Wednesday, 31 January 2007

German Bus, American People

The recent indie film, nominated for a clutch of Oscars, Little Miss Sunshine, is the latest road-movie from an America that, from The Grapes of Wrath, to Easy Rider, on to Thelma & Louise, has forever pictured the bad-lands journey West ("to California") as both mythic and inherently doomed. Since The Day of the Locust, if not before, it's been de rigeur to note that people come to California to die, and this film is no different.

The family unit, united in tragedy, circles the (volks) wagons, and keeps out the Injuns, in this case, a majority of moral (or morally dubious) characters, from a perverted cop, to loud-mouth bereavement councillor to a cruel beauty pageant director. A late sublime moment ensues, when the failed Number One Proust Academic in America, lately suicidal, careens down a corridor, solely to reach the Little Miss Sunshine desk in time, his priorities realigned by the sense of the journey.

Like in all good quest narratives, the knights achieve their wisdom through their trials and tests as much as by what they locate at the end (of the rainbow, consider the empty promise of Oz). I am left with an ambiguous sense about the justness of the conclusion, which I won't reveal, except to say, it leaves an issue of sexual permissivity hanging in the air, that is most charitably resolved by saying, innocence cannot be corrupted by a tin man or cowardly lion, and perversity is, ultimately, in the eye of the beholder, not the dancer or the dance. This may surprise us all and beat The Departed for best film.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Acumen 57

Acumen literary journal is one of the best in the UK, in terms of content and design, including poems, themed sections, literary debates on issues of the day, interviews and reviews.

So it is I am glad to have a poem in issue 57 (January 2007) along with other poets I admire, such as Tim Dooley, John Burnside and Frank Dullaghan; there is also a delightful piece on favourite early books from Dannie Abse and poets on "Nature Poetry".

Burnside's interview zooms in on the enigmatic remarks he made in a recent Poetry Review, about a "highly-esteemed British poet" who has zero time for the work of Jorie Graham, or, one infers, almost any American poetry that doesn't scan. Burnside notes the "lack of generosity and openness" in much of the English poetry establishment, to outside influences, especially North American.

He notes the current great rift between the English and American traditions. It's very important for Burnside to be saying such things, however obliquely, and, hopefully, with time, a more receptive community of readers will develop, among the editors and publishers at large today (not that all are deaf to new tones and styles).

In the meantime, some of these same highly-esteemed poets visit North America on reading tours, or to mark events, happy to receive attention and support for their work, yet often deeply dismissive of the literary traditions and values operating in the new world. As poets we should aim to understand and appreciate various contexts, rather than fear or discard what does not immediately appeal to us, or our own sense of what tradition means - or so it seems to me.
Enough soap-boxing for one day!

To find out more about ordering this or future issues, see or email to PWOxley at aol dot com.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Radio Contact

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was featured on Pat Boran's RTE radio show, "The Poetry Program", on Saturday, along with Gery Murphy, an Irish poet from Cork City whose modus operandi is mainly satire, invective and the politcal epigram (some great stuff, check out his New and Selected, recently out).

Below is the link to listen to the show online. The theme was politics and poetry.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Poetry at The White House

This week-end is the 4th anniversary of the 100 poets against the war e-book, first launched end of January 2003 by Val Stevenson, of Nthposition, which was partly inspired by the refusal of American poets to read at the White House.

Meanwhile, I recently read at a different sort of White House, in Limerick. Here I am pictured with their witty and indefatigable Emcee, the bow-tied Barney Sheehan.

They have a clip of one of my poems performed - "The Man Who Killed Houdini" - at their blog. The White House series has become legendary in Ireland, and abroad, for the calibre of its guest poets, as well as open mic readers. They run every week, except for Christmas, without fail - this is their fourth year. Their patron saint is Ezra Pound's friend, Desmond O'Grady, who began poetry meetings their fifty years before, in the same pub.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Poem by Barbara DeCesare

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Barbara DeCesare (pictued above) this wintry Friday. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gargoyle, and many others.

Dreamhouse, a musical based on her work, ran in Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City.

Winter Mermaid

Stupid justice!
Love breaks the boundaries
of not just your ridiculous
punch-line of a heart
but truth and time,
washes up on shore and spills
her rusty hooks to you,
her mouth frothing over
with fish stories
maybe you get the flash
of a fin,
a glint of bead on the surface
when the surface is enough
to make you fall in.

I knew this girl,
this semiprofessional
three-season beauty

until winter fooled me,
took her back
when sea horses came
to the bedroom window.

by Barbara DeCesare

Tuesday, 23 January 2007


In anticipation of the Oscar nominations, a poem inspired by one of the greatest directors of all time (Hitchcock), who never won an Oscar....


Woke up in the house in North By Northwest
the one that flies out over the abyss.
What part of me is on microfilm?

When you were shot at the Grand Canyon
it was a fake bullet and fake blood
but you felt light as a lifeless glove in my arms.

It feels like disequilibrium to be walking here
amidst art from London, treachery from Russia.
Violent cultures produced my favourite authors.

Before the plane comes to take me away
in the forest of small pines, the light shooting
through, may I admit that my body loves you.

My mind is quite another subject, as you suspect.
This vase is like my dress, green, lifeless.
When I betrayed my nation I lost sleep.

