Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review - Etienne's Alphabet by James King

The phrase “two solitudes,” referring to the perceived lack of communication between English and French speakers in Canada, and also to the lack of interest in redressing the situation, is well known in Canadian political discourse. The term was popularised by Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes, but probably originated in a 1904 letter written by Rilke to a friend, about the changing nature of love between men and women, love born out of their individual solitudes. “This advance ... will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another... And this more human love... will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”

Rilke’s optimistic view seldom crosses over to the political use of the term, but in Etienne’s Alphabet, by James King, both meanings come into play.

Etienne is half Anglo, half Francophone, and a complicated character. He objects with good reason, to the labels his doctor’s pin on him – OCD and schizoid – as the truth is much less tidy. He makes lists of the physical characteristics of the people he meets and would otherwise fail to recognise them, suggesting he suffers from face blindness. Letters speak to him, have colours and personalities– c and s are arrogant, d has humility, e attracts the colour green, F is the Hamlet of the alphabet, very indecisive, G is a fretful letter, h is a wallflower, I the letter of loneliness - words form pictures of their meaning, he can see smells, all of which suggests a complex synaesthesia at work. He has no interpersonal skills, makes no emotional connections to other people. Another character points out “you understand numbers but have not the slightest idea about people.” He is reticent, detached, brash, melancholic. He talks like a robot and never fits in with his confreres. He seems to be a high functioning autistic and is the embodiment of the two solitudes. Etienne’s Alphabet is his story, told through a series of dictionary entries that make his identification with the schism in the Canadian identity plain, at the same time as they reveal something of his extraordinary view of the world around him.

In an entry on Kaspar Hauser Etienne says “I am a riddle to myself. I have never been subjected to the inhumane regime inflicted upon Hauser. But like him, I do not know how I became the person I am. What is the mystery ailment in my soul that keeps me so desperately apart from others? His notes on Jean-Paul Riopelle point out that the artist wrote to Premier Duplessis in 1948”telling him that both Canada and Quebec were too isolated from the rest of the world. ‘You must open up,’ he had demanded. Of course, his plea was ignored.” The advice Riopelle gives Duplessis is the same advice Etienne’s colleagues and superiors at the bank give him, and it has the same result.

Etienne seldom speaks directly about his feelings, except when he finds himself in a rant about English Canada’s prejudices against French Canadians, We are left to infer, to piece together his life from what he chooses to tell us about what he chooses to talk about.

Aardvark: Charming looking little creatures with built-in suits of armour...

Alphabet: Letters obviously hold the entire world together. Otherwise, there is no order, no language, no significance...

Appearances: They are not really deceiving...

Weasel: Weasels are synonymous with deceit, trickery and false promises. When I began my drawings ten years ago, I promised myself no portraits of any kind because the genre is subject to those awful vices.... People are vainglorious, unduly complicated and, ultimately, beyond understanding. Why should I subject myself to such a dubious enterprise as putting them on paper?

Zigag: Life is a series of abrupt right and left turns. There is no clear path, as Dante informs us...

After his death, Etienne’s landlady, who has taken care of him all his adult life, finds boxes of brightly coloured drawings in his rooms, a remarkable body of work as refractive, brilliant, suggestive and teasing as his autobiographical notes.

The oddly chosen entries in his idiosyncratic dictionary reveal a fascinating mind grappling with an often incomprehensible world, and eventually imposing, as all artists do, some sort of order on it. His story is carefully, hopefully, tenderly presented. An opaque character grows translucent, we begin to understand a little of what makes someone very unlike ourselves tick, and by the time Zodiac – a complete circuit, the compass of eternity – comes round we face Etienne in the way Rilke dreamed we would, as two solitudes greeting each other.

Published by Cormorant Books - ISBN 9781897151877 | 5.5" x 8.5" | TPB with French Flaps | $21 Cdn.

You can read a preview or download an exerpt of Etienne's Alphabet at Cormorant Books

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance Recipes - Potato Gratin

There is something wonderfully simple about potatoes. It takes almost nothing to take them from everyday to extraordinary with only basic ingredients. When Didier and Maria started their meal with a potato gratin I could almost imagine the incredible smell that permeated the kitchen. The best part is it comes together so quickly that there is time to relax with that glass of wine Marie was pouring. I make potato gratin often, sometimes in a large dish that is placed on the table for everybody to pass carefully around or when I want something a bit more formal I make individual dishes, which I turn out on the plate. As with everything in Pete's book the recipe is pretty simple and you just adjust amounts to fit the size of the dish you need. I have used ramekins as small as a 3 1/2"creme brulee dish to a 4 1/2" ramekins for individual servings; it all depends on what else is for dinner. The important thing when make small servings is to line the dish with parchment paper on the bottom and the sides. It is a bit of work but it makes the end results much better as the potatoes slide easily from the dish to the plate; I have also lined a large casserole dish for serving 10 to 12 people; I still like to use parchment on the bottom of the dish because the potatoes take on a beautiful golden colour. I have even turned the large dish out on a serving tray and arranged other roasted vegetables around it.

The important thing to remember is that the first row of potatoes will become the top of your dish, if you are turning it out, so take the time to make it look good. I generally place a couple of small sprigs of thyme on the bottom and then start to place the potatoes in concentric circles around the dish overlapping just a bit. The great thing about cooking like this is that you can adjust the dish as you like, sometimes I alternate layers with sauteed mushrooms or with other root vegetables such as turnips, sweet potatoes or parsnips; no matter what else I put in it I always use onions. I tried a recipe in a magazine recently where you alternated layers of potatoes with oven dried yellow and red tomatoes;it was delicious and gorgeous on the plate.

Potato Gratin

2 cups whipping cream
3 pounds potatoes, Yukon Gold work well but you can use any good potato. Try to get them roughly the same size.
1 small onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
enough soft butter to coat the dish

Thinly slice potatoes and onion using either a mandolin or a good sharp knife. If you are making individual servings line the bottom and sides of your dish with parchment paper and butter the paper; or, alternatively, butter the bottom and sides of a 9" x 13" casserole dish. Arrange three layers of potatoes around the bottom of the dish, overlapping each potato slightly then add a small layer of onion. Top the third layer with onions and some of the salt, pepper and thyme. Continue layering potatoes and onion, sprinkling the onion layer with salt, pepper and thyme until complete.

Place dish on a cookie sheet, to catch any of the liquid that may boil over. Gently add the cream, pushing down on the potatoes to almost cover them. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 30 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until potatoes are tender. If you are using individual ramekins reduce temperature after 20 minutes and continue to cook until potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes more. The cream will be almost completely absorbed. Let the gratin rest for 15 minutes before serving.

This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated in a 350 degree oven until heated through, making it a great dish for taking to friends or to get a head start for a dinner party. Enjoy
Janet Beck

Friday, December 24, 2010

Alchemy of Chance - Facebook Page

You can now become a fan of The Alchemy of Chance on Facebook! So you should all head over there and hit the 'Like' button. Thanks!

That Time Is Past - Snakey Sex, Take One - Glenn Haybittle

The girl entering the olive grove had a shaved head and was dressed in a ragged red ball gown from another century. She carried very attentively a woollen bag of bright colour, swollen with coins that made a heavy fidgeting noise. She stopped suddenly on noting a flicker of movement in the parched grass up ahead. There was a black snake that seemed to be having an epileptic fit. On closer inspection she realised it was two black snakes, entwined, and moving slowly, sometimes in unison, sometimes in conflict, undulating together with sudden whiplash jerkings and leaps off the ground. She saw the open fangs of the snake that seemed to be the aggressor; it made several attempts to bite into its adversary’s sleek black skin just beneath the head. Then she understood that they weren’t fighting; they were copulating. She watched spellbound, following them at a distance as, coiled and lashing together in a fluid double helix, they slithered and gyrated over the bracken and crisp dry grass. There were quiet moments when they were aligned into an almost inseparable writhing unity of wave motion, as if swimming together with their tails gently touching. Then there would be another a sudden thrashing of violent outcry when an electrical charge seemed to bolt through the length of them and toss them up into air, like a rope trick. The girl in the frock spent ten minutes watching them.

Image - snakes mating -
Copyright 1997, COBB Publishing

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Glenn Haybittle's Review of The Alchemy of Chance

The Alchemy of Chance is about maps, the guides we use to make headway in life. These maps aren’t always visible configurations of roads and rivers: often they consist of tides, star pulses behind the appearance of things, magnetic forces that are not available to the human eye. The heart too is a map; and perhaps the most fateful map of all.

When Aurelie Pêguissoux loses her sight in a car accident she has to map out a new set of coordinates for herself. She sets out on a journey of rediscovery. Meanwhile, in Wales, Dafydd Williams is given a mission by his father – to find his missing brother. The only clues to his whereabouts are a sequence of postcards all sent from various parts of France.

