Saturday, April 29, 2006

Lots of Larkin

I had some salmon chowder for supper last night, along with baking powder biscuits made with whipping cream instead of butter.

Having a little trouble posting just now, having failed in my attempt to slice the top of my left index finger off the other day. Ok ok I was making DOG FOOD. And strangely enough I was reflecting on the dangers of using a not quite sharp enough knife when knife responded by biting me, which it has to be said the dog has never done. Anyway my keyboard is a little tricky to navigate with a large bandage on my fingertip. Not sure why it's affecting the typing coordination in my other hand. Sympathy of twins I suppose.

I got fed up after this and went into the garden (fingertip well protected) and as I was hauling dead clematis off an old trellis, danged if the trellis didn't savage my arm with an old nail. Lucky for me I had a tetanus shot last summer after an ill-fated decision to attain fitness through cycling, and a misguided attempt to enter my new regime well prepared by spending lots of money getting brand-new bike tires, which I discovered do not respond to turns in quite the same way as the old ones. Perhaps I should stay indoors for a while and use only rounded implements in the kitchen till my wounds heal.

I have been reading a book by Andrew Motion on the curmudgeon's curmudgeon, Philip Larkin. It was published in 1982 by Faber on their special self-destruct paper, so it has quite an authentically antique look even now, and I hope it will not crumble before I reach the end. More a critical than a biographical study, Motion's book is appealingly slender, at only 92 pages (including a dozen page of bibliography, notes and index). Pithy though, and will bring you right up to speed on your symbolist, modernist and Movement poets, and their passionate aims for poetry, as well of course as a detailed review of Larkin's evolution. But for the naughty bits you'll have to try Motion's 1993 biography or read his Selected Letters. A further biography, by Richard Bradford, was published in 2005.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

I have a pair of rhubarb plants that despite my neglectful stewardship manage to rouse themselves every year to give me a couple of batches of fruit. Not enough to do too much with, but at the very least I like stewed rhubarb: it is transformed with a bit of grated orange zest and the juice of half or a quarter of an orange. And sugar of course. Nice with plain yogurt for breakfast. If you have lots on hand, try a rhubarb custard pie sometime: my my my my my but it's good. More orange zest called for there, and maybe a dollop of nice vanilla ice cream if the pie is still warm when you get to it.

My cousin Shirley had an old newspaper recipe for Rhubarb Marmalade which sounds a lot like one I had a few years ago and still dream about, and which kindly expects that you may not have an abundance growing in your garden when the mood strikes.
2 oranges
2 lb frozen rhubarb
1/2 cup water
3-1/2 cups sugar
1 cup golden raisins
Cut oranges in half lengthwise. Place them cut side down and slice paper thin, discarding seeds. Cut slices in half, and put them with rhubarb and water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, turn down to medium and boil 10 minutes, stirring often. Add sugar and cook slowly until thick, about 20 minutes. Stir often. Add raisins and boil 1 minute. Ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal. Makes about 48 ounces.
The February 2006 issue of Poetry Magazine surfaced during a night table re-engineering exercise, and I read The Bowl of Diogenes, an entertaining article about poetry criticism by William Logan, who sits on both sides of the critical fence.
"In most arts... there is a guild rule against writing criticism. One looks in vain for the ballet reviews of Twyla Tharp and the film reviews of Angelina Jolie. In poetry, as in few other arts (fiction is a partial exception), the critics are the artists themselves -- even though many poets, and wise poets they are, have sworn an oath of omerta, never to breathe a word of criticism against a fellow of the guild."
He explains his position and his passion for crossing over anyway:
"I turned to criticism myself, not out of a messianic instinct or the will to martyrdom, but out of the terrible knowledge that I was a better reader when I read for hire, that I read more intently when driven by necessity.
...criticism has forced me to read books I would otherwise have ignored. I've read far more contemporary poetry than most people, and far more than I would have if left to my own devices. I've probably read more dreary and ordinary books of verse than is healthy... Yet, on a rare occasion, I've felt like Balboa staring out across an unknown sea or Herschel seeing Uranus swim before his telescope... I've found a book that reminds me, not just why I write criticism, but why I write poetry."
He argues firmly against accessibility as the primary goal of contemporary poetry:

"There are, even now, publishers and readers and even poets who think poetry far too obscure, who think poetry ought to be so simple it hardly needs to be read at all... The best poetry has often been difficult, has often been so obscure that readers have fought passionately over it...
For two centuries, well-meaning vandals have been trying to dumb down Shakespeare, wanting to make him common enough for the common reader, in the doltish belief that, introduced to poetry this way, the common reader will turn to the original. Yet the reader almost never does. He's satisfied with a poor simulacrum of poetry, never realizing that Shakespeare without the poetry isn't Shakespeare at all. The beauty of poetry is in the difficulty, in the refusal of the words to make the plain sense immediately plain, in the dark magic and profound mistrust of words themselves...
Surely we read poetry because it gives us a sense of the depths of language, meaning nudging meaning, then darting away, down to the unfathomed and muddy bottom. Critics, generations of critics, have devoted themselves to revealing how those words work, to showing that each sense depends on other senses. Not every poem has to be as devious and shimmering as Shakespeare (there is room for plain speaking, too); but the best poetry depends on the subtlety and suggestiveness of its language. If we demand that poetry be so plain that plain readers can drink it the whole plain day, we will have lost whatever makes poetry poetry."


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Saltines, literary prodigies and poet laureates

Yesterday I was thinking about saltine crackers, which I could not find for some reason in my grocery store (needed for the crust of the Artichoke and Mushroom Quiche). And that of course led me to think about young Daisy Ashford and her incomparable novel, The Young Visiters; or Mr Salteena's Plan, which is now available online in full from Stone Soup, the magazine for young writers and artists. I also discovered it had been made into a TV movie in Britain, starring the amply talented Jim Broadbent as Mr Salteena, the admirably grumpy Hugh Laurie as Lord Bernard Clark, and the weirdly adorable Bill Nighy as the Earl of Clincham, among others.

The City of Victoria, in partnership with the Greater Victoria Public Library, is accepting applications between April 18 and May 15, 2006 for the inaugural two and a half year appointment of a Poet Laureate. The position serves as a cultural and literary ambassador for the City of Victoria and supports the literary community as a whole. Don't quit your day job: the position pays $1,500 a year.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Back to poetry

I've been preoccupied with food lately so time to think a bit more about poetry. My cyber scouts have been sending me interesting things to read, so I thought I'd share.

Mary felt I needed to know about the not-quite-yet-born Quarterly Journal of Food and Car Poems, from Washington state, which is seeking form poems for its first issue, and provides a nicely photographed sonnet to a steak for inspiration, as well as a handy list of links to Wikipedia definitions of allowable forms.

And Nancy has been reading the well-endowed (in the most fully figured meaning of that phrase) website of the Poetry Foundation, which is an excellent site and one I hadn't visited before. She also found an online version of the article on rhyme, meter, stanza and pattern that appeared in a recent issue Poetry Magazine, by George Szirtes.

And as for me tucked up with my million books on poetry, I was reading again a few comforting passages from my heroine Maxine Kumin's delightfully readable and charming collection of Essays on a Life in Poetry, Always Beginning. In a 1996 interview included in the collection, she was asked about the process of writing a novel on a typewriter, which she began using a very literal cut and paste method, so she had the first page scrolling across the room before she inserted her second page. She was asked if she thought computers had changed the surface or shape of prose, and she replied
"Oh I know it has...It's dangerous! It corrupts you in midpage because it's so easy to insert and delete that you take a lot of wrong turns... I'm not really comfortable yet with the computer. I use it for prose, a little warily, and then I print things out and make a lot of changes by hand, and then I go back and put them in."
Just so. I like to print poems out and write on them (with dates!!) so that I don't lose those speculative changes. I rarely go back to previous versions, but it can be helpful to have them if I get myself completely messed up. I find the Version Control feature in Word cumbersome and not really workable for me, but on the other hand, just pressing the Save button pretty much obliterates your editing history. Literary researchers of the future should have an interesting time of it.