Existence quickly becomes memorable, sadly.
In Vienna they taught me to ride horses,
speak with an American accent: Apple Pie!

poem by Todd Swift

Readings in Ireland

I'll be appearing in Ireland this week, at two of the West's best poetry venues, as well as on RTE's "The Poetry Program", interviewed by Pat Boran, to air Saturday night, 7 pm:

The White House Poetry Revival

The White House Bar, 52 O'Connell Street
Limerick City
Wednesday, January 24th, 9.00 pm
featuring Todd Swift

with open mic

Over The Edge fourth anniversary reading

Galway City Library
Thursday, January 25th, 6.30pm
featuring Todd Swift
Elaine Feeney & Mary Mullen

with open-mic

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Look We Have Media Circus!

Those who live outside the self-serving and self-adoring media bubble that is Great Britain might be excused for not getting it. Recently, the third-rate television spectacle, that rancid format, Big Brother, featured a verbal catfight between a made-for-and-by-TV celebrity, Ms. Goody, pictured, and one of India's more attractive Bollywood starlets. Racial slurs were said to have been thrown at the Asian woman, and at the very least, there was gross verbal bullying directed her way. Riots ensued in India, engulfing the visiting Gordon Brown, the man who would be king, and the offending participant was voted off the show in record numbers.

Meanwhile, a related story developed, at least, in the media's eyes. A modest, and exceptionally gifted emerging UK poet, Daljit Nagra, who writes of the Indian immigrant experience with real verve (and often in dialect) has his debut collection, Look We Have Coming From Dover!, from Faber and Faber, out February 1. Nagra was a huge supporter of my Oxfam series (he's on the Life Lines CD) and is a great guy. Nonetheless, he should resist the way some talking heads in the media are now trying to position him as the answer to Goody's baddy-behaviour.

Last night, Nagra was afforded the sort of media spotlight the rest of us poets, frankly, just don't get very often (unless one is Tom Paulin). He was on BBC's major TV show, Newsnight, where cultural commentators focused on his new collection, with, for the most part, alarming ignorance of the literary context in which it arises. Only the dazzling Sarah Churchwell, observed, pointedly, that Nagra's verbal exuberance is granted permission for lift-off as much by Paul Muldoon's poetry, as his own, also-notable, invention. The other panelists seemed, thrown a poetry bone, unsure of how not to salivate. One said "give him the Nobel now". Another said this collection was the first in British poetry not to be, basically, flat and about bicycles. There seemed a genuine excitement at getting the chance to discuss poetry, but, rather than praising an individual talent, what drove the (welcome) enthusiasm was, basically, the pleasures of any poem (one commentator enthused about the long lines, and linguistic brio, as if these, pre-Nagra, were alien aspects of the form).

Maybe give the guy the Nobel in a few years? The marketing and pr machinery in the UK has nearly destroyed whatever legitimate conversation the British people might have or had with poetry. Every book is blurbed to the max on its back cover, with ringing endorsements that cannot all be true, certain few poets absurdly celebrated and celebrity-fied, almost all the rest totally ignored, and a general sense of lax disinterest prevails. Every six months, Andrew Motion correctly notes, in the media, that the problem is not that no one reads poetry in the UK, or that "poetry is dying", but that the media doesn't much read it, and always over-reacts when confronted with a poetry "story".

Why, for instance, is Nalgra the topic of the week, and not the ten other exceptional poets up for the Eliot awards, which was just won on Monday by Seamus Heaney? Or, for that matter, where is the media interest in leading younger Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote, whose brilliant New and Selected Poems recently came out from Penguin India? Hoskote does not yet have a publisher in London, which seems a shame for such a significant Indian voice.

At any rate, I believe Daljit Nagra has a good chance of winning the TS Eliot prize for 2007. Why not? His book is very good. He deserves to be read, very widely.

But, can the BBC begin to cover poetry, please, on a more regular basis, with sustained, researched insight? Poetry dumbed down isn't poetry anymore. It's a license for Big Brother.,,1992990,00.html

Friday, 19 January 2007

Poem by Carmine Starnino

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Carmine Starnino (pictured) this Friday. Starnino is one of Canada's most important literary figures of the new generation of writers born since 1960 (a generation that includes Camlot, McGimpsey, Babstock and a few others) - as poet, fiercely, wittily demanding critic, poetry editor, anthologist, and exemplary "man of letters". That is why I was glad to include his work in my survey of new Canadian Poets for New American Writing.

I was glad to learn that one of his poems from my selection has been in turn selected by poet Heather McHugh for her volume of The Best American Poetry, in this case, 2007, forthcoming this autumn. He also read last year for my Oxfam series, in London, while he was in Rome on a writer's grant.

His work certainly gets around: he has new poems in the recent issue 74 of the New Welsh Review, guest-edited by Patrick McGuinness and Matthew Jarvis; and the verse-letter below first appeared in issue 100 of the New Quarterly, part of a series "addressed to" some of the key mentors from Anglo-Quebec poetry that have shaped his thinking and writing.

Starnino has published three volumes of poetry, for which he has won numerous awards, including the Canadian Authors Association Prize, the A.M. Klein Award, and the F.G. Bressani Prize, in addition to being shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Prize for best first book. He is the author of A Lover's Quarrel, a collection of essays on Canadian poetry, and the editor of The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. He lives in Montreal, where he is editor for the Signal Editions series of poetry collections, and is an editor at Books in Canada.