The Alchemy of Chance impresses with the creativity and lively courageous intelligence that has gone into its design. The prose is consistently as crisp and confident as the footprints of a fox in virgin snow. This novel, about map making, is also a map in itself, a complex intricately drawn map. That chance has a design to it is of course the premise of pretty much every novel ever written: we make order from shavings and rinds, from stains and litter, from what is strewn and overlooked as much as from what is photographed and cherished, Peter Brooks though is drawing up a map of the map so to speak which is a fascinating and exciting idea. Once we have this idea of the map every detail has the eye-catching pull of a landmark, a pathway, a clue. We see what he describes in a conventional context but we also see it shifted into a poetic realm where its significance, its consequence is still buried, is accumulating meaning and force before it’s eventually unearthed and integrated into the overall pattern, becomes another part of the map. We participate in the drawing up of this map with the excitement of an archaeologist taking off the top soil of an ancient burial mound. We know this is a treasure map.

The Alchemy of Chance is a life-affirming romantic adventure into a world where the secret poetry of synchronicity is a constant guide and companion.

Glenn Haybittle, Florence, Italy

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Author Interview

An Interview with Peter S. Brooks, by Dan Holloway

DH: Can you explain what synchronicity means to you? The word makes me think of the hippy teacher in ‘Heathers’. And the introduction to the film ‘Magnolia’.

PB: I haven’t seen ‘Heathers’ but yes, I suppose ‘Magnolia’ is dealing in that currency, though in a very particular Hollywood style. The opening of the film has a lot in common with one of those bathroom booklets, which I’m not averse to reading now and then. Lots of little anecdotes founded on a single notion: ‘… at the precise moment that…’ One of my favourites is the true story about the guy whose life was a bit of a mess and he threw himself off the roof of the Empire State Building shortly after it opened. He hadn’t gone far when some kind of updraught sucked him through an open window on the RCA Radio floor while a live news programme was going out. So the newsreader stuck a mike in his face. You can imagine it: ‘Tell me, what’s it like…’

I simply take synchronicity at its root, ‘same time’, and apply it to the broader weave of my storytelling. Most would agree it’s an inherently compelling topic and capable of being treated in many different ways. My own version in The Alchemy of Chance is built on the thesis that apparently random cosmic urges do in fact have a pulse, although I consider it my job merely to try and describe them, no more. I make a point of resisting any sense of predetermination, or a label. I mean fate, or destiny or god forbid, God. As Aurélie says: ‘Things just are.’

DH: It's a fascinating concept. But as an author how did you avoid falling into contrivance? Were you conscious of this as a potential danger?

PB: In one sense, all plot-design is contrivance, but I guess you’re refering to that moment when it creeps up to the edge of artifice. I was aware of the dangers and I became pretty obsessed with avoiding implausibility. In order to do that, I had to distinguish between the implausible and the unlikely. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, where perhaps anything goes, it’s an incredibly important aspect of our craft, even down to small matters of ‘staging’, narrating a character’s progress from A to B without unwittingly breaking a limb of theirs in the process. You don’t want an expert witness coming at you post-print with: ‘That simply could not have happened.’

On another level, I wanted to make sure that each encounter, each coincidence in time and space generated an echo of collective experience, an affirmative connection. ‘Yes. That’s just what happened to me.’ Or my cousin. Whoever. On their own, these kinds of coincidence are of limited utility, a part of the stock of material that we refer to for our stories. But I am drawn to the more complex notion of massed synchronicity and this is what the book is about. In my preface, I take a pretty serious mathematical stance on this and use the example of roulette. Forgetting the House, first time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing a red. Second time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing another red. And another, ad infinitum. All that we can say about the chances of throwing ten reds in a row is that it’s 50:50 each time (which is an axiom) and highly unlikely (which is an anecdote, though equally true). I happen to believe the universe works in the same way. I even thought about calling the book ‘Ten Consecutive Reds’.

DH: Does having a large ensemble cast make writing harder (keeping tabs of narrative arcs and the like) or easier (because you have to give up on graphs and trajectories and just get on with It)? To be filmic again, I can't help thinking of Robert Altman's The Player.

That’s interesting. I loved ‘The Player’, but the film that influenced me the most as I was coughing up this tale, was ‘Short Cuts’, where Altman uses originally unconnected Carver short stories as a springboard for a number of overlapping vignettes which all share a dénouement, a minor earthquake in Southern California.

As for the design, I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the process; so I guess it was easy. But I certainly couldn’t abandon ‘narrative arcs … graphs and trajectories’, as you put it. It’s essential to keep a handle on both the separate and the interlinked elements or else you never gain full control. Film-makers use storyboards of course, but this is writing as choreography, moving your main players around in relation to each other and to the broader scene. My way was to get myself a poster-sized artists’ sketchpad and a few pencils, and plot everything with boxes and bubbles, lines and arrows, dots and dashes. The result – to anyone else – was a mess, but I had to do that before I typed a word. Even then, I also had to set up a timeline spreadsheet, covering the main characters over the six months of the story, to the day, even down to the (real for that year) phases of the moon. Again, it’s down to plausibility. Perhaps I’m unnecessarily obsessed with it, but if I’m going to enter the world of Aurélie’s lunar cycles, for example, then I really should get it right. I can’t have her ovulating when she should be menstruating.

DH: How easy was it to write a blind character? Did you find yourself editing as you went, did you get into character before you started then stay there? Or did you let yourself get it all out and then edit for consistency? Did you find yourself "looking" at the world in different ways?

PN: Well I had to do some homework, that’s for sure. I interviewed a few blind people (though very informally, I must add), just to get a take on their take on their world. That was fascinating and instructive, but once I started, I was navigating by my own imagination, with the odd tip and anecdote thrown in subliminally.

One of the great things about writing a non-linear narrative with a multi-character cast is that when you’ve finished writing you can shift your chapters around with ease. I wrote all the Aurélie chapters in one sequence; so yes, I got fired up in character and let it all flow. Editing came later, when I’d completed the whole work. However, like many a writer before me, I allowed myself to get smitten by one of my characters. I think it shows; many have commented on it anyway. Aurélie would come to me, often in the car, usually late at night, and I’d look across at the empty seat and she’d be there with me as I drove through France. Many scenes came out of those moments, especially the ones where she sets off with Dafydd. It’s a form of madness, of course, but at least it’s only temporary.

Writing from the PoV of a blind person, with only non-visual predicates to hand, was a joy. It really stretched me and my outlook too. I found myself totally immersed in the senses for a while. And I’ll never go back. Whatever my next work is about – and it almost certainly won’t feature a blind person – I’ll be giving the non-visual senses much more say in the narration. I’m sure it was responsible for reinvigorating my lifelong love of food. And, looking back now, it corresponded to a point in my life when I took on new interests in horticulture and floriculture. I’d still hate to be blind though, that much I know. The other transformational thing for me was a reaffirmation of my attraction to people with handicaps. So often, their combination of vulnerability and openness seems to sum up the best of the human spirit.

DH: For someone of, er, my age, the 70s is a fascinating time, right at the edge of what I can remember. Do you see any aspects of historical fiction in the book, or is it just literary fiction set in the past?

Absolutely not. Rightly or wrongly, for me the term ‘historical fiction’ me doesn’t kick in until, say, World War 2. I regard the 70s as a while ago. I decided to set the book in that decade for two reasons: firstly, it was a time of great change for me, the arrival of adulthood I suppose. Above all, I was happy. I first went to France when I was 14 and I wanted to capture that intensely aromatic moment of being in another quite alien land. I decided to situate my wide-eyed innocence in the character of Hannah. I found I was able to plunder my memory bank with ease.

The second reason is to do with the modernisation of France. By setting this piece in the 70s, I found I’d created something of a requiem for a fast-dying culture, one whose time-distance co-ordinates would soon be ripped apart by TGVs, miles more autoroutes and cheap flights; whose metropolitan drains would finally be fixed, and – above all – whose momentary personal isolations would be removed, almost at a stroke, by the advent of the mobile phone and the internet. None of these stories could be the same today. Imagine Aurélie standing alone on that station platform. She’d have her mobie out like a shot

DH: Having grown up near the Mapa Mundi, mapmaking has always fascinated me, but did you ever feel you were treading a fine line between a great central metaphor for a "web of synchronicity" and hitting the reader over the head with the authorial preachy stick?

PB: When I started out on this, Aurélie came to me almost all in one go. She was blind of course, slightly eccentric and adventurous, a crazy astrologer with an odd byline in twinning. But the mapmaking came later. It just slipped in through the back door. And I think that’s because it’s one of my own ‘trainspotting’ quirks, which I’m a little hesitant to admit to. By including it as Aurélie’s original trade, her reason for getting up in the morning, it struck me as yet another loss from which I could have her recover.

There’s a clue in the story, when she’s playing tactile Scrabble with Dafydd, and she refers to the ancient power of graphic representation and analogues. I love them! They’re so quintessentially human. No animal could invent the clock or make a map.

