Sunday, November 30, 2008

HPC Presents Amabile

Last Thursday, Nov. 27, the Hamilton Poetry Centre hosted a reading by George Amabile at Bryan Prince's book store, as they did last month with Brian Bartlett. But what a difference for me! Bartlett, you may remember (see previous entries), left me dissatisfied and quite irritated. Amabile affected me quite the opposite.

Looking back on both readings, I believe the difference was in the manner of presentation. Bartlett, who teaches at St. Mary's in Halifax, came across as a professor, one who displays and explicates before a class. Amabile, who is retired from a lifetime of teaching at U of Manitoba, did not. Amabile's manner, language, his easygoing attitude of a raconteur, provided a completely different framework for the poetry.

The results? I didn't invest in any of Bartlett's books. I had considered doing so and inspected those on display before the reading. I'm sorry I didn't have enough cash to buy Amabile's latest.

Hurriedly I checked Bryan Prince's store yesterday but couldn't immediately find one on the shelf. I'll have to go back and ask for it.

Neither inspired a burst of creativity as sometimes happens, but Amabile's aftertaste is more pleasing. When he'd answered the last question from the audience, I felt as if I'd shared a drink and some conversation with a friend.

You can't ask more than that from a poetry reading.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Arts Hamilton Literary Awards

Arts Hamilton held their literary awards evening Wednesday night. Before the presentations we were given, instead of the usual speech, a video display of the plans for a permanent "Art Walk" along King William St. (See CITY and ARTS 2 below.)

My recent book In Times of Changing Seasons was nominated for poetry book of the year. It lost. The winner was A Bundle of Life by Joanna Lawson. Irony? It was published by Serengeti Press, and I provided any needed editorial work. If someone else had to win, no better choice.

I did win for one poem I submitted that had been published in the anthology Cats, Cats, Cats, and More Cats, a poem called "Sandburg's Fog" written in reply to Carl Sandburg' famous imagist poem.


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

My poem was written as a "performance piece," and as such had been performed at many venues over the past 12 years or so but hadn't been available in hard copy until I was asked for poems for an anthology about cats. It was very disconcerting to hear the presenter read it as if it was a group of words on paper; it is so much more!

Anyway, here is the poem.

(The fog comes on little cat feet...)

Sandburg, your poem
its simplicity and quiet image
may work in your mind
in your city
but not in mine.

My black cat has oversized feet.
He never silently slips
into a room but hurls himself
under and over the furniture
with the force and roar
of a tornado.

Up and down stairs he thunders.
You keep an eye out for flying glass,
suspect the tremors of earthquakes.

And fog never sits
over this harbour and city.
It rolls, swirls, breaks
against the mountainside
and rips into its own belly with anger.

A foggy morning here, Carl,
is seldom less than full-scale war.

So much depends upon your city
and your cat’s feet.

And my older bigfoot cat:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

CITY and ARTS (2)

An update to the previous one. A plan exists to turn King William Street into an "Art Walk" modelled on the one in Rochester NY. The layout looks nice, the mood semi-optimistic, and supposedly an initiative involving Arts Hamilton, the City of Hamilton, and "local businesses." Arts Hamilton has never had major clout. The city runs hot with plans but cold with execution. The local businesses? Amity-Goodwill on one end, the derelict Lister block (that the city can't find the means or the will to preserve) at the other. The main cop shop and a nursing home in the middle; and lots of empty parking lots.

A five-block long barge with no anchors. But, it does have high-end Theater Aquarius and community centered Skydragon.

I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Monday evening I went to the City of Hamilton Arts Awards presentation ceremony with my friend Wilma. Perhaps because I was there as a former recipient, and had no special anticipation, I listened to the speeches a little closer.

The presentation was MCed by Councillor Bob Bratina, a musician and radio personality in his own right. Between his comments throughout the evening and Mayor Fred Eisenberger's opening address, we were given to understand how proud and supportive City Hall is of the arts community. Hamilton, in changing from the old Steeltown image, is being touted as a cultural Mecca, the exciting place to be. Rah, rah, rah! I'd like to jump on that bandwagon, but I've been there before.

Granted there are good (maybe great) things happenong artistically in the city. This is happening because of the artists, and in some ways in spite of city hall. City Hall provides accolades and some crumbs. Where is the energy, the planning, the money? It has to come from the artists themselves.