Few Canadians think or know more about Canadian poetry; and fewer still have demanded more from it, or urged it on to greater heights, than Carmine Starnino - and fewer still have been so resisted or reviled for their bracing independence of perspective.

Though I sometimes (often?) disagree with the exact dosage this physician of the Canadian poetic soul visits on his trying patients, I cannot say the diagnosis, in the first instance, was wrong. There's a sickness at the heart of the Canadian poetic, one which shies from a direct confrontation with the mature demands of a serious tradition.

It is time Canadian poetry engaged directly with the English tradition, again, rather than the American one, and forged its further unique destiny on a doubled engagement with the long lyric past, and a sense of our native powers of innovation, which need not be contrived or merely opaque.

Dear Michael,

Happiness could do worse than our bedsheet’s
two day spell head down outside the window.
Festive with polka-dots, it flaps the span of frame,
catches the sun full on. That, and the damp
in the air makes me think of travel by sea.
Here dryness is something we miss by moments.
The electric heater making a poor fist of it.
T-shirts exude their drip like water clocks,
and detergent enacts its mouth-to-mouth with the early hour
so that our underwear turns pheromonal—
the room filling with the scent of aroused communication.
If, as Nietzsche said, we should try to live
always in expectation of some impossible grace,
well, one couldn’t do better than this place.

poem by Carmine Starnino

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Seamus Heaney Wins T.S. Eliot Prize 2006

Seamus Heaney (pictured) last night won the T.S. Eliot Prize 2006 for best poetry collection published in Ireland or the UK for that year, as judged by the distinguished panel of fellow poets Sean O'Brien, Sophie Hannah and Gwyneth Lewis. His book, District and Circle, marks a 41-year career with Faber and Faber, and, while Heaney, recovering from a mild stroke in August 2006, was unable to attend, Paul Keegan of Faber read out his thoughtful acceptance speech, and Mrs. Valerie Eliot signed and handed over the prize money cheque to Heaney's daughter.

The award ceremony, organized by the Poetry Book Society (founded by Eliot years ago) was held in the glittering heart of Marylebone, in The Wallace Collection's fashionable atrium cafe, and was attended by nearly every poet, publisher, and event organizer concerned with poetry, of note in the UK, other than those primarily concerned with radically experimental writing. It was, as O'Brien pointed out in his speech, an unusually strong year - with Nobel laureates, Forward, Eliot and Pulitzer winners, up against each other in a dream field of traditional mainstream poetic brilliance. In the end, the judges went with quality, fame be damned. Whereas the Forward and Costa prizes dramatically turned against Heaney's masterful new book (getting headlines in the process which crowed about other poets beating Heaney as if he were a tied-down Gulliver among the small), the Eliot panel decided that, despite winning a Nobel, to quote Heaney on the BBC, "anything can happen".

It seems like a very good decision. The Eliot Prize is immensely prestigious and vital, and yet, the greatest Irish poet since Kavanagh has not won it. To deny Heaney on the grounds he was too prize-rich already would have been a shame. Poets never lose the need to be reminded of our love - and poets such as Heaney should be honoured in their lifetime.

Nonetheless, several other exceptionally deserving collections, sadly, had to go away empty-handed. The best of these, and surely the runner-up in most people's minds, was Paul Muldoon's exceptionally complex and brilliant Horse Latitudes, which took on American imperialism, pop culture, and bereavement, with equal levels of genius, mystery and vim; it is a major book, and should be sought out by any reader who wants to understand the verges where the post-modern and the tradition meet with most fecundity.

Monday, 15 January 2007

So, Who Should Win The T.S. Eliot Prize Tonight?

Eyewear attended the "TS Eliot Prize, for the best collection of poetry published in 2006" Readings, sponsored by Five (a British TV station) and the PBS (not the American TV station, but the Poetry Book Society) last night, at the Bloomsbury Theatre, in Bloomsbury (not Bloomington, Indiana).

The Reading, which each year features (and has done since 1993) ten poets whose work was selected by the judges (this year, Sean O'Brien, Sophie Hannah and Gwyneth Lewis, three very strong UK poets), is a precursor to the awards which follow the next evening. It is a bizarre and often wonderful two-day prize in a number of ways, such as: Mrs. Eliot, the great poet's widow, actually signs and hands out the cheque; almost everyone who follows one kind of poetry closely in the UK jams into the Bloomsbury Theatre (around 500 people, it is always sold out) for the readings; the judging is done after the readings, always on the Sunday, so, while the award is for the book, the readings seem to be some sort of undefined, yet significant final test - although sometimes the winners are absent, as last year, when Carol Ann Duffy won without showing up; although sponsored by a TV station, it is not televised; it is hosted by a literary celebrity (this year) Daisy Goodwin but there is little "Oscar-style" comedy or verve in the Intros; the evening always begins with a reading from Eliot (as if he were the Bible, this year "Marina"); experimental and performance poets are almost never (I'd argue never) short-listed, thus never represented, making this the definitive mainstream dividing line in Poetic Britain; very few non-white poets ever appear, sadly, either, on the list, for reasons that seem unclear but are likely due to the way books are published in the UK; and there is something oddly parochial about the sub-title of the awards, since it is in fact for the "best collection" published in the UK in 2006 - excluding almost all American, Canadian, and Australian poets from consideration - and making it roughly comparable to the Pulitzer.