Have a look at this site if you're interested in editing history; it shows four manuscript versions of Wilfred Owen's Dulce Et Decorum Est, and I seem to recall reading we don't know which was his own finished version, so in anthologies etc. you will find one or some variation on these. To view each draft full-screen, choose right-click a manuscript "button" (A, B, C, D) and choose Open Link in New Window.

Mary wanted to see what I was having for supper last night. It was a mushroom and artichoke quiche from the Steinbeck House cookbook. The crust is supposed to be made with crushed saltines and sauteed mushrooms and butter (chilled till firm), and then you put lightly cooked green onion and chopped canned (not marinated) artichoke hearts on the base, cover with monterey jack cheese and pour on the filling, made with eggs, cream and cottage cheese, pureed with cayenne and paprika.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Yogurt of the gods

While living in England I once said, only half in jest, that I would not return to Canada until they started selling Greek yogurt. Circumstances beyond my control made me break my vow, but I still think it was a good one to aim for. There is nothing like Greek yogurt. It is smooth and luscious and may be partly cream; the ewe's milk version is far milder and creamier than anything made of goat's milk. Traditionally it was made in porous ceramic pots which allowed the whey to leak out, leaving a thick yogurt, something between other yogurt and cream cheese. Greek varieties made with ewe’s milk contain about 5% milkfat, and cow’s milk yogurts contain 9% (as opposed to whole-milk yogurts in this country which have around 3.5%). You can try to make your own with this recipe. Fage Total Greek yogurt is my gold standard.

There is a legendary restaurant in London called Moro, serving Spanish and North African cuisine, and which has produced a couple of excellent cookbooks, first Moro: The Cookbook and then Casa Moro, which is mostly Spanish food. I have the first one, and in it I found a fabulous recipe for Leek and yogurt soup with dried mint. Lacking the Greek yogurt the recipe calls for, I used Jersey Farms 5% yogurt. Whatever you do, don't use skim milk yogurt if you're making this as it won't have the right silky texture. The egg and flour mixed with the yogurt stabilise it and keep it from curdling, but it will separate if you over-heat it. The caramelised butter (a lot like the black butter in my skate recipe) is important too, as it really adds something to the flavour, which is mild and elusive. Don't use fresh mint as it would be too.. minty. Here's a slightly modified version of the Moro recipe (to serve four):
1-1/2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp olive oil
2 large or 4 medium leeks, trimmed, washed and sliced thinly
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dried mint
1 egg
1 tsp flour
1-1/2 cups (350g) good thick full-fat yogurt
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
caramelised butter (2 tbsp butter heated slowly just until the white bits turn golden)
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium heat, melt butter in olive oil. Stir in the leeks and cook for 10 minutes. Add the paprika and dried mint and continue cooking gently, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are soft and sweet. Meanwhile, whisk the egg with the flour until a smooth paste is formed. Add the yogurt and thin with the water or stock. Pour over the leeks and heat gently until nearly bubbling. When hot, remove from heat and drizzle with caramelised butter.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Better than a sandwich

Stuffed peppers are usually cooked, but a long time ago I had a relative of this excellent raw lunch/snack and here is my version, which will stuff two small/medium bell peppers. I recommend red or orange as I prefer the sweetness. Gets a bit gooey if it has to travel, but will survive reasonably well till lunchtime if you refrigerate it. Or you can pack the stuffing separately from the pepper and stuff it when you are ready to eat. It makes a good sandwich filling or spread for toasted English muffins too.
1 medium carrot (about 3/4 cup) grated
3-4 oz cheddar cheese (about 1 cup) grated
1 small green onion, minced (optional)
1/2 rib of celery (about 1/3 cup) diced
1/3 cup mayonnaise, or to taste: just enough to glue everything together
Salt and pepper to taste
An interesting side note about peppers. Bell peppers contain a recessive gene which eliminates capsaisin, the compound responsible for the ‘hotness’ found in other peppers. Capsaisin is the active ingredient in some topical analgesics used for arthritis treatment, such as Capzasin-P.