Although, as I have said, the structure of the piece was carefully plotted, any idea of mapmaking as ‘a great central metaphor’ must have been subconcious. I simply didn’t plan it that way. It’s interesting that you posit this, because shortly after arriving on Authonomy, Radek – one of the finest reviewers up there – said about Alchemy:

‘This novel, about map making, is also a map in itself, a complex intricately drawn map. That chance has a design to it is of course the premise of pretty much every novel ever written.You though are drawing up a map of the map so to speak which is a fascinating and exciting idea.’

So it’s a meta-map. Which I like. But I honestly didn’t realise until it was pointed out.

Dan Holloway is author of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall; a spoken word performer, a founder member of Year Zero Writers; and curator of eight cuts gallery.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost - The Alchemy of Chance with Technology


You put my postcode
Into your Sat Nav
So you can find me.

But how we get
From where we are now
To where we want to be
Is a mystery.

Lost was written by Libby, at Poems4people and has been quoted with permission.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - UK Launch

The Alchemy of Chance was launched in the UK on Saturday with a party in Cardiff. My spies tell me it was a good time and ended with the author dancing in the kitchen. I'll have an official report in a few days, hopefully with photographs and details of the dance step involved. I'm hoping for a tango, and a picture of Peter with a rose between his teeth, but I deal with disappointment fairly well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sunshine Girl and the space time story fracture.

“So, sunshine girl, what's your name?” I asked.

She was sunshine girl because it was pouring cats and dogs and she was smiling and the metaphor was apt. Her smile is like that. It just floods you with warmth and light.

“Abigail,” sunshine girl said. “And you're...” she frowned, “Andy?”

“Andalucia,” I told her. “Not Andy in a very long time. Luce usually, or Luci.”

“Andalucia,” she repeated.

“It's a place in Spain. My parents fucked there. I was conceived.”

She frowned for a moment.

“Oh,” she said, “I just am. I sprang, fully formed from the earth. In my nice shoes.”

I sort of believed her, too.

I’m reading an extraordinary manuscript, involving, among many others, a child called “sunshine girl.” In her world things don’t behave as you expect. Narrative time isn’t linear, but it isn’t a series of nice comfortable flashbacks or a “wibbly-wobbly ball of timey-wimey... stuff,” either. Nothing you could conveniently traverse in a blue police call box.

It’s more like a hall of funfair mirrors – fractured, fragmented, reflecting, refracting, folding in on itself. Splintered time. Origami time. The world is warped in ways that haven’t been explained. It’s a trial by immersion, like baptism in a very quickly moving river, when you can’t trust the person holding you, and also like the way one celestial body obscures another, then reveals it again. It’s a place full of love and death and sex and recreational pain and absolute moral judgements, full of beautiful, slightly unreal characters who have done a lot of damage to themselves and each other. There’s a luminous white haired girl who keeps head severing throwing stars in her leather corset, a rhino guy with infinite eyes, a monk with no eyes at all, a perfectly ordinary absent minded professor with half eaten biscuits on his desk. There are monsters, and not just under sunshine girl’s bed. In some of her strange moments of clarity she’s become aware of them. They’re getting to Luci. They sit on her eyelids, and cast shadows under her eyes.

Not really my cup of tea, except there’s tea everywhere. It’s the number one drink of choice, which makes it all seem so civilised, in spite of the blood and single malt running neck to neck for second place. According to sunshine girl there are also teacups that feel neglected if they aren’t used in their proper turn, which I can definitely identify with. All in all, there are story worlds you might be wise to avoid, but somehow find yourself inextricably involved in. One thing there doesn’t seem to be is a title. I’ll have to get back to you with that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Proof Copy

In the really exciting news department, the proof copy of The Alchemy of Chance arrived today, with Marianne Pfeiffer's glorious enamel zodiac signs glowing on the front cover, and Peter's story just waiting for the turn of a page. Our first real, actual book. It will go into production later this week. I apologise for the terrible pictures. The only available light was a stark overhead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cosmic Love and The Alchemy of Chance

Cosmic Love

I took the stars from my eyes, and then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you**

My daughter and my husband are very keen on a song called Cosmic Love, by Florence and the Machine. It’s on both their ipods so I hear it in the kitchen while my husband is cooking, and in the car. In the song the narrator has been blinded by a star falling from an un-named someone’s heart, and left in the dark, so he or she makes a map, all of which reminds me, on more than one level, of The Alchemy of Chance. Aurelie, who is actually blind, meets Dafydd, who is symbolically blind, at least where love is concerned. You might think I’d be comparing Aurelie to the narrator of Cosmic Love, but Dafydd is a closer match. When he meets Aurelie he’s immediately struck by her and the book is much more about his long journey, sharing her darkness, than it is about any issues she has with finding her way around. She was once a mapmaker but blindness has reduced her, bizarrely enough, to the position of navigator, and it’s Dafyyd who makes the literal maps of their journey.

... she needed the whole picture, and preferably one with a frame. She needed relief and spatial accuracy, signs and symbols that spoke to her of landscapes natural and man-made, rivers hills and towns, the odd church and burial mound, the relationship of one place to another, accurate to the kilometre… well maybe ten, at this scale…
“You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course.”
“You’ll need another Michelin, a piece of board, some fuse-wires, drawing pins…”
“I’ll make you a map, OK.”

Early in the book Aurelie’s father, Didier sticks pins into a map of the London Underground, so she can visualise the route through it, and then makes her a map of sorts, of the stars - a book of blank astrological charts with each segment lined with fuse wire. “Some jewellery-maker friends fashioned a brooch for each of the star signs. He made a tactile protractor himself. A small toolbox housed more lengths of fuse wire, locating-pins and lumps of plasticine to help keep the delicate operations stable.” All of this made it possible for Aurelie to find her way amongst the stars, and to do astrological readings. But Didier too is caught in the darkness, in “a sombre dusk” that “fell on his soul” after the death of his wife and Aurelie’s loss of sight.

His eye was taken by a box of pins, the kind with multi-coloured plastic heads like little chess pieces, and he suddenly saw them, these commonplace trivia, in a different light. He bought a few boxes and, while Aurélie was out, dashed up to her old apartment for the London Undergound Map they’d left behind. He re-mounted it on corkboard, hung it in the hallway and stuck a pin in every station. On her return, he took her arm and led the middle finger of her left hand to the Western edge.
“I’ve brought your map back. Here.”
She boarded at Uxbridge on the Metropolitan Line, appearing perplexed at first. But she soon got the hang of it. She headed for Hillingdon. Bump… Ickenham. Ruislip. Bump… Bump… “Faster!” Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. By the time she hit the Circle Line, she was whizzing along. She went all the way round and then again. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… Then she shot off up the Central Line... Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… and alighted at Epping.

The plot of The Alchemy of Chance is structured around Aurelie’s and Dafydd’s search for Dafydd’s brother, Sean, who has been out of touch for years, and the search itself follows a cryptic set of directions Sean wrote on the backs of a few postcards. More maps, of sorts. Sean is another man wandering in darkness. When Aurelie reads his star charts she discovers he’s prone to “moments of darkness, where he is best left alone,” but those moments seem to have spread to cover too much territory.

So The Alchemy of Chance is a book about, among other things, the literally blind attempting to lead the figuratively blind out of the darkness, and one of the questions it raises is whether this is a possibility. Florence’s narrator, when he discovers that the mysterious someone who blinded him is also trapped in darkness, decides to stay there and keep her company. That’s one option.

**Cosmic Love, by Florence and the Machine
The London Tube in Darkness is by S. Mairi Graham-Shaw

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Mountie at Niagara Falls by Salvatore Difalco

Anvil Press is pleased to announce the release of:

The Mountie at Niagara Falls and other brief stories
Salvatore Difalco

The Mountie at Niagara Falls is an astonishingly absurd and humorous collection of brief stories from Toronto author Salvatore Difalco. Ranging in length from fifty to seven hundred words, these vital and sudden fictional forays transport the reader to worlds both big and small: a land where green goats roam, voodoo dolls inflict crushing migraine headaches, a typographer from South Porcupine kills a potential love affair with a discussion of sans serif type, a benevolent judge imparts clemency on an admittedly violent man, and the road of experience turns this way and that for a truffle-snuffing boar and a talking cat.

These brief tales are alternately fantastic, humorous, menacing, contemplative, absurd, hallucinatory, violent, confessional, and always provocative.

SALVATORE DIFALCO currently resides in Toronto. He is the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories (Anvil). His short stories, essays, book reviews, and poker columns have appeared in publications across Canada and the USA.