It happened with Barton Street. It happened with the Tivoli. Make plans, get support. But anything concrete is never there.

And writers? We were so well represented that no award was given this year. We are not the legislators, Shelly, unacknowledged or not. Poets especially are prophets crying out in the modern wilderness. Read Ginsberg, Acorn. They knew.

So we continue to howl.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hiking As Metaphor

Yesterday I went on an "advanced" hike to the base of Tews Falls with friends from the Hamilton - City of Waterfalls group. It wasn't until later while relaxing after a long warm soak, a hot meal, comfortable and dry clothes, that the realization dawned on me. In many ways this hike was for me much like the way I write a poem.

It starts with an idea, something different from the usual. For the hikers it was to experience (see, hear, feel, photograph) the falls in a way that most people do not. For me, a poem encapsulates an experience of living using those same senses to provide a recognizable other point of view.

After the idea comes the plan. The hikers planned to start just above Dundas, make their way over to the east bank of Spencer Creek, to the confluence with Logie's Creek, and follow that to the base of Tews Falls. Clear and simple. So with a poem. I have a place to start from, a certainty of what I want the poem to say, and a plan to use words and poetic devices to reach that objective.

With both endeavours the difficulty lies in the journey. The hike began on smooth ground, shifted to a recognizable trail. then faded into unmarked wilderness floor. As it progressed, obstacles became more difficult: tree trunks to clamber over, treacherous loose ground to be avoided, wet and icy terrain to be carefully negotiated. At times there were asides taken from the main journey. A scramble down to photograph the lower Tews Falls where Logie's joins Spencer. A climb up to inspect Ferguson Falls. A seemingly permanent campsite. The remains of a buiding/shack. And in all this the group remained cohesive while allowing distractions.

So too with making of a poem, although the poet is usually alone in his journey. He starts with easy simple steps; the difficulty increases as he advances. The words and phrases to express himself become harder to find. Something that he sought to say can't be comfortably said the way he had hoped. He stumbles with simile and metaphor, negotiates assonance and rhyme, trying to stay away from the banal and the ridiculous. He can't let the tempting biways of language distract him from the objective, the poem.

Yes, the objective. For most of the hikers it was the base of the falls, the roar and feel of the water, the light captured in photographs. I, the poet, did not feel the need for a close approach. I had achieved what I needed: a point from which to experience with mind and senses the glory of the falls from another vantage. The struggle had been difficult - scraped knuckle, bruised knee, barked shin, mud to the knees - and I was satisfied.

So too the end of the making, the final poem, must be satisfying. The poet who has immersed himself in the journey must believe he has achieved what he set out to. He also has to understand that others may not follow his journey exactly. Some may have no interest. Some will care to go only so far. And then some may use a glimmer the poem ignites to build and develop their own vision.

Each has his own understanding, his own interpretation.
And that's what it's all about.

And now I don't feel the need to write that poem. Even so ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Another issue of TOWER Poetry (Volume 57, Number 2) is set and in the process pf being readied for the printer. The poems have been chosen or rejected and the authors should soon receive their notification. The Agony and the Exstacy will not be a very public matter. I remember my earliest rejection slips; I never wanted to talk about them, just seethed under a seeming calm exterior. And the acceptance notices? Inwardly I leaped with joy and shouted with glee, but the outward demeanor was strictly Joe Cool. Hah!

The problem is that a writer will never really know why his work was rejected; he has to accept the platitudes handed out by the editor. There can be so many, and most are a combination of one or more that even the editor might find difficult to explain.

The best reason to reject work is because it's awful, plain and simple garbage. How do you let a writer know without killing his creativity or bringing curses and fatwahs upon your own head? You tell lies - little ones, big ones, whatever it takes.

A second good reason is that the work is sloppy. The underlying idea may be sound but no work has been put into presentation, no attention to details (of language, grammar), no structure or flow. Sometimes an editor feels like saying "Take this back and do some work on it" but he can't be everybody's critic. A writer, a poet, must be able to see for himself.

A third reason is that the work does not fit the parameters of the place it was submitted to. Don't send your poetry just anywhere that accepts poetry for publication. If you send a three hundred line tragic epic to a magazine that publishes mainly pastoral love poems you are asking for rejection. Research your market; send what seems to you to suit. You may catch an editor's eye.

