Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Alchemy of Chance, - Review by John Hayes at Robert Frost's Banjo

A short quote from a really wonderful review of The Alchemy of Chance, over at Robert Frost's Banjo. John Hayes is a formidable poet and a musician and does the sensuality of Peter's book justice. Do your winter reading list a favour and check it out.

"Aurélie stood up and stepped forward, discarding the bow, which she thrust down her waistband, and the dark glasses, which she stuffed down her white Indian shirt inside her bra. Her legs slightly apart, her knees slightly bent, a towering six-footer on the edge of the stage in a flowing white gypsy skirt, plucking a four-foot bright white cello strapped around her neck like a guitar, she led the band into a spine-tingling intermediate cadence, minor to major….She moved her left foot forward to tease up the pedals and slowed her playing right down, this time bending the notes like a jazz sax-player. Long and high, they soared across the room above the audience’s heads, echoed round ceiling corners and wall joints, returning to pierce the backs of their necks and shiver their spines. Then she made a quarter-turn in the direction of the bass-player, with a silent invitation to fill some empty spaces."

I quoted this at length not only because I believe it’s a fine example of Mr Brooks’ descriptive abilities, but also because it shows his belief in the power of transformation; not only does Aurélie’s improvisation transform the audience, it transforms her & the very space they all inhabit. But—& this is a crucial point in the novel—this transformation isn’t effected by Aurélie alone, but by her working in concert with the other band members. In the same way, the disparate lives come together in the narrative as a whole with transformative power.

John Hayes Robert Frost's Banjo.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll - Lines from Elisa Gabbert's Poem With A Theshold

In honour of Lewis Carroll's birthday - January 27th, 1832 - and in anticipation of my upcoming review of Elisa Gabbert's 'The French Exit' - a few lines playing with Alice in Wonderland, from her "Poem With A Threshold."

I left the party through the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel...

I'll be thinking aloud about Elisa's poems in a few days, and will even provide the rest of the words to this one. In the meantime, check out the interview below, for some insight into the way she thinks about her work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The French Exit - An Interview with Elisa Gabbert

TT - The editing process at Birds sounds really interesting. Can you talk a little about the practicalities of it, as far as French Exit was concerned?

E.G. - Birds assigns a lead editor to each book they accept for publication. My editor was Sampson Starkweather. We've been friends and mutual fans for a long time, and he always had lots of free-floating ideas about my poetry and nothing to do with them. This was a chance for us to funnel those ideas into something, namely, making my book better. I was having a really hard time editing the manuscript on my own – I didn't know how to order it, I didn't know which poems to take out and which to put in. I desperately wanted someone who knew my work to step in and tell me what to do. Sam was that person! It was a great working relationship because I trusted his judgment completely, but he always made it clear that every decision was ultimately up to me. I took almost all of his suggestions. We had long phone calls every few weeks over the course of several months, during which time we finalized cuts and settled on the sections. I also did major revisions of a few key poems. All the editors had good suggestions for the manuscript, but they were mostly filtered through Sam so I never felt too overwhelmed. We were all pretty invested in it, since it's my first book and one of their first books too.

TT - Many of the pieces in the book are called “blogpoems,” a new word to me. Can you give us a definition?

E.G - The "blogpoem" concept grew out of NaPoWriMo, which is the poetry version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month); my friend Maureen Thorson is generally credited with "inventing" NaPoWriMo. This was back around 2006; I knew a number of poets who were writing a poem a day that April and posting the drafts to their blogs. At the time, I didn't have a blog, but my good friend Chris Tonelli did. I semi-joked that I should send him tossed off, throwaway poems to post on his blog, and he challenged me to do it. The first one I wrote was "Blogpoem for April" – like I said, it was originally kind of a joke; I was making fun of the idea that you would write a poem so quickly. The trouble was, it turned out to be a good poem! So then I decided to take the project seriously – I wrote each poem quickly, with minimal revision, in a burst of energy, and I tried to make them all appropriate to the blog format/setting – pretty short, and relatively light and digestible. Suitable for Internet reading. It turned to be a lot of fun, and because I had to write one every day, they are often built out of trivial or inane ideas, because you can't write about something profound every single day. Turning those little thoughts and lines into decent poems was part of the challenge.