Last night's field was tremendously impressive, and any knee-jerk American avant-garde dismissal of such poets as from the "School of Quietude" would be absurd. This is seriously good writing.

Indeed, the long list for the TS Eliot Prize is this year nothing short of amazing: Seamus Heaney; Paul Muldoon; Simon Armitage; Paul Farley; Hugo Williams; Robin Robertson; Penelope Shuttle; Jane Hirshfield; Tim Liardet; W.N. "Bill" Herbert.

Arguably, three of the five most significant voices from the UK/ Ireland of the last thirty-odd years are represented in this field, those being Heaney, Muldoon and Armitage. Heaney, a Nobel-winner, is universally regarded, in the English world, as our time's Yeats (even Eliot) - in fact, he did not read last evening (as he is recovering from an illness) and the poet who read his work for him, Bernard O'Donoghue, wittily said it was like "being God's representative on Earth"; Muldoon is our time's Auden - the stylistically unique, intellectually vast young man who was his generation's undisputed genius and quickly scurried to New York, conquering America, too; and Armitage is our time's Muldoon - the next great poet of invention, wit and message, beloved by many, known to all. This isn't even to mention Paul Farley, who is our time's Armitage, that is, the next great stylish witty man of letters to emerge, at 40, schooled in Donaghy, fuelled by Red Bull and the charisma of The Beatles, destined to go far.

So who should win tonight?

I know many of these poets, some are my friends, so I will be diplomatic and tender here....

Seamus Heaney should win, given that his collection, District and Circle is a magisterial summing up of the themes of his career, and echoes with grace and power. The last poem, about a blackbird and the memories of his dead brother, is destined to be read in a hundred years, much as we read the great last poems of Yeats - it is a deeply moving classic; further, Heaney has not won the T.S. Eliot Prize yet, which is like the Academy Award never having gone to Hitchcock.


Paul Muldoon should win, given that his collection, Horse Latitudes, his tenth, is the most inventive, complex, witty and playfully masterful by this genius yet. It touches on war, bereavement, pop culture, and science, using a variety of forms Joycean in their difficulty and fun; yet, he has won the Eliot before, in 1994, so this may weight against him; he did, however, read delightfully last evening;


Simon Armitage should win, given that his collection,Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid, is a signal collation of what makes him the best mainstream UK poet of his generation - its verve, daring, pop sensibilities, and fearless treatment of political realities (Blair being a liar, Iraq being a quagmire) would in a normal year have made it the one to beat; also, Armitage has not won this prize, which is like Scorsese not having won an Academy Award.

The next three poets who also have a clear shot at this prize are Penelope Shuttle, who read wonderfully last night, and whose poems of loss and remembrance for her husband, the great poet Peter Redgrove, make hers a major collection; Paul Farley's Tramp on Flames is a complex, brilliant and meditative third book, and the long poem to Michael Donaghy is a major new poem; he read very well last night; Tim Liardet, although less-known than some of the superstars on the bill, has written, in The Blood Choir, a profound and important book on men, incarceration, pity, redemption and freedom - and he read superbly.

Then again, Robin Roberston could win - his book, Swithering - is a superb rendering of the traditional and sublime interests of neo-classical poetry, with echoes of the early Heaney; his use of myth is impressive. Hugo Williams has won before, and recently, for a book of which this new one is a sort of sequel, so he is less certain to win; Hirshfield and Herbert are each also possible contenders - the American because her work is redemptive, intelligible and wise; and Herbert because he is the most diversified versifier now writing in Scotland, a sort of quasi-Muldoon with his own range of interests and complex forms.

In short, this one is too close to call. Readers of poetry not based in the UK should order all ten books (you may already know Hirshfield) - the range and quality and sheer talent of contemporary mainstream British poetry is inspiring. Let's hope the judges in 2007 select a few more women, and some work that is a little beyond the linguistic comfort zone - maybe someone (innovative) published by Salt or Reality Street? It's likely next year will feature Maurice Riordan and Daljit Nagra, so, anyway, the Eliots are shaping up to be compelling for the years to come.

Note: the photo is of Paul Farley, one of the short-listed poets.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Three Good Questions

Kate Clanchy, one of the UK's best contemporary poets, is also a superb reader of her own work - she read for my Oxfam series a while back, and the audience was entranced and delighted in equal measure by her poems.

I hope she won't mind my replying, then, with all due respect, to her comments, written in today's Guardian Review section, in her review of De-iced, a book by Susan Wicks (Bloodaxe): "There are questions that creative writing teachers are careful never to ask of their students, questions which are out of their remit and destructive to their jobs. 'Is this poem original?' is one, 'Is it urgent?' another, and 'Could it find an audience outside our subsidised community?' an unmentionable third".

I'm a creative writing teacher - and have been since 1998. I also have an MA from the University of East Anglia's creative writing department, where I am currently pursuing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. I currently am a Core Tutor for The Poetry School, and lecture on the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. I enjoy teaching, and see it as an inspiring, meaningful and practical activity - one that complements my other roles as a poet, literary editor and poetry advocate.

Firstly, creative writing teachers succeed when their students succeed - foremost by creating work they're proud of, and that stretches the student writer's abilities, their craft, their imaginations, their sense of language - so no questions about writing are ever beyond a creative writing teacher's remit or destructive of their jobs - any teacher who churns out only mediocre writers just isn't doing their job properly.