Caryl Churchill's play, A Number, is playing at the Belfry in Victoria at the moment. Her most famous play, Top Girls, is being broadcast on Saturday as the BBC Saturday Play. Worth a listen, and available for a week after broadcast.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mslexia, Kathleen Jamie and the University of Gastronomic Sciences

Just got my copy of the Apr/May/Jun issue of Mslexia. The annual poetry competition closes April 28, so you might squeeze in if you hurry. The theme for the next issue is Travellers' Tales, and the one after that I'm sure will speak to a lot of us here on the Wet Coast this year: Rain. The Making a Poem column this issue features the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie:
"I don't believe in writer's block. I think you write the things that are given to you to write and then you wait for the next thing that is given to you to write. In between are what we must call fallow periods. That's the only word for it. I hate the idea of flogging yourself in production, producing stuff for the sake of it."
Meanwhile, I've been thinking about going back to school and getting another master's degree. The University of Gastronomic Sciences offers one in Food Culture: Communicating Quality Products. Based in Italy, the program includes rigorous field seminars to learn about the production of the best foods and wines of Italy, France, Spain and Northern Europe. Sounds like a worthy academic goal, no? The price tag, room, lunches and travel abroad included, is a trifling 21,000 Euros, or just a sliver of prosciutto under $30,000 Canadian. Well, we have till July to stew on it.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Suet, treacle and some other things

Canadians who have acquired British cookbooks may sometimes need to know equivalent ingredients or measurements. Here's a site that offers quite a bit of information, although not an answer to the question that still stumps me: what in a Canadian grocery store can equate to shredded suet for making mincemeats, dumplings, pastries and puddings? The suet offered by grocers in Victoria when I asked included bird suet (studded with birdseed!) and chunks of fat pared from beef cuts.

The official word on suet as sold in England is that it is made by grating the hard white fat which surrounds the kidneys, although there is also a vegetarian version, which according to the label is made of hydrogenated vegetable oil, wheat flour, sunflower oil, pectin and sugar. Lard and shortening are the wrong consistency: too soft and greasy. I haven't experimented to see if they actually work in the finished product, though. I did find mention that hard coconut fat might be the answer. Further experimentation clearly needed in this area. Stay tuned.

Or apparently I can order vegetable suet through A Bit of Home, which happily is based in Toronto so no issues with customs, GST and duty. Everything from self-raising flour to jelly cubes to PG Tips pyramid teabags. Disappointing not to see Cornish Wafers, or Mackerel in brine which are - besides the cheese, the yogurt, the stunning produce selection, the extravagant selections of cream, of marmalade and of sugar - among the things I miss most about living in London.

I must make a return visit to the lonely little UK shelf in Market on Yates, which stocks a similar selection to A Bit of Home. I scored a 500g jar of Marmite there last year for around $18 - which is still cheaper and easier than flying over and slogging back with it in the overwrought luggage.

In The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You, Paul Farley painted a memorable portrait of black treacle, loosely equivalent to molasses in North America (I'm happy to see that Treacle also appears in New British Poetry):

Funny to think you can still buy it now,
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.
When you lever the lid it opens with a sigh
and you're face-to-face with history.
By that I mean the unstable pitch black
you're careful not to spill, like mercury

that doesn't give any reflection back,
that gets between the cracks of everything
and holds together the sandstone and bricks
of our museums and art galleries...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Chicken salad and the mysteries of poetic craft

In a weak moment I bought one of those pre-barbecued chickens, basted in salt and lathered with a toxic red substance. Still, it left me with enough cold chicken for a good old chicken salad, a food that - like tuna casserole - was mysteriously absent from my upbringing and which I have embraced in later life. Here's a perfectly straightforward recipe, based on one from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook:
2 cups cooked chicken, skinned and chopped
1 chopped green onion
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp plain yogurt
1 tbsp wine vinegar
Salt and ground pepper to taste
Combine mayonnaise, yogurt and vinegar and blend well; add seasonings. Toss chicken, onion and celery with dressing until well mixed. Serve as a salad, on a bed of greens, or as a sandwich filling, on toasted English muffins. Why mess with simplicity? Have it with a lovely bowl of Edamame, drizzled with sesame oil and dusted with salt.

