Thursday, March 31, 2011

Do you write poetry? Save the date!

Blue Met's "Poets at Night: Changing Landscapes, Eclectic Voices" poetry event will be held on Friday, April 29, 2011 at 6pm in salle Camelia of the Holiday Inn - Select in downtown Montreal.

The evening will feature the writing of several talented poets, both emerging and established. The Montreal International Poetry Prize will be there, too, to talk about their new international prize with its substantial purse ($50,000 first prize) and give details about the award, the jury, and how this new prestigous prize will change the Montreal literary landscape.

Gabe Foreman
Featured poets include:
Gabe Foreman (Quebec), Aurian Haller (Quebec), Andrea Moorehead (USA), Oliver Scharpf (Switzerland), and Edvins Raups (Latvia).

Hosted by Carmine Starnino, one of Canada's best known and most widely acknowledged young poets.

One writer we are happy to have as part of this event is Gabe Foreman. His book A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House) will be released in April. His collection features pieces which reside in an immediacy of experience: an image, a play on words, a cultural allusion that forces the reader to consider the relationship between competing ideas or lived experiences.

 Chiropractors in the Off-Hours
        Who's 'scruffy-lookin' '?
                           -Han Solo

Please do not despise your hands.
Feel what you need to feel.
Live and be limited.

By morning, a night of cable television
erupts like dust from a pillow on the sofa.
Dangling thirty feet above the street
a floating, jellyfish vanishes.

Only touching is believing.

Today is Thanksgiving, and we stroll
to the movies to buff plush seats
and squeeze greasy kernels of corn
between our fingers.

Please do not despise your hands.
Feel what you need to feel.
Only touching is believing
Live and be limited.

The need to touch becomes ever devalued culturally given all our virtual toys and the avenues of digital escapes into which we can all take refuge. Yet, Foreman seems to suggest, ideas and virtual experiences vanish like dust and it's only the tactile that truly makes us human, that makes us believe and truly experience. When we think back on an experience from our past, it's not a visual image on a screen we have carried with us: it's the physical sensations that we recall. Living in this "limited" way actually contains our liberation.

If you read or write poetry, or even if you want to understand how poets today continue to challenge and reflect culture and experience, save the date and get your tickets now!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gore Vidal: "A narcissist is someone better looking than you are."

Gore Vidal was one of the first American "shit-stirrers," mucking up and challenging media, politicians and the tendency towards American provincialism.

Famously contrary, he has never been afraid of challenging his own milieu, his own friends, even his own weaknesses.Who else could get away with such bold assertions such as:

"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."

"It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail."

"The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes."

Now 85 years old, Gore Vidal came of age in a time and place that seem almost unreal now: by the age of Mad Men and Civil Rights and the sexual revolution, he was already well into his 30s and 40s. Thus for his generation, television was the big social changer and he was no fan.

"Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they're scraping the top of the barrel."

This kind of hostility seems antiquated today when even hostility towards the Internet generally seems like a debate from an earlier time. One wonders what he would have to say about social media, ebooks, constant streams of information, and Google copyright, etc.

His book Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare seems like a writer very conscious of his advancing years, showing private moments of his rather public life in a very "Vidalian" way. It's a lovely book full of photographs: his early years, as a teenager, old telegrams, magazine articles, etc, a compendium of his life and career that is highly visual and entertaining. For any Gore Vidal fans, it's a must-have. It also makes me nostalgic for a time and place where memories were associated with objects, actual things you could touch and feel and hold and not just digits on a screen.

An interesting Quebec connection, too: Montreal born writer John Glassco's 1970 book, Memoirs of Montparnasse, tells the story of a group of artists and writers in 1920s Paris (retold in Brian Busby's excellent biography of John Glassco), heavily centered around American writer Robert McAlmon (a very close friend of Kay Boyle, another American writer whose work I adore). Robert McAlmon grew up in the midwest and one of this better known works (As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period) tells the story of his early life in South Dakota and his friendship with Eugene Vidal, Gore Vidal's father (Gore Vidal challenges McAlmon's portrayal and memories in his own memoir, Palimpsest.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake and Literature

I have deep personal connections to Japan in several important areas of my life (which explains in part my interest in Japanese literature) and so we`ve been glued to the news the last few days. One feels so helpless here but luckily it seems everyone we know is safe and accounted for. It`s easy, though, to get overwhelmed with the tragedy and it`s become a familiar tragedy given all the earthquakes the last 15 months.

