having it out because someone made a snide remark at the Governor's Ball. Oh, the New York Times has the rest of the story....

UPDATE: Some interesting comments about this have been made over at Bookninja.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

More on Muldoon and The New Yorker

Robert Potts weighs in on the Muldoon situation in the Guardian Unlimited's books blog, and he even plugs my blog while he's at it!

So read what Potts has to say about things, and then when you get to the part that says (in reference to a cute story I wrote about back in March), "An even-handed account of this spat, pointing out the various vested interests on all sides, appears here," you can click back here for more of my unsolicited opinions.

Thursday 20 September 2007

New Yorker may soon publish first decent poem in more than 20 years

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but Alice Quinn's 20-year tenure as The New Yorker's poetry editor has, in the opinion of this reader, been characterized largely by a penchant for poems that manage to be both staid and trite. Or as the poet and critic David Orr has put it, the typical New Yorker poem has come to be regarded as "an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like 'water' and 'light.'" It's a formula that gets old very quickly, even in the pages of America's self-proclaimed best magazine.

But all that is, fingers crossed, about to change. Enter Paul Muldoon. He's been selected to replace Quinn as poetry editor, and one would hope he will be bringing the full force of his knowledge, wit and erudition with him to the job. The magazine's editor David Remnick, in a statement that can hardly be called surprising, is already trying to take the wind out of such optimistic sails. From the New York Times:
Mr. Remnick added that the selection of Mr. Muldoon, who had his first poem published when he was just 16, did not represent “some sort of radical aesthetic or theoretical shift.”
He added, “It’s not as if we went from a structuralist to a post-structuralist or a Beat to a conservative.”
My guess is that Remnick is just saying that to be nice. I hope so, at least.

Read the whole story here.

Sunday 16 September 2007

James Fenton wants more professionalism in poetry readings

James Fenton foresees a day when poetry readings will need directors, producers, rehearsals, and that's not all. He also wants the poets to act more professional, too. No more going over your alotted time. No more decided what to read only after you take the stage. (You know who you are). And he thinks there are limits on how a poet ought to "perform" a poem. And I am with him wholeheartedly on that point. Read on.

We do not, for instance, dramatise the emotional events of a poem as if they were unfolding before the eyes of the audience. We have written the poem. Now we are reading or reciting it. Something about our manner should never forget that we are in front of an audience, presenting something we have written. We may become emotional, but not to the extent of - say - slobbering and weeping and wiping our noses on our sleeves. We may be exuberant and spontaneous, but not to the point of spontaneous combustion.

Certain tricks of the radio actor's voice are forbidden to us - funny little gargling sounds or strictures of the windpipe, conventional ways of signalling that there's an emotional passage coming up. We don't like these vocal athletics anyway, when we hear actors reading poems, and we like it even less when we witness other poets moving in that direction.

I chose to quote this passage from the article because it's true, and it's a pet peeve of mine. I can't stand to hear actors reading other people's poems. That's because actors have a tendency to act poems rather than read them. Every time I have heard a professional actor read a poem, say, at an awards ceremony because the actual poet couldn't make it, the result has been a bombastic, Pollyanna massacre of the poem. If a poet can't make it, please don't bring in an actor to recite the work. There are probably any number of poets in the audience who can read the honouree's work just as well, if not better. Most likely better.

And why not listen to James Fenton read his own work? Even if he tends to emphasize form over content when he reads, you might learn something.

Monday 10 September 2007

Where are all the war poets?

World War One had Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. World War Two had Keith Douglas, Sydney Keyes, and Alan Ross. Viet Nam inspired a veritable army of poets to write about its horrors. This week in the Guardian, James Campbell asks a very good question: where are the war poets of today? Aside from Brian Turner, author of the excellent collection Here, Bullet, there are not many to be found. Here's a brief excerpt from the article:

There is at least one book of high-quality poetry about the Iraq war. Here, Bullet is a collection of 50 poems by an American soldier, Brian Turner, published by a small firm based in Maine, Alice James Books. It is populated by the dead and the near-dead, "the ghosts of American soldiers", the bodies of Iraqi policemen, the vultures overhead to whom one day might be offered "my life / a gift of heat and steam".

Turner served for seven years in the US Army, first in Bosnia, then in Iraq as a team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. The poems in Here, Bullet, inspired by the latter experience, are steeped in pity for the occupants of Iraq, while at the same time remaining on full alert to the likely moment "when a twelve-year-old / rolls a grenade into the room". After a murderous market-place explosion, "Allah must wander in the crowd / as, I do, dazed ..."

Read the whole article in The Guardian.

Get more information about Brian Turner's Here, Bullet.

Click here to read some poems from the book. The title poem is especially wonderful.

Saturday 8 September 2007

Where is Alden Nowlan's Collected Poems?

Robert Bly called Alden Nowlan the greatest Canadian poet of the twentieth century, and time might very well prove him right, so the question must be asked, almost 25 years after the Nowlan’s death, why has there never been a comprehensive edition of his collected poems?
When I first took on the responsibility of being poetry editor for Insomniac Press in 2001, I ambitiously set out to bring such a book into existence. After asking around, I learned that Ross Leckie was already preparing Nowlan’s collected poems for Goose Lane Editions. Shortly thereafter, Leckie contacted me to ask if I had bought the rights to the project out from under his nose. I hadn’t, of course, but it seems that someone had. The Goose Lane project had to be scuttled because the rights were unavailable, but neither of us knew who was withholding the rights. The book and the mystery both ended there. No one came forward to claim responsibility, and while I have waited for this essential book to appear, nothing has come of it.
Despite the lack of a proper collected poems, Nowlan’s international reputation as a poet of the first rank continues to grow. That someone out there is purposefully preventing his collected poems from being published is nothing short of an abject transgression against literature. So, where is the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan? Who is responsible for keeping this book from coming into existence? And what good reason could there possibly be for suppressing Nowlan’s rightful literary legacy? I, and many others, would like to know. More importantly, we want the book.

Madeleine L'Engle: 1918 -- 2007

Poet and novelist Madeleine L'Engle has died at age 88.

New York Times
Washington Post

Sunday 2 September 2007

Poetry and songwriting are different. Duh.

Bob Dylan (shown while still somewhat coherent) is a great songwriter, but he's no poet, says Sam Leith. I wholeheartedly agree! Students who want to write their poetry papers on their favourite songwriters are the bane of my existence! This story is from the Telegraph:

As a lover of poetry, I always feel a deep gloom sinking on to me at the approach of National Poetry Day. Oh god, I think. There's going to be a lot of press releases. There's going to be an attempt to make poetry relevant and fun, by making it less like poetry. There's going to be… oh god.

This year, it's Bob Dylan. Children at key stages three and four English are going to be instructed to study the great man's work with the aid of a special "Dylan Education Pack", issued in honour of National Poetry Day.

In my mind and the minds of most people who give serious attention to his work as a lyricist, Dylan is a genius. But he's a songwriter, not a poet. It doesn't elevate his work to call it poetry any more than it elevates an apple to call it an orange; nor does it give you a useful way of thinking about it academically.

Some rock and pop lyrics, Dylan's among them, work as poetry - live differently, but also well, on the page. You'd expect that. Poetry and song - as the two main rhythmic uses of language - have the same origins and much in common.

But that's not to say they're the same thing. We share an ancestor with the chimpanzee, and we both like bananas, but we're not the same creature.

Sorry, kids. It needed to be said. Read the whole story here.