It hardly needs saying that Mark Strand is not a chicken, or a salad, nor even simple, but interesting to know he is Canadian-born (PEI). I first came across his name as co-editor (with Eavan Boland) of the form poetry anthology, The Making of a Poem. He's also published a handy little book of essays on poetry called The Weather of Words. I'm finding it heavy going, but there are always moments in any such collection, and so I soldier on. I thought this, from the start of Notes on the Craft of Poetry, was an interesting take on it:
"Each poem demands that I treat it differently from the rest, come to terms with it, seek out its own best beginning and ending. And yet I would be kidding myself if I believed that nothing continuous existed in the transactions between myself and my poems. I suppose this is what we mean by craft: those transactions that become so continuous we not only associate ourselves with them but allow them to represent the means by which we make art… To a large extent these transactions I have chosen to call craft are the sole property of the individual poet and cannot be transferred to or adopted by others. One reason for this is that they are largely unknown at the time of writing and are discovered afterwards, if at all."
He quotes Orwell's rules of good writing, and questions whether these or any rules can really be applied to poetry: "For the poems that are of greatest value are those that inevitably, unselfconsciously break rules..."

His argument against craft is that it cannot work as a defining or diagnostic concept, because poetry "cannot be understood so much as absorbed." He seems to be an advocate for mystery, arguing that we not attempt to impose a structure on the process of creating poems, because to do that is to imply a common purpose for poetry, which it eludes, because a poem's purpose " not disclosure or storytelling or the telling of a daydream; nor is a poem a symptom. A poem is itself and is the act by which it is born. It is self-referential and is not necessarily preceded by any known order, except that of other poems."

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Skating into form

I spent some time excavating my magazine basket, and came across a copy of The Writer's Chronicle from December 2004. I must have picked it up at the Vancouver AWP conference. There was an interview in it with Annie Finch, talking about her shift from free verse to form, a transition she says took her 20 years to make.
"I wanted to be challenged more deeply as a poet, by a more profound kind of anguage resistance, and in the end I found only form could offer me that. I got tired of feeling that the content was overpowering the words themselves; I wanted more 'opacity,' to use Charles Bertstein's term."
She began using form while doing her MFA in Creative Writing, in spite of rather than because of the guidance she found there:
"...people kept saying, 'this poem would be a lot better if you wrote it in free verse.' But I was set on training myself to use form well, so I just kept on with it."
She has several different strategies for choosing a form for a particular poem:
"When a line drifts into my head, I often recognize it as a certain meter or sense that it would be a good refrain line for a certain form, or a good chant line or part of a final couplet, that sense of where it might fit can be part of the sense it gives me. So, often the poem brings the structure with it… But sometimes it's the opposite, especially with a form I am not very familiar with yet: a poem will bug me for years, and it just won't be finished, until finally I hammer or coerce it, or let myself be coerced by it, into its right shape… And there's a third way too. I am not one of those poets who turn up their noses at the idea of using a particular structure on purpose; the shape of some of my favorite poems came first. For example, when I wrote A Carol for Carolyn for Carolyn Kizer… I wanted to write a carol for obvious reason, and I wanted it to be in amphibrachs before I even started, because that was the hardest meter I knew and I wanted to write her something special."
A pressing engagement to hunt Easter eggs yesterday, followed by a beautiful lamb dinner, meant I only had lunch to cope with, having been wallowing in blueberry muffins since breakfast. I was startled to find a fresh skate wing in my local grocery store, which got me thinking about the last time I'd had skate in black butter, which must have been about six years ago, at my only visit to Sheekey's: a memorable meal -- and not cheap. (We even got to do a little celebrity spotting, because Janet Street-Porter was dining there that night.) Skate is the perfect fish: delicate, easy to cook, and, for all intents, boneless. Even the recipe was easy to find. So to complicate life a little bit, and because my rosemary bushes are in full bloom and begging to be used, I also made a lemon risotto which I spiked with a handful of asparagus, just because it's spring.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Knedliky, muffins and poetry from Manchester to Newcastle

Susan tells me that Rick was preparing a giant Czech dumpling (knedliky) for supper last night. Lucky them! I remember it well: thick, fragrant and delightfully absorbent slices accompanied some of the lovely meat specialties I had on a couple of trips to Prague, and many more were lurking in the kitchens of the Czech and Slovak Club that was so conveniently situated at the end of my street in London.