TT - Many of your poems are funny, on one or several levels. Aristotle claimed humour was a matter of surprise, and that’s often the case here, although which bit of which poem will surprise any given reader may be a surprise in itself. How do you think of humour in relation to your poetry? What is its place? What are you using it for?

E.G. - Humor is so important to me – my conversational style revolves around banter and jokes, and I gravitate toward people who are always joking, to the point that it's kind of hard for me to connect with people who aren't that way. That filter of wit, sarcasm, levity, it just colors my whole worldview. Similarly I gravitate toward poetry with a sense of humor, though I'm not really satisfied with poems that are content to be simply funny. My favorite poems (songs, people) are usually wry, funny-sad, funny but vulnerable. I like a kind of intelligence that knows the world is tawdry but carries on anyway, making the most of it. That's how I want humor to function in my poems, as comedy brushing against tragedy. And that may be where the surprise comes from – not expecting the two to bump up together.

TT - These are poems of ideas, and you play with various philosophical positions in the texts. Which philosophers have been an influence? Any ideas that have had more impact than others?

E.G. - Great question. The philosopher with the most influence has probably been Daniel Dennett (who, like Benjamin, gets his own blogpoem). I'm drawn to a kind of bullet-biting, hyperrational philosophy of mind/science (Eliezer Yudkowsky would be another example of this): no souls, no free will, no one, coherent world – that kind of thing. The trick is to accept this lack of magic or "spirituality" in the world and still find room for happiness, which is entirely possible. I don't cotton at all to the theory that if you have no sense of God or some great unknowable unknown, there's no reason to live. A lot of what I'm doing in my poetry, I think, is playing with that space where we forget we have no control over anything and that nothing ultimately matters – that's where we live our lives, in that forgetting. However smart or rational we are, it's our nature to forget it.

TT - In my review, I’ve written about “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin.” In that poem you mention aura – and allude to Benjamin’s belief that the acceleration of life in the modern city is responsible for its disintegration. You also play with the problem of mechanical reproductions and the way they cut our connection to the uniqueness of reality. The blogpoem is a clever, compressed discussion of auratic perception. Do you believe modern urban life has fundamentally changed the way we see reality? If yes – and the answer, based on your poems, seems to be yes – in what way? What does the change mean to art, which, if nothing else, is bound up in “aural perception’s” interplay of closeness and distance and in the uniqueness of existence.

E.G. - I think yes, our perception of reality is fundamentally different, though it's been different my whole life, so it's hard for me to compare my perception to that of a frontier woman or a caveman. In regards to art, I was thinking specifically of this tendency for things not to feel "special" – which says nothing about how good or bad they are as art. When we read a book of poems, what we appreciate is the information, not the actual instance of the book. (OK, design wonks go on and on about the physical object of a book, but that's really beside the point to the poetry. It's a copy. The book is not THE BOOK, the pure idea. If all extant copies were burned, we could print more books, etc.) And this is kind of the norm now, what with everything being digitized, to receive things as information, wherein the form/format is pretty incidental. The medium is not the message. Because people want to be able to choose their own medium (like, hey, from now on I will receive all messages via my iPhone; you, as the messenger, can no longer control the medium).

This is not to say that I think everything was better in the past, or anything like that. Though I do wish Hollywood would stop with the remakes already.

TT - Walter Benjamin plays with time, Lewis Carroll plays with time in Alice in Wonderland, syncopes play with time, you play with the way they play with time, and you play with time on your own terms. What’s going on with that?

E.G. - Time is the great enemy. On the micro scale it moves too slowly, on the macro scale it moves too fast. Days are long, years are short. I don't see how anyone can be alive and aware and not obsess about time, all the time. Who said all poems are about death? All poems are also about time, since death is ultimately about time.

TT - Syncope is a fascinating and frightening thing/concept/occurrence, in all its various meanings and permutations. I talk about some of them and the way you use them as a connecting metaphor, in my review, but I wonder if you have anything you’d like to say about your use of it.