Clanchy's statement to the contrary seems to me to be incorrect. In fact, these questions, often framed or phrased somewhat differently, but amounting much to the same, such as Is it a cliche?, Is it fresh?, Are you saying something new? are central to provoking students into reaching beyond their comfort zones, often by reading more, and revising more.

Thirdly, as for "reaching beyond our audience" - what is the audience for poetry, and what's beyond it? Poetry reaches who it does, and always has.

Inland Vampire

Eyewear is sad to hear of the recent death of Canadian-born icon of silver and small screen alike, Yvonne De Carlo (pictured).

She was best known for her vampiress role in The Munsters (1964-1966), which was cancelled the year I was born. Like many who came to love her, and the show, I saw it in re-runs.,,1988638,00.html

Friday, 12 January 2007

Poem by John Haynes

Eyewear is honoured to be able to feature poetry, this Friday, from John Haynes (pictured),this year's winner of the Costa Poetry Prize (formerly known as the Whitbread Prize) for his collection, Letter to Patience, published by the excellent Seren, based in Wales. While I have yet to read the whole book, what I have seen of it, including this section, excerpted below, is worth getting to know.

Haynes was born of parents who were professional entertainers. After dropping out of school at 16, he joined the RAF, before going on to university, where the great poet F.T. Prince ("Soldiers Bathing") was his tutor. Haynes spent 1970 to 1988 as a lecturer in English at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria where he founded the literary journal Saiwa. Now back in the UK, he has continued teaching, writing and publishing and is the author of a number of books: on teaching, style and language theory, as well as African poetry, stories for African children, and two other volumes of verse. Sections of Letter to Patience have appeared, over the years, in London Magazine, Stand, Poetry Review, Ambit, Critical Quarterly and Poetry Wales. He has won prizes in the Arvon and National Poetry competitions. He has a PhD in applied linguistics.


"The bar is what you're going to miss," you said,
"not me," but that's wrong isn't it, to draw
lines around people (even if they're dead),

as if I'd miss the place you live in more
than you, when there's no line between at all
and that's something that you kept saying, your

philosophy, the sense of floor, mud wall,
dust road as who we are, the kites' long cry
at harmattan, the beggar's rhythmic call

outside Alhaji Kowa's store, this I
that floats and enters you from just as far
as ever, dear one, shapeless as the sigh

that lifts out of your mouth, out of the bar,
out of the rusted corrugated zinc
and mixes with some wailing armoured car

out on the road, and then the first tink-tink
of birds, the cockerel's call, none of it you,
except that when I think of it I think

it is and not the old femme noire, femme nue
"Afrique", no, something shared in spite of skin
colour, and Lugard's maxim gun, or through

just those, is it? I think so, what we're in,
as what we are. And so I'm writing this
Magana Jari Ce, am I, to spin

you into words? A spell, a selfishness
to try and keep you there, or rather here,
closing my eyes with lust to see, miss

you, sharper - no, the bar, musci, the beer?
Or it's an elegy for someone dead
for all I know, for all I fear to fear.

section excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Letter to Patience
Seren Books, 2006
by John Haynes

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Language Acts

Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry 1976 to the 21st Century
eds. Jason Camlot and Todd Swift
March 2007

Vehicule Press
ISBN-10: 1-55065-225-7
ISBN-13: 978-1-55065-225-3
Can $22.95
paper / 276 pages / 4 appendices

Language Acts: Anglo-Quebec Poetry 1976 to the 21st Century brings together twenty provocative essays on the state of English-language poetry in Québec since 1976. Born and raised during this historically resonant period of Trudeauism, organized Québecois nationalism, sovereignty referenda, language legislation, and profound demographic and cultural change, Anglo-Québec poetry has come of age in the 21st century as a literature with its own distinct arguments about itself, and its own poetical acts in language.

Featuring essays on many important, even canonical figures such as Robert Allen, Anne Carson, Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, D.G. Jones, Irving Layton, Michael Harris, Erin Moure, David McGimpsey, Robyn Sarah, and Peter Van Toorn, and on a wide range of poetry activities including those of the Véhicule Poets and the Montreal Spoken Word scene, Language Acts is the first critical collection of its kind to appear in over forty years, and will set the terms used to discuss English language poetry in Québec for years to come. As such it is an indispensable guide to a body of 20th and early 21st century writing that is simultaneously American and post-colonial, Canadian and uniquely Québecois.

The TLS Wants More War Poets

I am reminded of Charles Foster Kane's immortal promise, "Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war."

The TLS (missing the poems, if not the prose) recently [January 5, 2007] asked, in its oft-brilliant NB column (edited and written by J.C.) -"Where are the poets of war?" - before suggesting that one oughtn't to look for them in the anti-war camp, despite what Francis Scarfe wrote in 1941: "a good war poem must also be a good peace poem."

As the TLS writes, "We exclude, for the moment, poems gathered together in collections such as 100 Poets against the War, edited by Todd Swift, and 101 Poets .... [the ellipsis is J.C.'s] edited by Paul Keegan and Matthew Hollis, the very titles of which amount to to a political agenda (the former contained new work; the latter poems from all ages). The kind of war poetry you want, as a reader, challenges your assumptions with doubt, pity, glory, even gore." There's a lot here to unpack. So much so, it's almost like that picnic basket from The Wind In The Willows.