What is it about soft doughy substances... I've had a week of struggles with muffins. Made my third batch today after failures with apple muffins from the Steinbeck House cookbook a week ago (dry and hard), lemon poppyseed muffins from an internet recipe yesterday (flopped hideously over the rims of the muffin cups). This morning we returned to old faithful, blueberry muffins from the good old New Recipes from Moosewood, and - at last - success. Not perfection, but sweet, warm, edible success.

I came across Michael Schmidt's Stanza lecture yesterday. His Lives of the Poets is not so much littering as landscaping my personal wasteland of unread works: it is one book that you can honestly say, before you've even opened it, has real stature. Apparently last year's Neil Astley lecture was believed to be at least partially directed at Schmidt, the Mexican-born founder and publisher of Manchester-based literary journal PN Review, and of Carcanet, which is certainly a very different press than Newcastle's Bloodaxe. Two worlds of opinion in two northern cities.

While enjoying both sides of the argument, I do have a lot more Carcanet on my shelves than Bloodaxe, and the reasons include Gillian Clarke, Eavan Boland, Sujata Bhatt, Les Murray and Elizabeth Jennings.

But I also cherish a number of titles from Bloodaxe: Ken Smith's Wild Root, collections by Carol Rumens, Stephen Knight, Helen Dunmore. Not to forget Peter Sansom's Writing Poems and Astley's own Staying Alive.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A different kind of Easter egg

I found a recipe of a different kind for a different kind of appetite. Poor old Anton was scratching away after he returned from a perhaps too cozy weekend with some other dogs when I was away in Campbell River. So I thought, maybe fleas, and looked up some home remedies (the flea collar wasn't cutting it, although he's keeping it on as I do NOT like pulling ticks out of dogs' faces, no I do not) . (Be careful when using remedies with borax, by the way, as you don't want dogs or children rolling in or ingesting that.)

My absolute favourite was the cure where you place a dish of water in the flea-ridden room, switch off the lights, and place a candle in the dish, the idea being that the fleas will jump towards the light, fall in the water and drown. There was something heroic and tragic in the idea that really appealed to me, but I don't think it works. Maybe I wasn't playing the right music?

My, has it only been a decade? The Heather Robinson copyright case is coming up for re-hearing by the Supreme Court of Canada. It feels like it's been going on all my life. The case seeks to help freelance writers retain copyright on their works, and to obtain payment if their works are sold again by the publisher. It began when Heather Robertson sold first serial rights to a story, and the newspaper without further payment or permission included the story on its digital (online database) services, which re-sell published pieces.

On Sunday April 16, 8 am, CBC North by Northwest host Sheryl McKay will interview Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, editors of In Fine Form.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Toasting poetry

Just sitting around adding a layer of cookbooks to the layer of poetry books on my desk. A gift from the gods -- well, from Susan in Calgary really -- arrived in my mailbox yesterday: the gastro-biography Toast, by that most laid back of the British celebrity chefs Nigel Slater. Pretentious is certainly not a word you could use about someone who describes his mother's chronically burnt toast thus:
"It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten."
Meanwhile I peruse recipes of a non-toasty nature as I have been smitten myself by an insane plan to cater my own book launch. Will I never learn? I think it was finding a caterer who charged $69 for a smoked salmon cheesecake that unhinged me. So I and my crispy assistant Miss Vicky will take care of things.