It makes me think about literature that is set during or after an earthquake. Earthquakes, shockingly real and intensely physical to anyone who has experienced one first hand, offer far too many metaphors for the human experience. Charles Darwin famously said after experiencing an earthquake in Chile in 1835, "A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid." And when the world suddenly shifts underneath you, all of your assumptions seem equally tenuous.

Most famously is Harumi Murakami`s collection of short stories "After the Earthquake" which is set in 1995, after the Kobe quake and before the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. I read this collection several years ago but perhaps it's time to hunt down another copy of it. Murakami, as is to be expected, is not interested in the actual experience of earthquake as much as he is in the emotional threads and the way in which earthquake changes a society. As we know, fear is a dangerous element in any society: but what happens when our fear is a fear of the very earth on which we stand?

It's natural that countries which experience earthquakes also explore the issues of earthquake in their literature: Iran, Chile and, of course, Japan. Some ancient Persian poems address the terror that is earthquake and are an important part of Iranian literature.

Pablo Neruda, too, in his fascinating collection Canto general (a natural and collective history of Latin America) addresses the emotional metaphor that earthquake allows in a poetic sense in a poem called "Earthquake," which has an immediacy that is also part of experiencing a real earthquake. The poem ends on a positive note, a new day's sun coming up. I guess that's all one can do when they are situated in the thick of it. Thoughts and prayers to everyone in Japan.

I awoke when the ground of dreams gave way
beneath my bed.
A blind column of ash was staggering in the middle
of the night,
                  I ask you: have I died?
Give me your hand in this rupture of the planet
while the wound of the bruised sky makes stars.
Aye!, but memories, where are they?, where are they?
Why does the earth boil, filling with death?
Oh, masks under curled dwellings, smiles
that fright had not yet reached, beings torn
under the beams, covered by the night.

And today you dawn, oh blue day, dressed
for a dance with your golden queue
on the subdued sea of debris, fiery,
looking for the lst faces of the unburied ones.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Future of Cookbooks ...

I still have several big cookbooks that I use regularly. That said, I also have several cookbooks that I have but rarely use when I cook -  mainly they are used as reading material. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking is one such book. It's not that I don't find some great recipes I'd like to try in there but there is so much text and 'setup' before each recipe, I get distracted by it (and by Julia Child's highly readable writing) and end up sitting at my table just reading.

For cooking, I prefer colorful coobooks with big photos of what I'm attempting. I also tend to like seasonal cookbooks, too (like this one), so that I can buy ingredients I know markets will have and make dishes which are in season.

I also find that I use my netbook for cooking a good deal, too, mainly for specific recipes or for times when I have lots of ingredients but no idea how to put them all together. I use two sites regularly one which is more practical and one which is full of great photos and is more a reading site than a cooking one (at least for me).

This book is a rare one which I both use in my kitchen and love to read and look through like an art book.

A few times I've been over at someone's house and noticed that we have the same cookbook and we end up sharing notes, talking about recipes we like, ones we've tried but didn't like, and our general impression of the book. Almost like one would discuss literature.

But cooking at home is at a very strange point in development. People "cook" less and less and rely more on processed powders and concoctions that need very little preparation. This is certainly understandable given the time contraints we all live under now. Consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is down. But people are still fascinated by cookbooks and thousands (probably tens of thousands) are published each year. Is it a kind of nostalgia?

I really wish I could be at the Paris Cookbook Fair this year and listen to the discussion underway about the future and the current place of the cookbook in the home.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cookbook Fair!

Who knew, The Paris Cookbook Fair ended yesterday?

Of all the book fairs held around the world each year, this has got to be one of the most delicious...

Next year!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Jane Hirshfield in Montreal

One of the most influential poets writing today, Jane Hirshfield`s work continues to inspire me. I like the seeming simplicity of her work, how compact her poems are but how they all stand up to multiple readings.

Her poems almost always start with a very tangible object:

Green-Sriped Melons

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people
are like this as well -
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness.

What interests me about a poem like this is how straightforward it is on the surface (what could be simpler about melons in a field) but how she actually captures a rather complex series of ideas: that people are both as simple and natural and straightforward as melons growing under the sun, but also as hard to get at as a painting hidden under another painting.

In this way, the poem itself is a metaphor for humanity, it`s simple and hard to work out at the same time.

Her work almost always starts with an object: a window, a bowl of soup, a woodpecker on a ledge, but then she moves through this object, expands it, looks at it as both a rhetorical door and a symbol for what is good and bad about all of us. But though these ideas are all captured in her poems, her work is never pretentious or pedantic.

Also a translator and essayist (her 1998 book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry contains some excellent essays about why poetry still matters), Jane Hirshfield will be at the Montreal Zen Poetry Festival next week.