E.G. - I'm not sure I could add anything to your present understanding of it. I think you see how it's working in the book at least as well as I do! Certainly I was exploring the scariness of a brush with death as a reminder that anyone could die at any time. In a way I think it's weird that we fear our own deaths. So what if I die – I won't be around to miss me. What's really scary is the thought of everyone else dying.

TT - The French Exit – It’s a syncope, it’s a party left without notice, it’s a French window, it’s coitus interruptus, happiness, interest, brothers, lovers gone awol, life ended abruptly and without warning. How did you arrive at such a wide ranging metaphor?

E.G. - You've nailed it, it's all those things. It wasn't at first; first it was just a phrase I liked, which I learned from a guy I had a crush on, who was particularly adept at it. So I put it in a poem. Later on, unrelatedly, I had a syncopal episode and fell into a French door. The "French exit" ended up in another poem. The phrase just bloomed for me somehow; I realized slowly how it was functioning on all these different levels in my poems, and it ended up governing the structure of the book. The phrase has taken on new weight and I can't just use it in casual conversation anymore. It feels almost mystical now, like some portal to another dimension.

TT - “The Word Fuseki” is a terribly poignant, painful poem. I talk about it at some length in my review but I wonder if you would address the two lines in brackets halfway through – (I wanted to keep that. Why did I give it away?) There’s always a giving away in poetry, and it’s often a giving away of something the poet might have preferred to keep. What can you tell us about that tendency/necessity/compulsion/gift?

E.G. - I think every writer has things they need to write about – and they're the very subjects we tend to avoid, because people tell us to, because it's so hard to get it right. I tried to write that particular poem several times over the course of a couple of years. I couldn't get it right. Even a successful poem is a failure in some way – you feel you've spent that subject, that's it, you'll never write another good poem again. But again, we have to. For me, the poetry that really tears me up and stays with me has to take that huge risk of showing the reader its weakness. It has to play its hand.

The French Exit is available from BirdsLLC

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Choosing Poetry - Birds LLC

A very interesting interview with the editors of Birds LLC on their unconventional but obviously effective editorial process. How do you put a poetry collection together? What about unity and/or diverity in the aesthetics of the editors? One voice or many? It's all here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winter Poem with Tangerines

With all this snow everywhere, two feet deep on either side of the pavement and plowed up in nine foot heaps on the street, I thought we might need a tangerine poem to keep things in perspective. I'm quite sure that when Mr. MacNeice sectioned his tangerine he noticed the little white tree spreading its bare branches up the centre.

Louis MacNeice - Snow
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On Cooking With Your Dead Grandmother