Firstly, no sane reader wants any war poetry at all - surely, it's only a necessary evil of combative times. What they expect, if there is a war, is that the poetry written during wartime will, at the very least, "handle" the pressure of experience placed on language and the living (and dying) at that time;
Secondly, the requirement to "challenge your assumptions" rather begs the question of what those are, in the first place. Poetry is not a debating chamber, only. If one's assumptions are that Christ died for our sins, that one shouldn't kill, that war is a last resort - well, one hardly wants or needs Satanic verses espousing a holocaust simply for the sake of throwing off dusty old ways for shiny new ones. T.S. Eliot's sublime Quartets are blessed with very much establishing convictions, not simply shaking an apple tree to see if any Vicars fall;
Thirdly, the rather simplistic idea that only poetry anthologies with self-evident titles contain a "political agenda" is a little old-fashioned. Every poetry anthology constitutes a micro-canon, and therefore establishes and defends its own set of values, hierarchies and traditions;
Fourthly, Tom Paulin's superb anthology of Political Verse (Faber) should lay to rest the cliche that "politcal poetry" cannot, first and foremost, sing as well-crafted verse. "War" or "politics by other means" is no less a legitimate theme for poetry than love - and besides which, the best WWI poetry from the trenches expresses a strong anti-war bias without ruining the quality of the writing, or the pity;
Fifthly, there is a long-standing (and mistaken) belief, among critics who have not read my famous anthology, especially, that nth position (and later Salt's) 100 Poets against the War collection, contains "merely" propaganda, rather than excellent new writing. Look again. The anthology of mine that the TLS so airily dismisses contains poems written in the 21st century, in a variety of forms and styles, by some of the finest (often major) poets of our age, including: Charles Bernstein, Mahmoud Darwish, Michael Donaghy, Marilyn Hacker, David Harsent, Ranjit Hoskote, John Hartley Williams, Mimi Khalvati, John Kinsella, Robert Minhinnick, Sean O'Brien, Grace Schulman, and George Szirtes. Hardly a list of beatnik also-rans.
No, I'm afraid if the TLS is looking for "war poets" they better start reading the Internet, particularly nth position, more closely - our e-books have, since 2003, continually supplied readers who want "gore" as well as "pity" excellent verse dealing with all sides of the issues relating to the wars against terror, in Afghanistan and in Iraq - most recently in Babylon Burning, a collection J.C. mocked, gently, in the same pages in 2006, for raising funds for the Red Cross. Is J.C. a little bloody-minded?

Over The Edge

Not a confession, but a fact.
I'm to be the guest reader for a very special event coming up end of the month, in Galway, Ireland.
As the link below says: "The first Over The Edge: Open Reading of 2007 takes place in Galway City Library, St. Augustine Street, Galway on Thursday, January 25th, 6.30-8pm.The Featured Readers are Elaine Feeney, Mary Mullen & Todd Swift. The reading is a special occasion for co-organisers, Susan Millar DuMars and Kevin Higgins, as it is the fourth anniversary of the series, which began in January 2003."

Irony Will

If it so often seems in the "poetry world" (by which I mean the English one, primarily, but also the French somewhat) that what divides is the Atlantic, or versions of "linguistic innovation", or politics - my experience, with poets, critics, editors, publishers, and those rare, elusive everyday readers we hear so much about, instead suggests the fault line in early 21st century is Irony.

Simply put, there are two types of poets in the world - those fundamentalists who are roughly humourless and have the face of the farmer in American Gothic and think words are for sincere barter, about as subtle as a ton of pig - and those gay, Nivenesque souls who employ irony in their work, as not just a method, but an esprit. I am thinking, really, of the difference between a great many poets whose poems are about even more than an authentic disclosure of experience - and those who enjoy a little aesthetic distance, even artifice, in their writing. I am thinking of the wonderful New York School Poet, Kenward Elmslie, who wrote poems like "Girl Machine" and "History of France" - insouciant poetry that couldn't care less what you thought about it (dear reader) and yet always makes you feel part of the circus act (a circus where Shirley Temple might get eaten by lions).

Nor is this a "postmodern" versus "mainstream" shoving match, either. The great American avant-gardist (and Amazing Absorbing Man) Charles Bernstein is hilarious, ironic (in the sense the poem is never mistaken for being a bus ticket that can get you from A to B, whether that be Heaven or Hell) and eclectic in Benjaminian fashion; but some experimental poets can sound very sombre and pretentious, indeed, and would never ever think it right to include the name of a movie star in one of their poems. And yes, some mainsteam poets, like Simon Armitage, are ironic as hell, and often very funny, rarely acting in their poems like they are laying down a direct line to Stalin or the Pope or Wordsworth. Meanwhile, others act like every word not only counts, but plays the fiddle, dances, and transports you to the garden of Eden, for five cents, return.

I confess to being frustrated when some readers don't "get" my poetry. The reason they don't get it, is because they do get it, and they don't want what they're getting, just like some people don't want gay people in their churches or hotels. The truth is, sadly, many readers of poetry want ONLY some things from a poem and one of the things they ONLY want is that ahhhh feeling, like when you see a rainbow, or feel a lovely breeze on your face. I write poems about rainbows, because that is part of life, having an ahhhh every once in a while. But there's a lot of pleasure in being an Elmslie, or a Denby too - formal, serious, artful and clever, yes - but never less than witty, never not open to the full delights of the tongue, which cannot always be governed, and must sometimes be joyously diverted by cheek.