ILLUSTRATED BY FRANCESCO GALLÉ. Gallé is an established painter in Toronto and Italy. He was born in southern Italy in 1966 and like many Italians made his way over the ocean with his family in 1972 at the age of six. His work has been featured internationally from New York to Germany and Italy. He created several wine labels for Viticcio, Greppi and Fattoria La Loggia Wineries in the Chianti Region of Tuscany. He is represented in private collections throughout Canada, Italy, Germany and England.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lives of the Saints - Nino Ricci

Lives of the Saints
20th Anniversary Edition
Nino Ricci
illustrated by Tony Urquhart

Cormorant Books is thrilled to announce the release of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Governor
General’s Literary Award-winning novel Lives of the Saints. This hardcover commemorative edition features an introduction by Steven Hayward, paintings by renowned Canadian artist Tony Urquhart, and chapters not included in the original story. Nino Ricci also offers a brand new afterword examining the novel’s place in his own life and work.
Since its publication in 1990, Lives of the Saints has garnered ardent critical acclaim and become a Canadian classic. In addition to winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 1990, the novel spent 75 weeks on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list and won the Smithbooks/Books In Canada First Novel Award and the Bressani Prize. The novel has been published in 14 countries and interpreted into a four-hour mini-series starring Sophia Loren.
Lives of the Saints is set is the fictional Italian town of Valle De Sole, in which six-year-old Vittorio Innocente’s life is transformed when his mother is bitten on the ankle by a snake. Though she survives the venom, she suffers a strange swelling and the disdain of the scandalized villagers.The mysterious thing taking shape in Vittorio’s mother’s
belly could change everything.
Nino Ricci is the author of the Lives of the Saints trilogy, which includes the novels Lives of the Saints, In a Glass House, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Where She
has Gone. He is also the author of Testament (2002), winner of the Trillium Prize, and The Origin of Species (2008), winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Nino Ricci lives in Toronto with his wife Erika de Vasconcelos and their children.”

“An extraordinary story.” - The New York Times Book Review

“I cannot praise [Nino Ricci] too highly.” - Timothy Findley

“A gem of a novel.” - The Globe and Mail

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ravenna Gets by Tony Burgess

Anvil Press is pleased to announce the release of:
Ravenna Gets
Tony Burgess

From the author of Pontypool Changes Everything, Ravenna
Gets is a new collection of “wheeled” stories that continue the
author’s exploration of “apocalypse fiction.”
In a single convulsion of homicide, the population of Ravenna
tries to erase the population of Collingwood. The innocent,
standing in their living rooms, cooking in their kitchens, and
playing in their yards, are simply checked off by hunting rifles or
crossed out by farmers' tools.
There is one thing missing, however, as the bodies fall from
what might have been better stories, better novels, and it’s this:

Tony Burgess is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, and Fiction For Lovers. His writing has been featured in numerous anthologies and magazines across the country. Most recently, Tony was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Pontypool. He lives in Stayner, Ontario.

Anvil Press

The Alchemy of Chance - Didier's Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

A guest post from our intrepid chef. In lieu of an eating tour of France, Janet is cooking her way through The Alchemy of Chance. We'll feature her recipes here on the blog and they'll be included in the enhanced digital version of the book.

"This meal, Sunday lunch, was a celebration of nothing more or less than the end of winter. All morning, Didier had been preparing the last of the season’s fare. His Jerusalem artichoke soup was kicked into life by the gratings of an earthy black truffle sent up from Périgord."

Besides a great read “The Alchemy of Chance” is a foodie’s dream of eating his or her way through France. I love the descriptions of the meals; everything is as it should be - wonderful food made simply with local, seasonal food. When I decided to attempt the recipes in the book I was committed to following Peter’s notion of using whatever ingredients were freshest and at hand so sometimes I have had to change a recipe because the ingredients he describes are not in season. Such was the case with the Jerusalem artichoke soup. He describes a wonderful soup resplendent with earthy black truffles; unfortunately truffles are not in season for another month here so I opted to use truffle butter instead. For a garnish I sautéed some wonderful small yellow foot chanterelles that are in season. The flavours were incredible. I think the idea is to change one’s recipes to suit the season so making changes to a recipe to suit what is available locally makes great sense. Of course if fresh truffles are available and you want to splurge the soup will be all the better for it, but this soup still has a wonderful truffle flavour and it won't hurt your pocket book.

Jerusalem artichoke Soup with truffles

4 Tablespoons butter (2 for the garlic and onions and 2 for the mushrooms)

1 clove of garlic chopped

1 small onion chopped

Approximately 1 pound of Jerusalem artichokes washed and cut into 1 inch pieces

2 1/2 cups of good chicken stock (homemade is best)

1/2 cup cream or use more chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

½ teaspoon truffle butter

½ cup of fresh wild mushrooms (whatever is in season) or ½ cup dried wild mushrooms such as chanterelles or small morels reconstituted in hot water

¼ cup sour cream

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives

Melt the butter in a pan and sauté the garlic and onion until translucent. Add them to a medium pot with the Jerusalem artichokes and chicken stock and cook until the Jerusalem artichokes are soft (about 10 minutes).

While the soup is cooking add the 2 remaining tablespoons of butter to the pan and sauté the mushrooms.

When Jerusalem artichokes are tender, pour mixture into blender and process until smooth. Be careful when processing the hot liquid. When mixture is smooth strain it back into the pot to remove any lumps. Reheat soup adding cream if you are using it or additional stock. Add salt and pepper to taste and the truffle butter. Stir to combine.

To serve ladle soup into bowls. Add a tablespoon of sour cream to each bowl, and then place the mushrooms around the cream. Sprinkle bowl with finely chopped parsley or chives.

Bon Appétit

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vs. by Kerry Ryan

Anvil Press is pleased to announce the release of:
Kerry Ryan
Vs. is a collection of poems chronicling a foray into the world of amateur boxing by a shy, bookish woman you’d never expect could hit someone in the face. Throughout these poems the author
reflects on what it means to be a woman and a boxer, as well as a poet and a boxer. Part instruction manual, part rationalization Vs. is ultimately about the fights, both mental and physical, we all must confront.
Kerry Ryan is a Winnipeg-based poet whose work has been published in literary journals across the country. Her first collection, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and nominated for the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. In March 2009, she competed in, and won, a white collar boxing match.
Poetry • 5 x 7 IN • $16 can / us • 96 pp • 13-ISBN 978-1-897535-34-9
Publication date (on sale date): November 4, 2010
Anvil Press gratefully acknowledges the Canada Council, the BC Arts Council, and the Canada Book Fund for their support of our publishing program. Anvil Press is represented by the Literary Press Group and distributed by the University of Toronto Press.
CONTACT: Karen Green, Marketing Director
T: 604 876-8710 _ F: 604 879-2667 _ E: _

The Spring Ghazals - Review

I’ve been reading The Spring Ghazals as they have appeared on John Hayes’ blog, Robert Frost’s Banjo, but the experience of reading them in one place, at one sitting, has been very different.

A traditional ghazal, before we get into the particulars of John’s version, is a strict form composed of five or more couplets. The second line of each couplet ends with a repetition of one or a more words, immediately preceded by a rhyme. There can be no enjambment across the couplets of a ghazal and although every couplet may be a short poem in itself, there should be some continuity of thought or theme across them, often related to the overall theme of the ghazal tradition, which is lost or unrequited love.

The Spring Ghazals are not traditional examples of the form. Although composed of a series of couplets they don’t repeat at the end of every couplet, nor do they rhyme, the lines frequently run across couplets, and the couplets themselves, instead of maintaining a dignified independence, are linked by a forward rush of association and feeling. What they do share with the traditional ghazal, besides their basic format, is continuity of thought and theme, and that continuity is what gives the work its very distinctive tone.

Both the individual poems, and the section of the book featuring them, are riff driven. The poems are threaded with a series of motifs or phrases repeated throughout the work, as in a musical ostinato, always with the same weight and stress. The opening image of the willow -‘the willow’s limbs fidget’ - for instance, recurs in the same poem as ‘the breeze agitating the willow,’ then moves through the ghazal section of the book in variations - ‘blackbirds busy in the willow’s supple gesticulating branches.’ blackbirds trilling from willow limb to willow limb, sparrows’ staccato outcry in willows’ arms, the weeping willow’s yellow empty arms, a breeze shifting the willow‘s delicate boughs, the willow limbs’ gray resignation, the mourning dove’s coo in the beb willows.

When the book shifts from the ghazals into the kitchen poems the willow follows. In Macaroni and Cheese we find -
Yellow marimba mallets bouncing down a chromatic bass line the willow
tree you showed me where to plant is grown into goldfinches chirping
all May -
6 tablespoons of butter melting in a copper pot with
flour black pepper paprika
the willow’s leaves the china jade & honey agate rosary beads the
tree of life—time is moving chromatic & crisp & hollow
along the wooden keys...”

It reappears in some of the Grace poems, and in the Helix and Cloudland sections of the book, each time adding shape and unity to the work, in much the same way ostinati and riffs add unity to music that has departed from the structure provided by traditional forms.

January Morning is a good example of Hayes’ technique at work.