I've picked up another half-read book. This time it's the always unpredictable and hugely successful anthology Staying Alive, edited by Bloodaxe's own Neil Astley (check out his controversial lecture, Guile, Bile and Dangerous to Poetry). I was surprised - favourably - to discover Gwendolyn MacEwan among the contributors; and Anne Michaels, P.K. Page, and lots (7 poems!) of Alden Nowlan. One or two of the section introductions are more confusing than the poems -- I have long been baffled by Astley's assertion that Elizabeth Bishop's Chemin de Fer could "be read as a 'coded' account of female masturbation." Huh?!? Still, the poems themselves are ones to be grateful for and it is a wonderfully broad selection.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Blues-oriented form fiends may like to check out the latest Paul Reddick cd, Villanelle. I heard him interviewed a while back, but wasn't paying full attention at the time; it seems to me he said that many (all?) of the songs on the album incorporated formal elements from poetry, but I haven't been able to find that interview or any corroborating evidence.

And that somewhat predictably brings me to Dylan Thomas, whose Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, for his dying father, remains the most stunning villanelle I've ever heard.

Two years ago today - it was the morning of Easter Monday - my own dad passed away. Here he is, sailing for London.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Purdy, Pinsent, prosody and apostles

Al Purdy's very topical just now. Not only is his Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems, 1962-1996 up for Canada Reads , the CBC is airing a documentary about him called "Yours, Al" this coming Thursday, April 13, on CBC Television's Opening Night. The show stars Gordon Pinsent as Al Purdy and is on at 8 pm local time across Canada.

Meanwhile, I've wantonly picked up yet another book to browse. The house is pretty well carpeted with half-read books on prosody and form these days. Annie Finch, in her new collection of essays, The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form and the Poetic Self , kicks off and out with a chapter on metric diversity, arguing against the championing of iambic pentameter as the premier English meter. "The use of the single label 'iambic' to include lines in other meters, she says, "…may prove to erase what it assumes to include, just as the generic use of the pronoun 'he' - said to include females - arguably erases female presence."

With Easter coming, English cooks are busy making Simnel Cake, pretty much just a fruit cake with marzipan topping, but something virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Apparently its roots lie in another English holiday, Mothering Sunday, which takes place in March. Serving girls were permitted to visit their mothers on this day and the practice was to bring a simnel cake to prove how clever they were (if they made a good one, it would stay moist and tasty till Easter). Its presence at the Easter meal has to do with the 11 marzipan balls that decorate the top, representing all the Apostles except Judas. Perhaps with the new evidence that surfaced last week we can bring the numbers back to an even 12...


Monday, April 10, 2006

The poetry of job loss

One more note on "luminous" as a poetry cliché: I would like to plead special exemption for Edward Lear, who wins my prize for the best use of luminous in a poem title: The Dong With the Luminous Nose.

A little more comment on Canada House, from the Guardian. I've been thinking about why I feel it so personally? Not only are the cuts harmful to the eternally under-funded world of Canadian culture, and not only is it tiresome to see what appears to be yet another new government thinking cultural funding is a conveniently disposable column in the spreadsheet - when as the Guardian article demonstrates, it benefits Canada's cultural reputation in ways that go beyond the simply fiscal. But firing people to save money is also just a bad thing for those left behind, forced to try to do more with less, after having just witnessed the disposal of their colleagues.

I was really struck by a CBC Sunday Edition interview with Henry Mintzberg a couple of months ago. He talked about how the heads of organizations are axing not just people but corporate culture and corporate loyalty when they impose economic efficiency without regard for the long term health of the organization. While the big guys cycle through the corporate stratosphere collecting their multi-figure salaries and fiscal incentives, those beneath them are left picking up the pieces and selling themselves on to the highest bidder, because rounds of cost-cutting firings have taught them their experience and their knowledge of their organizations are no longer valued.

When you lose your job, you will be appalled by the swiftness with which a judgment can be made between your years of company-specific experience and skills on the one hand, and your salary on the other. More than that, you discover the obscene vocabulary that has been invented to mask the cruelty and destructiveness of the process. I actually heard someone remark - after the first unannounced round of firings in our company - that it had been a necessary and positive move, because it had eliminated "deadwood". This person had actually hired some of the people who lost their jobs, after a dozen years of service or more. That remark showed me in a single sentence how the company I joined had ceased to be.
Call them
deadwood, downsized or first ones out;
right-sized, rationalized and repositioned;
call them someone we used to work with,
yesterday’s friends bent over their desks
filling shopping bags with coffee mugs
and office tat.