In short, the poetry world isn't ultimately divided along lingustic, class, national, ethnic, theoretical, or even philosophical lines, but whether we think poems always have to be po-faced or not.

(On the other hand, it sometimes is lovely to just be sincere, earnest and straightforward, and say something you believe in, eh?)

That Was The Last Few Weeks That Were

You may have noticed Eyewear was quiet over these last few weeks of Hot Americana and cold-eyed justice: lethal injections going wrong, Scooby-Doo's creator dying, the brutal dictator and ex-Rumsfeld ally being hanged in cold blood with crude bile and Tony Blair (back from the Bee Gees) silent as a church mouse, Robin Cook's headstone proudly asserting his pacifist stance, George Dubya creating a new 'Nam (as was long predicted by anti-war protesters in 2003) with his Lyndon Baines Johnsonian troop escalations, while Hugo (Chavez, not Williams) proceeds with his own Marx-sanctioned version of Monopoly (he takes all the cards, Luxury Tax be darned); Apocalypto Box Office Smash....

well I was. No more. A quick blog-standard speed-reply, below, in order:

Cruel and inhuman; sad, one of my favourite cartoons, especially Shaggy; cruel and inhuman; TB needs to speak a little louder, I can't hear him; Robin was the best of them; Bush may be wrong but Iraq can't be left to rot; Hugo has some good ideas but should share his toys; cruel and inhuman.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Steffler Competition

Eyewear needs to read more poetry books.

Google-eyed as I am, I can't keep up with the pace of revolutionary change. While I was away from Canada Mr. John Steffler (pictured) has been appointed the new "Poet Laureate" of Canada.

According to a government site, Steffler "was born in Toronto, Ontario in November 1947 and was educated at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph. He moved to and adopted Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador as his home in 1974. He taught at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (a campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland). His five books of poetry are highly regarded and have been well received throughout Canada. They include That Night We Were Ravenous (1998) which won the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize. His novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright (1992) won the 1993 Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Thomas Head Raddall Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book."

It's good to have a poet from the Atlantic provinces, following on one from out West, and then Quebec. I look forward to reading his collections.

To order Helix: New and Selected from Vehicule Press, see the link below.

Costa Gravitas?

Eyewear has read a lot of poetry books, and yet had never heard of John Haynes.

Just like Byron woke up "one morning" to "find himself famous" in London's vicious literary circles, though, Haynes has emerged, blinking, into the light - to ask someone for a poetry reading. I will ask him to read. In the meantime, though, I need to first find and read his latest collection, which has somehow bested Seamus Heaney's superb Distict and Circle.

Acording to his publisher's web-site, "John Haynes spent 1970 to 1988 as a lecturer in English at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria where he founded the literary journal Saiwa. Now back in the UK, he has continued teaching, writing and publishing and is the author of a number of books: on teaching, style and language theory, as well as African poetry, stories for African children, and two other volumes of verse. He has also won prizes in the Arvon and National Poetry competitions."

The Costa judges must be forgiven for their sins of omission; it hardly seems likely Haynes is better than Heaney (though both six-lettered names share 5 letters, raising some suspicion the whole stunt is an anagrammatic hoax from word-genius David Wheatley) - does it? Other than Horse Latitudes (more on that later) there can hardly have been a finer collection of mainstream, traditional lyric poetry in the English world this year than Mr. Heaney's striking return to form. So what gives?

Guess we'll have to read Haynes and see if Letter to Patience (Seren) is all form (in this instance terza rima), signifying nothing, or something more. To order the book, go to the Seren link below.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Two Tributes

2006 saw Quebec lose two significant Anglophone literary figures that are here, below, wonderfully and wittily honoured by a third, who, thankfully, is still with us. I'd note that Ruth Taylor was a third important writer whose passing last year was deeply unfortunate.

Many readers of Eyewear will know that I am a passionate advocate of Robert Allen's writing, but it is good to see other writers coming forward to establish what will hopefully become a consensus, with time: he was one of Canada's major writers, as poet and novelist.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Poem by Ben Wilkinson

One of the pleasures of running a blog (as in running a paper, pace Kane) is that overheads are low - but the keenest and truest is that one can say anything - or better, still, offer anything read or said by others - to you, the mysterious reader in the splendid ether.

So it was a treat for me to recently come across the writings of one Mr. Ben Wilkinson (pictured), and find much there to appreciate and share - from his musings on pop music to poetry on his blog He'a young poet well deserving of your time. Eyewear gladly welcomes him here in this liminal January week after the new year's rites of passage.

Wilkinson is a poet and undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. Much of his time is currently taken up by research for a dissertation on the New Generation Poets of 1994, primarily the work of Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, and Carol Ann Duffy. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines, including Dream Catcher, Poetry Review, The Frogmore Papers, and The Interpreter’s House. He has been a huge fan of the Smashing Pumpkins (as I am) since his early teens and plays the electric guitar.



Hanging baskets frosted white
in the orange blur of a maple wood dusk,
ice stalactites rigid towards the pavements.

The firing of some gun from the woods’
clearing. A bus rumbles on, coughing,
and a local makes his turn at the pub’s carpark.