January Morning
the cow pond exhaling smoke at 6 degrees the blue gray fog an aquarium
miasma filled with sagebrush & emptiness
a face staring backwards & forwards in the blue gray frozen fog thru the
willow thru the cloud of juncos & sparrows & the sagebrush breaking thru
the snow on the round hill eastward
the rocks white the willow’s long hair black the poplars skeletal
a face staring backwards & forwards in a cloudy mirror & the mule deer
outside the window leaping the barbed wire without any effort the dazzling
flight of a magpie subdued in the freezing mist & white air
the chill is a teardrop mandolin tremoloed in its icy throat on a high octave E
& the crow’s bitter snow is a chill in the heart muscle a contraction
tho the air is blue & gray & opaque & the ridge to the east has sunk below
this sea of fog with its frosty water droplets distributing chill to the lungs
the cowpond exhaling smoke at 6 degrees the owl on the wing over the
skeletal grape vines the owl appearing to me each night its face a white fog
of feathers its wings knifing silently thru the white air soaring south
& the road is white with ice a frozen current swerving south without moving
a face staring in every cardinal direction seeing the white air the willow’s
long black hair streaked white with hoarfrost
a rheumatic shoulder the lungs an aquarium miasma filled with sagebrush &
emptiness the heart contracting its owls wings in the white white air
a face staring into a blue gray frozen ocean stitched with barbed wire
without a horizon
is it a new day

The poem circles like an accompanied canon in 5, a melody followed by imitations after a more or less given duration, as if a new voice enters each time the face reappears, to echo and augment the emotional bleakness, and the contrasting teem of life in the surrounding physical winter. It begins simply enough, with a pond exhaling smoke and fog, until a face emerges from the miasma, staring backwards and forwards, through time, it seems, as much as through space. Significantly the face looks ‘thru’ the world around it, through the fog, the birds, the sagebrush “breaking thru the snow on the round hill eastward,” the rocks, the willow, the poplar, iterating the landscape, and building momentum through the repetition.

In its second appearance, we learn the face sees the world in a cloudy mirror, and as if to heighten the contrast between its passive unreal view and the actual world, things suddenly move, in spite of impediment, with ease and grace. The mule deer leaps the barbed wire, the magpie takes flight into the freezing mist, and from somewhere a mandolin brings the latent music of the piece into focus, cutting, with its bright clarity, through the cloudiness, the miasma, the fog, and the white air with a sustained high octave E. Words, phrases, and images move in and out, and through the lines, changing slightly in look and intent. The face stares, by its third appearance, not thru the world, backwards and forwards in memory, but at it, and ‘sees’ for the first time “the white air the willow’s long black hair streaked white with hoarfrost” and everything else, including the emptiness of things and the contraction of its own heart.

In its final appearance, the face stares not into an obscuring fog but into the wide open emptiness of an ocean without horizon, “stitched with barbed wire.” This last image is a telling one. The mule deer leapt the wire earlier in the poem, without effort, and here it reappears like a form of embroidery on the water, like the wire spread over no man’s land, making an impassable barrier. The word “stitched” however, indicates that the face sees something ‘made,’ something worked, or wrought, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the nature of the emptiness and the impediments it sees.

There are echoes of the Genesis story woven into the last two lines of the poem, subtly reinforcig the idea of something made from emptiness - “without form and void,” as it were. “Without a horizon,” evokes the view of the world before the division of the waters and the question posed in the final line – is it a new day – recalls the refrain after each act of creation -“And the evening and the morning were the first (second third and so on) day.” The poem does not, I believe, intend to be ‘religious.’ It only alludes to the Genesis text to make an immediately recognisable point about how our ways of looking and seeing create the world we occupy, and to suggest an answer to the questions posed in another poem in the collection – “Is poetry living in memory or is it fetching memory into a present moment? Is it making a moment where past & present & future coalesce?”

January Morning is as romantic, in its own way as that most romantic poem, The Lady of Shalott. Baudelaire claimed “ Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling,” and the two poems, both dealing with a mind looking at the world as if “in a cloudy mirror,” have at least that in common. They also share a focus on the natural world as a foil for the outlook of the onlooker, tree imagery, repeated willow images, and a noticeable emphasis on looking and seeing, and on snow, cold, whiteness and cloudiness.

Once the Lady has taken the radical step of looking at the real world instead of its shadowy reflection she is undone. Tennyson describes her looking “like some bold seer in a trance, seeing all his own mischance,” which is the impression we have of the face in January Morning as it looks backwards and forwards. Both poems are, of course, about impossible love. The Lady of Shalott is destroyed by a glimpse of Lancelot and a world she cannot be part of, and we know the narrator of Hayes’ poem is looking at the same thing simply because he speaks to us out of the pages of a collection called Spring Ghazals, which is by definition about lost or impossible love.

The last thing the poems share is the created work. The Lady of Shalott spent her life weaving a tapestry of the world as she saw it, before she ventured to look out on the real world, whereas the face looking, first thru and then at a January morning, ends by seeing the embroidery of barbed wire he has stitched on the world. I am by no means suggesting that January Morning is a modern retelling of Tennyson’s poem, only that it is uses a romantic idiom to address the way we construct and address the world and it shares that aim, often to brilliant effect, with the collection as a whole.

The Spring Ghazals is available at Lulu.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Interview with John Hayes, Author of The Spring Ghazals

T.T. - You’re playing with the ghazal form here, adapting it, rather than adhering to its fairly strict traditional rules. What attracted you to it? Formal considerations? Thematic resonances?

J.H. - I suppose the only claim the poems in the “Spring Ghazals” section have to being ghazals at all—other than the fact they’re written in couplets—would be along the lines of thematic resonances. According to the definition of the form, ghazals (in addition to their strict formal construction) treat “melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions,” & in that sense, the poems certainly fit the definition.

Adrienne Rich wrote two ghazal sequences in the 1960s & 1970s: “Homage to Ghalib” & “The Blue Ghazals.” These poems, & especially “The Blue Ghazals” sequence, were an inspiration. In my reading, Rich is able to move fluidly thru time & space in her ghazals, & this appealed to me a great deal, as it has so much to do with the book’s central themes.

In formal terms, there seems a lot of potential for “space” in a poem composed of couplets. In a way, a couplet may seem more of a distinct unit than a longer stanza—the difference between a pithy quote & a paragraph. So in that sense, there seems to be more potential disjuncture & movement, both of which were important formal considerations.

T.T. - The landscape is everywhere in these poems, as is the wildlife. It pushes its way into the imagery of the pieces and also into the voice. Would you comment on the omnipresence of the natural world in your work? Is it as important in your non-writing life?

J.H. - W.D. Snodgrass has a line in his poem “Heart’s Needle” that states, “We need the landscape to repeat us.” This has always been true in my poetry. When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, I wrote a good deal of formal poetry in the midst of the formal gardens & brick walkways & trim dogwoods—& the landscape invoked in those poems was very much that of my surroundings. In San Francisco, my poems became distinctly urban—filled with cityscapes & on the whole quite gritty. Now I live in a rural location with almost shockingly picturesque scenery. The natural world is all around us in a sense that was not true in Charlottesville or San Francisco. In addition, my wife Eberle is a talented gardener, & so there’s a profusion of flowers on our property in the spring thru early autumn.

I love flowers & I love songbirds; we enjoy a diversity of birds in our location & I’m always fascinated to observe them. Temperamentally, however, I think I’m much more a town or city dweller than a country person. I’m always fascinated by juxtapositions, & I like to place the natural world alongside man-made objects—I think this is most evident in the “Helix Poems” section of the book.

T.T. - In my review I claim The Spring Ghazals is riff driven. The language and feel of music moves the verse in obvious and not so obvious ways. How would you describe the overlap between music and poetry in your work? What effect does one form have on the other?

J.H. - The “riff driven” comment is perceptive. There are of course the obvious references to musical instruments, to certain musical chords & tones. But I look at poetry as a highly improvisational art, & in that sense I often feel as tho I start with a theme & explore its permutations thru riffing. I’m also incredibly drawn to repetition both in my own work & in the work of other poets, especially when the repetition morphs into different shapes throughout the poem.

I do believe I have a good “ear” for verse—a good sense of verbal rhythm, which is connected to music. & I like verse that “sings” in some way—“verbal music” as it were. When I first read Robert Creeley as an undergraduate, I followed the path from his highly lyrical poems (in many senses of the word “lyrical,” including of course the idea of “song lyrics”) to Thomas Campion. Perhaps this was a logical conclusion for a child of the 1960s & 70s who listened to a lot of popular music at a time when all songwriters seemed to be Romantic poets. I also remember being quite taken by Pound’s writings on poetry & music when I was in graduate school, tho I now believe that Pound’s spin on how poetry is inextricably linked with music is ultimately just more of his reactionary politics couched in some otherwise interesting ideas.

Meanwhile, there has been talk of literally setting at least some of the poems in the book to music, & I’m open to that idea. Eberle is a talented composer & musical improviser & I’m pretty adept at the guitar. Eberle has a harmonium that I think might provide a wonderful background for some of the material, & of course a bass or bass guitar can always be interesting behind a voice.

T.T. - Some of your work, or perhaps most of your work to a greater or lesser extent, presents itself as an onslaught of sensory information, often an almost involuntary seeming synaesthetic tumble of information. “The past didn’t go anywhere’ is a good example. Sound triggers colour, triggers smell, triggers memory. You don’t necessarily mention all of this specifically, it’s as if the piling on of colour and sound make a brain connection that automatically evokes the smell, of grapefruit, of oranges, of iris or lilac, or dusty road, or horse manure. And often taste gets involved, as in the Kitchen poems in this collection, to mouthwatering effect. Would you comment on this tendency? Do you experience the world in this heightened way? You couldn’t possibly. You’d go a little mad. So what’s behind the device, if I can use do calculated a word?