Within minutes, Rosa had two pans going. One contained roundels of already-cooked potato stolen from the next day’s roast, which were stewing slowly in olive oil. The other was sizzling sliced onions, on a much higher heat. She beat half a dozen eggs and slid the bowl to one side. She’d have tortilla in fifteen minutes.
More onions, finely chopped this time, went into a big pan and as soon as they were soft she covered them with ladlefuls of Doris’s chicken stock. As she started to portion the chickens, she paused. Something else was needed here. She pictured her grandmother Mercedes in their kitchen back home and spoke out loud:
‘Abuelita. I’m stuck in this terrible English kitchen with no chorizo, no tocino, no judias blancas, no garbanzos, no… garbanzos… garbanzos…’ She’d seen a few tins of chick-peas somewhere that Gladys occasionally used to make her own hummus.. ‘OK, that’s one. I need more ideas. Come on Abuelita. Help me!’
‘Stop thinking about what you want, girl. See what you’ve got. And then use that.’
Rosa rushed into the walk-in fridge and lunged around, looking for ingredients and inspiration at the same time. Nothing resonated with her culinary experience, until she landed on the trays of tourist fare. Of course. She grabbed some plaice fillets and two slices of the gammon bacon. Back at the chopping board, she skinned the fishes, trimmed and diced the bacon. She’d make them as sweet as merluza and chorizo. She even remembered to throw the pieces of bacon-rind into her stew.
By the time Doris returned, Rosa was flying, although she was still talking to herself intermittently. Doris found this disconcerting, until it was explained to her, whereupon she offered to stand in for Mercedes, for the sake of both their sanities. She put her pinnie on and offered to help.
Rosa piled garlic into the simmering stew-pot and thrust a couple of red peppers on to an open flame to burn off the skins. In went the saffron, bay leaves and paprika, and finally the chicken portions. Lid on, she left it to simmer away gently.
The stewed potatoes and brown onions were amalgamated in one pan and on went the eggs, to bubble and colour. As soon as the egg mixture pulled away from the sides of the pan, she rammed it under the grill to brown the top, and then turned it over on to a plate. Doris sliced it up and out went the first dish with a basket of crusty bread.
Rosa flash-fried the pieces of plaice and bacon with fresh red chilli and garlic. Placing them on some lettuce leaves, she dressed them with olive oil and lemon and a sprinkling of parsley, while Doris set about heating up the chick-peas.
“What are we doing with these?”
“Warm salad. Erm… fresh tomatoes, chopped, garlic, parsley and spring onion, French-style dressing with mustard… There’s still something missing… I know…”
She opened a jar of German Bockwurst, split the chubby sausages in two lengthways, and made a few slashes across the tops. Into one of the vacant frying pans and they were done in a few minutes. Village sausage, she called it, topping off the chick-pea salad. Out went the next two dishes. Rosa cleaned up her peppers and put them in the stew with the spinach and pine-nuts. Doris took the whole pot out and placed it centre-table with a ladle, before they’d even started on the middle course.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Glenn Haybittle - Letter To My Editor

Check out Glenn Haybittle's "Letter To My Editor" post at Errands Into The Maze Yes, that's me he's talking to. No, we don't have a difference of opinion. It's always interesting when you can provoke a clear statement of intent, which this certainly is.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review Comment - The Alchemy of Chance

The Alchemy of Chance is a foodie’s dream. I loved the descriptions of the meals and wanted the food right out of Antoinette's kitchen - soft eggs in cream, simply grilled fillet of sole with lemon, and roast leg of lamb - so I cooked everything in the book, using local, seasonal ingredients, just as Peter's characters did. Fabulous. A great read.

Janet Beck, Victoria, B.C. Canada

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading Glenn Haybittle's - That Time Is Past

I'm reading Glenn Haybittle's revisons of That Time is Past. Ivan, who has abandoned his wife and children to write a biography of Shelley and live in Italy with the appropriate Romantic intensity, is taking the beautiful, if distant, Isabella on a tour through the Villa Cenci, the centre of a lurid family tragedy involving incest and murder in 16th century Rome, that inspired Shelley to write a verse drama. Instead of imaginatively entering the passion and atmosphere of the place in search of what Shelley saw or thought, he's analysing his non-relationship with Isabella.

"He thought of something Shelley had written in relation to Epipsychidion: “I think one is always in love with something or the other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is eternal.”

The quote holds a core truth of the novel. Almost everyone in the book is avoiding anything like a meaninful relationship while busy imposing some ideal of their own on someone else, and finding they fall short, and the revisions are strengthening that point.

The Romantics touted strong emotion as the 'real' source of aesthetic experience, but these neo Romantics, who, as Lady Lydia points out, seem to be "at rather a loss," make a career out of completely avoiding anything that smacks of actual emotional involvement. There is much here on the modern engagement/disengagement question but it's well coated with wit and fun and a good helping of Italian light.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review - The Alchemy of Chance

“I don’t read much Francophile literature - soft-focused Frenchness makes me mutter - but Peter Brooks writes a France that I recognize. His Paris is noisily Parisian. His Brittany is blown through with sharp, salty air and the smells of seafood. His Loire is all liquid light and the still, strange atmosphere of that river.... 'Alchemy' is full of light, life and heart. There’s also a small sprinkling of magic in there. It's one of those novels that leave me smiling at the world a little more.

Caroline Scott, Lot, France

Image - Detail of "Carlotta on the Loire" by Sir William Russell Flint