The village shop’s newsboard pleas
bears pictures of twenty-somethings
last seen by a farmer, a dog walker,

fourish on the forest’s edge: a thick fog lingering,
spores shrouding the milling groups of deer. Ahead,
the brook ends near to where the search began.


Ploughed into the limestone wall
of a roadside house, the yellow
Beetle’s bonnet kinks sharply out,

torn, the police at the kerbside, directing
traffic and taking statements. The borderline
where post boxes change from red to green.


Hillside housing estates flicker with lights,
clamping shut against the winter’s cold.
The backfields fold between them

and a stretched A-road; ice, potholes, nettled bushes,
a makeshift sign saying ‘No Golf’. The grass peters out
to bracken, cat’s eyes flickering through the foliage.

poem by Ben Wilkinson

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

And Superman

The holiday season may bring viewings of films missed during the hurly-burly of the year. In my case, among others, Superman Returns, which sank my heart, for a number of reasons, deep as the Mariano Trench.

Bryan Singer (the "y" was always going to be a problem) was the once-and-future-Fincher of American cinema, a great rising director. Instead, after The Usual Suspects, that bijou pic whose lustre is somewhat tarnished now that everyone's picked up on it, he opted for blockbusters. X-Men, etc., and now yet another "reboot" of yet another "franchise" (even using the jargon of film's industrial trade is an assault and battery on the mind), Superman Returns, as above.

It should have been called "Brando Returns". The production is ghosted by the expensive actor - his virtual reproduction haunts its halls, out-takes from the original "crystal seed" mirrored, replayed and echoed endlessly, like so much "the Force, Luke" stuff. But not only is Singer proud to play paycock with Brando's cinematic shade, he has allowed other homages to unaccountably cluster and multiply, like Mahon's mushrooms in a disused shed. For one, Eve Marie Saint, great opposite Marlon in On The Waterfront (and luminous in North by Northwest) becomes old Mrs. Kent, living on the same ranch as Mrs. Ryan (of the saved son in Spielberg's epic), and Lex Luthor's moll (a Parker full of Posey, husha-husha) is named "Kitty Kowalski", nodding subliminally to the sublime Streetcar.

Why do this, unless, at heart, one is sick of the artless nature of the enterprise? Singer's sense of direction is good, his visual sense strong (for one thing, he has borrowed heavily from Welles and Kubrick, in his use of silent framed space as well as space flooded with sound - see the hopsital sequence at the end, which refers to Kane, among other films) - but the script is a let-down, despite its clever deployment of a rich field of flight images and metaphors (ghosting 9-11 certainly), and the usual father-and-son routine.

No, the problem is Luthor. Kevin Spacey is one of my favourite actors. His physical deportment in the film is superb, choreographed to swing his megalomania like a bebop trombonist on horse. Still. Little thought (and this often happens with graphic novels when translated to screen) was given to the requisite gravitas of the villain - or more bluntly, his infrastructure. Three or four goons and a gum-cracking moll does not an army make, and Luthor's plan, admittedly meant to be insane, still does not seize the imagination, let alone colonize the imaginary, as it should - surely, stealing America from the pale-faces by resurrecting an Atlantian wasteland like some sort of submerged Leviathan is a clever Sex and Death in the American Novel trope, but where's the S & D? Billions are threatened with extinction, none die.

Luthor could not even outdrink the Rahv's in heat, let alone sublet a block in Manhattan, let alone conquer a timid new world. The way in which he "kills" Superman with Kryptonite is sufficiently wicked, but not much else is more than a bled-out reprise of the Gene Hackman performance first time round. Why do screenwriters insist on making the villains so undaunting? Armed only with a few stolen artefacts from the Fortress of Solitude and one helicopter, how does Lex expect to hold off the armies of the free world? In what way does he in fact "steal" fire from the gods (the best scene involves his brief lecture on Prometheus)?

More to the point (carping diem), if Kryptonite kills Superman, then Superman cannot lift it. He surely can't, then, lift a vast continent laced with Kryptonite miles into space, can he? He can. Oh. Okay, then.

Return of the repressed? As Superman floats in the ether, hearing, godlike, the pleas of humanity (a dictator brutally murdered here, a child blown up by a land mine there, a bank and its property threatened here) what is most absent is ideology, or any sense that the film is created within a system of capitalism. The German idea of the Superman, if I recall, was that he transgressed, or at least extended, human values - there was a transformation of ideology. American brute force has been shown to be incapable of lifting countries free from toxicity, let alone thrusting new continents (ho hum) - only new systems of thought can do that - Superman's persistent loner status, his reluctance to co-operate, or work in league with philantropists like Bill Gates (ha ha) renders him, perhaps, as useless as Lois Lane's prize-winning editorial would argue.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

T.S. Eliot Prize Nears

The T.S. Eliot Prize 2006 may be the most thrilling contest yet (in what has already seen some astonishing constellations of talent go head to head for the most desired prize in British/Irish poetry after the Nobel).

Robin Roberston, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Paul Farley, Simon Armitage, Hugo Williams, Penelope Shuttle, Jane Hirshfield, as well as Tim Liardet and W.N. Herbert are on the shortlist.

Anne Carson (the only North American woman to have so far won it) is notably absent.

Eyewear will keep you informed of the latest developments...

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