J.H. - Yes, my poetry, for better or worse, does have its “onslaught” aspect! I believe some of this comes from formal considerations—I don’t like the way most punctuation looks in my poetry; I’ve long been obsessed with Charles Simic’s lines from his poem “errata”: “Remove all periods/They are scars made by words.” So there’s a breathless quality & a sense of fluidity—I hope! One has to sacrifice a bit to write with minimal punctuation, but at this point it’s the way my mind works when I’m in a poetic mode.

So, yes, if you have these very fluid & rarely ever end-stopped lines & you rely a great deal on sensory data (as opposed to abstract concept or pure language) to construct a poem, that sensory data may seem overwhelming. I also think this point goes back to the idea of poetic writing as improvisation; I try to start at a point & develop the idea in different directions.

As far as experiencing the world in this heightened way—no, in my day-to-day life I don’t. When I wrote poetry more frequently than I do now, there was perhaps one segment of my mind that did on an almost constant basis, but it was never as if my whole consciousness was processing sensory data this way. Another thing I believe is that when I do write poetry, in the actual time of composition, I am in a heightened or “distracted” state & there is some sort of tug between the internal & external “worlds.” As I look over the poem “the past didn’t go anywhere” that’s the tension I see—the tension between memory & the sounds & colors I’d absorbed thru observation (both active & passive) in the time around when I wrote the poem.

Your observation about going a “little mad” may explain why I don’t write poetry on any sort of regular schedule!

T.T. - “In every heart there should be one grief that is like a well in the desert.” Would you speak to the issue of poetry as a way, for both reader and writer, to deal with emotion? Poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, or as a spur, as the Wharton quote suggests, to writing. A kind of muse.

J.H. - I write from inspiration, it’s true. It’s not a fact I’m “proud of”—I can see that it might be much more effective to write in a workman-like, craftsman-like fashion. But the fact is, I’ve been writing in this way for a number of years & I’m now in my 50s; I don’t foresee this changing.

& I do believe in “the muse,” tho I also see that this belief has often been damaging to my life & relationships. When I say “believe,” I don’t say this in any apostolic way—I’m not like Robert Graves trying to convince everyone that “muse poetry” is the only “true poetry.” I think I mean it more in the sense of “accept the fact.”

At any rate, The Spring Ghazals as a series of poems written over time deal with sorrow, & they were written in a time of emotional turmoil, with sorrow being a major component. But I worry about sorrow as a muse because I do think Plato was onto something with his notion that poetry waters the passions. At a certain point, does sorrow—or whatever powerful emotion you’re dealing with in poetry—become an end in itself, necessary to keep composing? At what point is the poetry a release from this emotion? & do we sometimes artistically try to create an endpoint, an artificial moment in which the creation says, now there’s resolution? I mean, the prose poem “Grace #4” that ends the collection—& which was the final poem written—does that spell an end to sorrow? No. The sorrow continues. That’s the truth of Wharton’s quote. Such a sorrow is a well that can’t be drunk dry.

T.T. - If I remember correctly, you did a degree in creative writing at UVA. I can’t find my source for that, but I’ll proceed on the assumption that it’s true. What did a formal education in writing do for you as a poet, and for your work? Any downsides?

J.H. - Yes, I attended the University of Virginia in 1984 thru 1986, & received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry writing. I studied with Charles Wright & Greg Orr, & while I don’t feel a great affinity for their work, I respect both men as poets, & found them helpful & congenial. I certainly feel as tho I learned from them, tho whatever lessons I absorbed have been absorbed thoroughly enough at this point that I’d be hard pressed to articulate them. Perhaps what was most important to me was the MFA setting outside the actual classes & workshops—I actually have mixed feelings about the whole “workshop” process, truth be told. But I met some remarkably talented peers during my time in Charlottesville—perhaps a half dozen or more—whose work & whose relationship to poetry was inspiring & formative. I still maintain a few of those friendships, & wish I maintained them all—in fact, I’m married to one of those people! I also believe that my work inspired them some too.

So the overall artistic climate was nourishing, but the lion’s share of that took place in diners & restaurants & bars & peoples’ apartments. As far as the MFA itself, I see it (& came to see it at the time as well) as ultimately conservative & fostering a certain sameness of voice & perspective. The MFA is of course, the de facto college creative writing teaching credential, & with so few real professorships available, there’s a drive to write what will be published in the right journals & what will win the right prizes. I found myself incapable of doing that, & as a result, wasn’t cut-out for the academic career I’d expected when I decided to purse an MFA. I don’t have any real regrets on that front, tho I believe my poetry, however idiosyncratic, is actually quite good & deserves a readership; & I realize more & more that I sacrificed some opportunities by following the path I did.

T.T. - Influences? Favourite poets?

J.H. - Many & varied: I love Apollinaire, & I continue to work on translating Alcools, which I hope to publish at some point. Ted Berrigan & Frank O’Hara are both big influences—Berrigan for his emotional directness & his amazing sense of movement in lines & O’Hara for his humor & vividness. I love Mina Loy’s poetry—I believe Love Song to Johannes is one of the great 20th century poems. Kenneth Patchen also has been a inspiration to me—I love the fact that Patchen was his own man, & I love the way he wrote. He, of course, also was interested in poetry & music—after all, he performed with Charles Mingus! Among the Modernists (besides Loy, who is somewhat of a special case), I like Stevens, especially when he’s having fun & not so much when he’s being sententious; & I actually do like Frost’s poetry! As far as more recent poets go, I’d probably mention Robert Creeley as well. & I certainly have been influenced by songwriter/poets like Patti Smith, Tom Waits & of course Bob Dylan. But I also believe music (apart from song lyrics) & film have been formative & influential on the way I write.

The Spring Ghazals is available at Lulu.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Aurelie and Oliver Sacks

“There’s one other possibility: visual conversion disorder. Used to be called hysterical blindness. This is where the brain, confronted by an overwhelming trauma, unconsciously disables optical functioning. If a victim witnesses events that she cannot process psychologically, the ensuing attacks of acute anxiety can trigger the brain into converting intolerable stress into a real physical state, effectively eliminating the stressor: sight.”
...“It’s a bit like amnesia then?”
“Think of it this way. Her eyes are in a coma.”

I ordered Oliver Sacks’ new book, “The Mind’s Eye” today, and was struck, while I was reading about it, by the neurological complications and challenges Aurelie faced in coming to terms with her blindness. In his book, Dr Sacks raises many questions about the nature of both seeing and not seeing. He discusses things directly relevant to Aurelie’s condition, and her coping methods - visual imagery and memory, the relationship between direct visual experience and remembered visual experience, the incredible enhancement of touch and the mental landscapes of blindness. I thought of Aurelie, lying in the grass with her eyes closed, listening to the world –
“Big birds squawked and flapped around in the trees; small mammals and birds stirred the undergrowth and fishes plopped the surface of the water, all against an orchestral backdrop of clicking insects. She wondered what it would be like to be on a mountain top. Would she hear the snow melt, the ice crack, the glaciers slide, the wind caress her face? Is wind noisy or does it make other things noisy? Is there a place on earth that’s truly silent? Not unless you’re dead. All that breathing and pumping and cellular movement, even when you think you’re still. “

In an interview with Steve Silberman, Sacks gives the example of a man who had lost his sight as a young adult, who said that when he read Braille, he didn’t feel it in his fingers, he saw it, reminding me of the game of scrabble Aurelie plays with Dafydd, on a tactile board. – Her fingers skipped lightly over the board, processing tactile information while her mind reached out to another tongue.
“It’s a bit like map-reading,” she said. “Graphic representation. It’s more than a quarter of a million years old. We’re hard-wired for it, for analogue information. With one of my hands on the hands of a clock, I can tell the time quicker than you can read one of those silly new digital things. And beat you at Scrabble while I’m doing it.”

I’ve been conducting an experiment since I first read The Alchemy of Chance, closing my eyes and trying to feel the Braille on the outside of hotel room doors, or on ATM machines, or trying to figure out what denomination the bill in my hand was. American and Canadian paper currency is all the same size but a customs officer pointed out that the numerals on the bills are raised, at least if the bill hasn’t been worn smooth. Try it. I wasn’t able to figure out the simplest arrangement of dots by touch, or tell a five from a twenty. The brain, it turns out, rewires itself to cope.

Sacks also talks about the way blind people deal with their disabilities, mentally, not practically, and mentions a religion professor who describes his blindness as “an authentic, autonomous world, one of the concentrated human conditions,” a close approximation of what Aurelie describes when asked if she thinks differently -
“Yes, I do have an expanded abstract realm and, if I’m not careful, I end up living in it much of the time... It’s cool and clear, a bit like I imagine outer space to be. But I’m not on my own. I guess some heavy-duty philosophers live out there most of the time.”
“Isn’t it depressing?”
“Not at all. It just is.”