Another reason is more illusive to explain. The poem is good. It suits the general mood of the issue. Yet there may be a little something that goes against the grain, the common flow. If something such as this was apparent in another submission, a sort of support piece, it might pull at an editors attention rather than be passed over. Passed over for no real reason except that it didn't grab.

So, a bit on rejection. The thing is, acceptance works the same way, for almost the same reasons. You never can tell.

"C'est la vie," say the old folks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

P. O. D. - Poetry On Demand

I was approached to submit some work appropriate for a collection about the late Canadian poet Al Purdy and the land he wrote about. The one aspect was not difficult. Purdy lived in the land at the edge of the Canadian Shield, that ancient gray granite slab that surrounds Hudson's Bay and covers most of Central Canada, loved it, and became part of it. I grew up in the same space, a few counties east. With both of us, our poetry lies rooted in that land. This became a matter of chosing which poems.

The other part was to write about Al. This was difficult because, although I have looked at him and his influence on my own poetry, we were never close acquaintances or friends; I had never felt moved to write to him or about him. And now someone is asking me to write a poem for a project, to write on demand. I can see no excuse and so do my best.

The thing about writing on demand is that my method is not conducive to this approach to writing. I am indifferent; it may work for others but seldom/never for me. I can remember so-called "poetry sweatshops" where a topic would be announced to "contestants" and a certain amount of time given for composition before public presentation to an audience and a panel of judges. Some were swift with fine poetic pieces under such constrictions. Not I.

The same goes for "writing exercises." Some writers thrive on being set a challenge, They grab it, worry it, shake it, shape it. Not I. The whole concept leaves me cold.

It probably has much to do with the process that for me produces the poem. My poem usually starts with a fragment: an idea, an image, the sound of a phrase, the feel of words in the mouth. Sometimes I think I have lost more good poems in this stage than have come through. I'll try to write something down, to encapsulate it for later worrying. Even then I sometimes lose the core of it.

To write a poem I need time, both mine and the poem's. If parts of the poem come together in my head I need to be able to stop and work at it. If I make time, if I set a certain amount of time each day aside for poetry, it leads to frustration. Seldom do the two come together for me.

And then, when I get a semblance of what I want on a page, it still goes through revision after revision. Some to clarify the thought and its processes. Some to shape the look of the poem on paper (or screen.) Some to modify the sounds in my mind or the sound of its presentation. Often a poem has to be set aside and reapproached at another time. It is only with enough love and craft that a poem assumes its own persona.

So I wrote a poem for Al Purdy. The idea was not difficult; I wanted to do so. The vague idea of what I wanted to say was there. And then I found the image to hang it on. It wasn't a swift production, but when things seemed to fit together the writing, the crafting the polishing for public presentation became possible.

I still don't like to write Poetry On Demand.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Found Poetry

Another of the things that irked me at Bryan Bartlet's reading for the Poetry Centre the other week was his explanation and examples of "found poetry." The way he explained it was so foreign to my understanding of it that it is no wonder I found his presentation lacking in either passion or meaning. (Am I so old that a form that was bright and exciting, one step away from pure dada when we practiced it, has become lifeless?)

This is the way he explained it. Carefully saearch through a large volume such as Tolstoy's War and Peace for words and phrases. Put them together. What you have found will be a poem. In other words, take a beautiful building and rip it apart. Take a brick from here, a cornice from there, a tile or two, and don't forget a window sill. Fit them together and you will have the beauty and the spirit of the building. This is not the way I learned and wrote "found poems" in the 1960s.

In those times, what happened first (not last) was that you found the poem. No matter where; it could be anything, anywhere. One of the finest I "found" was in a magazine ad for a newly imported whiskey. The ad's copywriter had waxed eloquent beyond standard sales hype and I recognized the underlying poetry. By cutting the references to drink and other specifics, and positioning words and phrases in an order not meant or initially apparent, an ad for whiskey became an ode to beauty.

I no longer have a copy of that poem but the finding of the poem, the crafting and the shaping, and the satisfaction of the final result stay with me, even forty years later.

This is a poem I "found" in an interview with a local musician in H Magazine for October '08.


opportunity on the floor
.......................a sitting fixture
guitar...keyboards...electronic percussion
complex meditative ideas layers counterpoint
............creative phrasings
expand into more complicated

mesmerizing pieces of sound
............swirling everchanging sounds

forever proclaim the mantra

every pair of ears
.....................deserves its own mind

.................................(jefferson 05/11/08)

The words come from the two parties to the interview; the structure and arrangement are mine.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Judging Contests (and other endeavors)

Earlier this autumn I served as judge of the poetry entries by seventeen-year-olds in the "Power of the Pen" awards run by the Hamilton Public Library. Besides picking a first and second place, I was asked to provide a positive critical remark for each entry. I picked a first and second (no honourable mentions) and provided a little praise or a pointer to all. It was not easy.

I have just been volunteered for (and accepted) a position of judge for the Cambridge Library's "Poem-a-Day" celebration for Poetry Month, April, 2009. One judge gets all the adult works, another gets all the kids' stuff (under 12), and I'm blessed with all the teenage material. Fair enough; I accept the task.

However many entries are received in each category, we are to pick the ten best. Not in order of merit or any perceived order. Thirty poems will be chosen; one per day will be publicly displayed by the Library.

Personally, I like the teen stuff. As long as they're being honest in what they do and not pompously trying to put one over on everybody, they can be surprising. If you get one who can combine an emotional experience with concrete words and a simple image it can blow you away. It has happened to me several times. The downside is wading through all the material where someone has nothing he feels deeply about but has to write a poem for some reason, or when someone struggles with an emotion and can't find original words to express it.

For me judging this level has become a "remember when." All that garbage I wrote when I was a teen, and the marvelous lift from the occasional poem that worked!

Judging can be so difficult. You can never be completely unbiased; you must recognize the bias and take it into consideration, whether it be cultural, social, or what. If you're a living human being they are there, a part of who you are. What you need to be, what those whose efforts you are judging need you to be, is to be honest rather than unbiased.

The old saying goes that honesty is the best policy. For a judge, whether on the Supreme Court or for a poetry contest, it is the only one.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More About Haiku

Last Thursday the Poetry Centre hosted a reading at Bryan Prince, Bookseller by the East Coast poet Bryan Bartlett which left me unsastisfied and more than a little dismayed by several matters in his presentation. I want to deal with one of those here.

He read selections from what he claimed were three "haiku series." Now a lot seemed to be missing, either from his way of presentation or his understanding of "haiku" and probably a combination of the two. It certainly left this part of the audience wondering.

Because I had (and have) no copy of his material in hand I cannot comment on form or format on the page; from the way it was read, there was no sense of line or thought breaks, no pause giving emphasis. I can only criticize according to my emotional response to the material presented. And that was nil.

But this is what haiku is. By presenting an image in its strength and clarity without extraneous baggage hanging on, the haiku poet demands visceral response from his audience/reader. He uses every word carefully, saying as much as possible through the associations each word carries. This Bartlett never did. I can remember not one clear image, not one emotional note he touched. All I remember from those three separate haiku sequences he purported to lay before us was the story that he had read once in Toronto with a nephew improvising guitar lines. (I did the same twenty years ago with a professional saxophonist; the resulting combination can be mesmerizing.) Whatever magic that might have held was not present here.

About magic: much of the strength of the best haiku lies in a sense of Zen Buddhism. its essence is the capture and transmission of the "haiku moment," as North American haiku poets would have it. What that comes down to is a small sense of enlightenment, a clearer understanding of a part of existence that may have seemed insignificant, a satori if you will. The Masters create this with their choice of image, by comparing or contrasting (which must happen in the mind of the reader/listener), by presenting a small series for consideration, all leading to that point where the mind/spirit says "Aha!" This was sadly lacking.

The only thing I came away with (pertaining only to his "haiku") was the memory of several polysyllabic words which seemed as relevant to haiku as my finger to the shape of this galaxy.

I suppose it is only fair to display some of my own, hoping that they may illustrate the principles I'm talking about.

across the ravine
a deer watches silently
as my feet stumble

such an expanse of water
and one lone windsurfer
November breeze

Simple images; seasonal reference to set mood; let the reader's mind do the work.