Of course, a reader has no real need to know the scientific implications behind Aurelie’s condition, but the confluence of fiction and neurology does add another layer of interest and I look forward to learning more about it.

An interview with Oliver Sacks -

Monday, November 8, 2010

"The only thing I seem to learn from women is how little I have grown up..."

That Time Is Past - Work in Progress

"Perhaps Magnus has the right idea," shouted Felix through cupped hands.
"Get thee to a nunnery?"

Errands Into The Maze

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Étienne’s Alphabet by James King

Étienne’s Alphabetby James King
“King’s elegant prose reflects perfectly the restraint of the age, and his obvious passion for the details.”
The Globe and Mail

Life and art constantly imitate each other. Étienne’s Alphabet offers a true melding of the two. It is the fictional memoir of the late Étienne Morneau, a reclusive man so unremarkable that his death went unnoticed. In his room are discovered journals and boxes of drawings which show that Morneau was not the man many thought he was: instead of being cold and distant, he is eager and perceptive; far from being uninteresting, he is an artistic genius.

Morneau’s journal entries take readers on his transformative journey from orphanage child to bank-teller to artist. Arranged like a dictionary, yet written in a kaleidoscope of thought, Morneau’s memoir reveals the depth of his humanity and the uniqueness of his perception.

Étienne’s Alphabet is a celebration of life and of living, with an unforgettable protagonist who sees every moment as a miracle worth committing to canvas.

Few are as qualified to write on the subject of art and the study of life as James King, who has already received much recognition in both areas. He is the author of eight works of biography, the subjects of which include William Blake, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland and Farley Mowat. His biography of Herbert Read, The Last Modern,was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash was given The Yorkshire Post Arts Award for “the finest book
devoted to art history. King has delivered a book that is at once, thought-provoking, uninhibited, entertaining, and uplifting.”
James King has published two previous novels with Cormorant Books: Transformations and Pure Inventions.

Cormorant Books
Étienne’s Alphabet • James King
ISBN 9781897151877 • 5.5” x 8.5”
TPB w/ French Flaps • 320 pp • $21.00

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

George Elliott Clarke Nominated for Acorn-Plantos Award

Goose Lane Editions is honoured to announce that George Elliott Clarke’s acclaimed verse novel I & I has been nominated for the 2010 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry.

The Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry is awarded annually to a Canadian poet, based on a book published in the previous calendar year. The work is expected to follow in the tradition of Acorn, Livesay, Purdy, Plantos and others by being accessible to all people in its use of language and image. Past winners include Christine Smart, Ronnie R. Brown, Laisha Resnau, and Erin Noteboom, and Goose Lane authors Sharon McCartney and Brian Bartlett.

In the "Boogie Nights" era of the 1970s, Betty Browning and her lover, boxer Malcolm Miles, travel from the fog-anchored grime of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to sunburnt Corpus Christi, Texas, and back - meeting tragedy and bloodshed along the way. I & I smoulders with love, lust, violence, and the excruciating repercussions of racism, sexism, and disgust. Rastafarian for "you and me," "I & I” expresses the oneness of God and man, the oneness of two people, or the distinction between body and spirit. In George Elliott Clarke's hands, this existential aesthetic crystallizes in a love story of Gothic grit. The narrative gives this verse novel shape; the poetry makes it sing, straddling folk ballad, soul, and pop music, all the while moaning the blues. True to form, Clarke’s poetry throbs with musicality, echoing the rhythms of blues, jazz, and contemporary rock. The imagery is visceral at times, but this baseline is balanced by riffs of loveliness, eloquence, and glimmering light.

The winner of the 2010 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry will be announced on November 15, 2010. For further information on the Acorn-Plantos Award, please contact Jeff Seffinga at


George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor , Nova Scotia , a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. He holds three degrees in English: a B.A. Honours from the University of Waterloo , an M.A. from Dalhousie University , and a Ph.D. from Queen’s University. In addition to being a poet, playwright, and literary critic, Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto . As a writer, George Elliott Clarke has published in a variety of genres: verse collections, verse-novels, verse-dramas, verse-operas, screenplays, and fiction. He has received the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award among numerous other national and international awards and accolades. His poetry has been translated into Chinese, Turkish, and Romanian.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Poetry in Synchronicities

"These bizarre coincidences, these uncanny sequences of correlated images occur to everyone but what do they mean? What sustenance can we take from them? The poetry in synchronicities is a mystical and probably unknowable secret. It’s like the sign language of ghosts."
Glenn Haybittle, from The Sign Language of Ghosts

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review - Complete Physical, by Shane Neilson

Reading Complete Physical is something like following your family doctor around for a week, looking over his shoulder at his notes, peering into patient’s records, eavesdropping on both his conversations and his thoughts, following him on his rounds. How much distance can he manage as he tells you you’re’re dying? What moves him to a more personal involvement? What’s going on in his mind as he pokes and prods and hands you the bad news, or when he receives it himself?

Some of the pieces in this collection are as cursory as notes on the human condition as it checks into a casualty ward – ‘bowel habits and missed meds,’ ‘blood, vomit, shit.’ Some are whimsies, the Grinch stealing health from the little whos, or Dr. Gear sitting in his office advising his patients to ‘take the train, take the train’ through the intercom. Some are extended metaphors that evolve into short meditations on life, death, meaning and/or the lack thereof.

‘Reading Electrocardiograms,’ for example, begins by telling us ‘Metaphors are easy,’ and goes on to say what reading electrocardiograms isn’t – fingerprint examination, crystal ball gazing, dowsing, things the police wouldn’t be interested in. From there it shifts to what reading electrocardiograms is, and what they gesture at, moving from a terse, factual account rich with allusion, to a moment of quiet, plain spoken insight that turns from itself as soon as it’s uttered, toward a glimpse of a deeper, less reassuring awareness. An electrocardiogram, the poem declares, is a detective story.
“The private dicks are a part of it. There is a gravedigger
shovelling the Q wave’s six feet, the long plot of a pause. . .
Bedside, I peer at the tracing
and think lifestyle modification
lifestyle modification, what every heart needs
is the amplitude of truth.’

There is certain amount of play going on – ‘and what of the exploring heart, the intrepid muscle with a wandering baseline?’ – but the play serves to move things between levels of interpretation and intention. “But I’m not looking for truth,” the poem ends,
“I’m looking for closed mouth moments and the wave
Of goodbye, goodbye, which the police would be interested in.
There is an order to stay within the city,
But it is unenforceable.”

Lines present themselves and shift their position as you become aware of the possibility of multiple interpretations, as if they were symptoms, teasing you toward a diagnosis. For instance - “I have no handbook, if you are sick, I will marshal what I have, repetitions and one worn stethoscope, love like a stave.” A straightforward enough account of what a doctor who works more with intuitions about the human situation than with textbook approaches might offer, until you think about that last phrase. What does he mean, ‘love like a stave?’

A stave is a narrow strip of wood that forms part of the sides of a barrel, one part of a whole, a group effort, that manages to contain what needs containing, or it’s a cudgel, to beat some sense into you, or it’s a stanza in a poem, perhaps one that will point you toward a new way of looking at what ails you. Any or all of these definitions work, but each offers a slight twist to what the poem is saying, and together they form a pretty comprehensive remedy for most things.

Some of poems are as personal as love letters or thoughts on one’s own mortality. In ‘My Illness,’ the doctor looks inward, without the benefit of modern technology. Just some good old fashioned introspection. Throughout Complete Physical the narrator has seen himself as Isaiah did, sent to bring good news – or aid in the case of bad news - to the afflicted, and to bind up the broken hearted as much as the broken in body. ‘My Illness’ presents him with the New Testament injunction, ‘Physician, Heal Thyself.”

The beginning of the poem is opposite to the beginning of 'Reading Electrocardiograms' – what it is we’re talking about, not what it is not.
My illness is Antarctic, is brittle absolute zero,
Is the highness of high places, is a frosted four-leaf clover
Wished upon: is it over, is it over?

There are three metaphors for the narrator’s illness in these opening lines. It is cold. It is ‘the highness of high places.’ Not the high places themselves, but the thing that particularly characterises them. The ‘high places,’ in both the Judeo Christian tradition and in earlier traditions, are the places where one meets divinity. So something in his illness partakes of the divine. It is also a talisman of sorts, something with magical powers.

In 'Fairygodmother, MD,' the doctor complains about his patients wishing for everything from antibiotics to a celebratory sick leave.
“I am aloft on wish power, I am borne on the shoulders
Of a sweaty wishing public, and Wishes are for the wishing,
I want to tell them, not for the coming true."

It’s plain then, that he knows the relative futility of wishing. He has laid out his illness, It is a temperature, it is a space, whether physical or mental, or both, remains to be seen, it is something that has driven him to grasping at straws.
Fear, and it is fear,
Is left to shiver in the cold: I grow old and awake,
Rash and final. I have crashed and come to ground,
I have outlasted pain to feel, my body hovers
About what’s real and flits to what’s ahead.

There’s something interesting going on her. His illness, the doctor says, has caused him to abandon fear, to leave it shivering in the Antarctic cold, and as a result he has grown old and awake, That illness ages us is one of the terrible things about it, but here the poet claims he has grown ‘awake’ because of it, as if his pre-illness state was a kind of walking sleep. And indeed it may have been. He may suddenly have found himself awake to his own mortality, and the repercussions that awareness has on the way you think about your life, what you’ve done with it, what you plan to do with what remains of it. That it has also made him ‘rash and final,’ suggests that extreme solutions are in order.

The phrase ‘to ground,’ usually carries the implication of hiding or avoidance. A fox goes to ground, to elude the dogs. Here the poet says he has crashed and come to ground. That is, his illness has brought him down, and caused him to hide out while he comes to terms with it, and in the process, something has come over him. He has risen above his pain, outlasted it, to come to some understanding about the nature of things.
But in this fantastic, this hybrid world
Where asterisks attend perception,
When paranoia becomes a kind of love
I frisk with gloves to protect from cold.

Bundle up: up here is a trick of the light,
And I sight what is far, but never near.
Gather hurt like clothes, and grow heady from air;
on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.
I will go, or rather I will flee,
and you can’t catch me. . .

Asterisks are used to indicate an omission, or doubtful matter. In historical linguistics they mark a hypothetical or reconstructed form that isn’t attested in a text . In other words, what you see in the place illness creates, is not necessarily to be trusted. Even so, the poet is willing to explore the terrain, given a little protection, and he invites us, with the same proviso, to explore it with him. There’s a suggestion that if we don’t, we won’t be able to keep up, to see what he sees. He returns here, to the earlier claim that he’s fleeing, going to ground, and we won’t catch him. But where is it he’s going?

"I have forsaken care for Hibernia."

Hibernia - hiberna , winter or wintry - the root of hibernate, and also the name, taken from Greek geographical accounts, for Irealnd. The narrator is already in a place about as wintry as they come, so we can assume he’s fleeing to Ireland. Why Ireland? I’ll make a leap of faith here, and say he’s fleeing to Ireland to speak to someone who will know exactly where he’s coming from and give him the support he needs to deal with it. Many poems, as I’ve said elsewhere, are part of a conversation, not just with the reader, but with other poems, or poets. ‘My Illness’ is part of conversation with W.B. Yeats, a master of the backward and forward look attendant on illness and old age, and much of the imagery in IT is answering points raised by Yeats.

In 1934 Yeats wrote the introduction to The Holy Mountain: Being the story of a Pilgrimage to Lake Manas and of Initiation on Mount Kailas in Tibet, by Bhagwan Shri Hamsa. The book tells the story of Shri Purohit Swami, who translated the book from the Marathi, and Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, as they leave the comforts of the material world in search of the Absolute. At some point in their journey, they are boarding a train. Shri Purohit Swami goes in search of third class carriage but can find no space. Yeats relates the rest of the incident – “He decided to return to his Master but found an empty carriage. His Master had left the train and was sitting upon a bench, naked but for a loin cloth. A Europeanised Indian had denounced him for wearing silk and travelling first class, and all monks and pilgrims for bringing discredit upon India by their superstitions and idleness. So he stripped of his silk clothes, saying that though they seemed to have come with his destiny, they were of no importance. Then, because the stranger was still unsatisfied, had given him his luggage and his ticket. They were able, however, to continue their journey, for just when the train was about to start, the Europeanised Indian returned and threw clothes, luggage and ticket into the carriage. He had been attacked by remorse.’

The passage throws a new light on Neilson’s lines telling us to “gather hurt like clothes,” and that “on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.” They don’t necessarily refer specifically to this small incident on the road to enlightenment, but they use the imagery of the insult, as if Bhagwan Shri Hamsa is answering the Europeanised man, admonishing him, giving him advice on beginning his own search for enlightenment. You may think that on a speeding train you are moving faster towards your destination, but in fact it is only that the landscape has slowed down. The train is irrelevant, in the end, to when you will arrive. The pain is also irrelevant. Gather it to yourself as you would your clothes. Though it may seem to have come with your destiny it is of no importance.

Yeats relates the end of the quest as follows – “At last, after a climb of 5,000 feet Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sat by a frozen lake, awaiting initiation: My ideal was to have a sight of the physical form of the Lord Dattatreya Himself, and to get myself initiated into the realisation of the Self. I was determined either to realise this or to die in meditation. . . The first night I experienced terrible hardships. Bitter cold, piercing winds, incessant snow, inordinate hunger and deadly solitude combined to harass the mind the body became numb and unable to bear the pangs. Snow covered me up to my breast . . .” at the end of which Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sees the Dattatreya, who initiates him into the realisation of the Self.

Yeats explainS that this realisation of the self was something, “not as it appears in dreamless sleep but as it appears . . . to conscious man,” the man awake to the “unbroken consciousness of the Self, the self that never sleeps,” returning us to Neilson’s claim that his illness has made him grow “old and awake.”The awareness of the significance of things gleaned from the illness is arrived at after the same exploration of extremes as Bhagwan Shri Hamsa suffered in his search. Yeats wrote a poem himself, called Meru, after reading Bhagwn Shri Hamsa’s book, and came to a bleak conclusion.
“. . .but man's life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality.”

The cold, the fear, the solitude, the high place, and the vision vouchsafed are shared in all three texts, but Yeats and Neilson come to an altogether bleaker conclusion.

At this point, in Hibernia, Neilson’s imagery shifts’ –
The gleaming birds there are few,
Just a few crows to curse, a tern or two,
But I see what they see: a man with asthenia,
Who steals from himself, whose one cry is elegy.

Yeats remains in the conversation here. The ‘gleaming birds’ are perhaps related to Yeats’ immortal painted birds who sing of the old man who “bends to the fire and shakes with the cold,” and whose “heart still dreams of battle and love,” or the golden bird in Sailing to Byzantium, who sings of what is past, or passing, or to come. The birds he sees are more ordinary, a few crows (omens of death, so cursing at them may be understandable in the circumstances) and a tern or two. The narrator sees himself as the birds see him, a man with asthenia - a medical term denoting symptoms of physical weakness and loss of strength. Yeats warned against the man whose one cry was a sad, mournful song –
‘And things that have grown sad are wicked,
And things that fear the dawn of the morrow
Or the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.'

My Illness ends with a summary of what the doctor has learned.

And it is always about love, warm my porotic bones,
About what is given up against what is given against,
About the poor old soul who leaks out light,
That tattered trick, and my illness is a cold chest of drawers,
My rags inside.

The lines return to the theme of the aging body. The narrator is not just weak, he is porotic, brittle. He is looking for heat. Whatever wisdom he has gained has to do with love – it is always about love, with what is given up, that is, what is given with no expectation of return, and what is given against, or what is given in pledge for some return. It is about that poor old soul who leaks out light. An odd image. Is it literally the ‘illumination’ gained that is leaking out?Yeats spoke, in 'The Cold Heaven,' of being “riddled with light,” after coming to some insight about love crossed long ago. To riddle is to pierce full of holes, so whatever illumination he had gained would certainly leak out, and something of the sort seems to be happening here. “That tattered trick” is the old man himself – “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick,” to take another image from ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ and also the physical, mortal body – “every tatter in its mortal dress.”

The final image is something of a jolt. We are out of the high cold places, the fantastic hybrid world of the visionary, the rich allusive territory of Hibernia. We are confronted with a chest of drawers. “My illness is a cold chest of drawers, my rags inside.” I propose that the narrator has left Hibernia and returned to ordinary life. His illness has given him a vision of the future of his mortal coil and it isn’t pretty. It’s not that he didn’t know what was coming, at some level; it’s just that he knows now at every level. He understands. The image of the chest of drawers is a twist on ‘from the cradle to the grave,’ playing on the child put to bed in a dresser drawer, and the tatters that make up the old man returned to it. It also plays with Wallace Stevens’ notable use of that particular item of furniture in 'The Emperor of Ice Cream.'
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Stevens’ narrator instructs someone to take an embroidered cloth from the chest of drawers and cover the corpse with it but Neilson’s drawers hold only the rags that are the remains of his mortal self, not even sufficient to cover his mortal remains. However surrounded one is by illness and death the spectre of one’s own aged self, revealing its vulnerabilities, and its inevitable end, doesn’t necessarily haunt the edges of every dealing with a patient. It takes some betrayal by one’s own body to drive the point home.

If Complete Physical comes across as a little uneven it is perhaps because it’s like a Doctor Who version of an old-fashioned black medical bag, bigger on the inside than on the outside, a catch all for whatever the doctor thinks might come in useful, holding everything from a thermometer to an MRI machine. A rummage through it is likely to turn up just the thing you need to help you think about the issue at hand. “I am priestly,” the doctor tells us, in ‘Curing Blindness,’ “leveraging hope and faith and that grand panacea, love, against death. . . What I tell you is like connecting dots: there are points of light, and if you cannot see them, I will heal your blindness.”