Computer screens gone blind, they are
erased already from the network, relieved
of their keys and shown the exit: dehired,
excessed, and made redundant...
from Survivors, in Cartography)

All fired up now? Canadian poet-workers might like to check out the poetry competition at Living Work.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Hail to the Queen

From the incomparable 1955 edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook - its pages starting to scallop at the edges, spine restored long ago with silver duct tape - and with a little customization, one of my mother's triumphs: Queen of Puddings.
For pudding:
1 qt. milk
2 cups 2‑day old bread in 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup raisins, plumped in hot tea, sherry or spiced water for half an hour
2 eggs plus 2 yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp vanilla
4 tbsp melted butter/margarine
For topping:
2 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup blackcurrant or other fruit jelly
  • Heat oven to 350f. Grease 1‑1/2 quart casserole. In double boiler, heat milk until tiny bubbles appear around edges. Remove from heat; stir in bread cubes; set aside.
  • Break 2 eggs and 2 yolks into casserole; beat lightly with fork. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar, salt, nutmeg, vanilla, melted butter then fold in bread/milk mixture.
  • Set casserole in baking pan and place it in the oven. Fill the pan with warm water to 1 inch from top of casserole.
  • Bake, uncovered, 34‑50 minutes. Remove from oven.
  • Beat the egg whites until they form peaks; slowly add 1/4 cup sugar, beating till stiff.
  • Spread the jelly on the top of the pudding and then heap the beaten whites on top of that.
    Bake in pan of warm water 12‑15 minutes more, until the meringue is golden. Serve warm or cold.
  • Alternatively, heap the beaten whites/sugar directly on the pudding, leaving impressions in each serving. When you serve the pudding, put a dab of jelly in each impression.
I do not know of any poems already written about or featuring bread pudding, let alone queen of puddings, but if you try this recipe it may drive you to verse. The blessed Delia (I've just read that she baked the very cake seen on the cover of the Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed!) makes a version in individual ramekins, which is worth looking at if only to see how beautiful a dish it is.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Lady Sara

A year ago this week we lost our lovely Sara: Australian Shepherdess extraordinaire, aged 16.

...your gaze could cure
multitudes, the silk of your head
soothe any worry.
You teach us to taste
each morning as if it’s our first.

And day after day you lie
near my feet, dreaming and fixed
on some distant thing that is, at last,
outrunning you.

Last night we went to Alix Goolden Hall to see/hear a Ballet BC performance of the impossibly lovely Stabat Mater by Pergolesi . I hadn't realised till I was home reading my cd liner notes that Pergolesi died at 26, and this was possibly his last composition. Quite a finale. In the recording I have, a countertenor, Michael Chance, sings the alto which is extraordinary, and it was recorded at Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead (London) by The King's Consort, who play period instruments. "Forty minutes of undiluted peace" said one of the Amazon reviewers.

Off to dine with the relatives tonight, and I'm bringing dessert. Thank you Delia Smith (and my apple tree) for Baked Apple and Almond Pudding.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Next year in West Chester

I have been looking with longing at the program for the 12th Annual West Chester University Poetry Conference: Exploring Form and Narrative. Among the offerings are workshops on rhyme with Dick Davis, meter with Timothy Steele, a master class with Mark Jarman, and a keynote address by James Fenton, who is also interviewed by Dana Gioia. Alas I can't fit it in this year, but perhaps I can make the thirteenth edition next year. Never been to Pennsylvania...

Back here on the Coast, I was minding my own business on Tuesday afternoon… well, to be truthful I was engaged in some anguished last minute edits of my poems for the final Form in Poetry class, when the phone rang and Peg said: so, we've just got some fresh crab, want to come over and help us eat it? I dithered for a number of seconds, remembering several ill-starred occasions under the sign of the crab back in my Edmonton days. Then I thought, well, maybe it was a passing thing. Maybe it was bad frozen crab crossed with too many libations. Maybe it was just time to give it another try. So I brought along a quiche lorraine for a back-up, but the crab was fresh and simple, boiled in salt water, needing nothing but a nice bit of french bread and salad. And it went well with gin! The best news was that I suffered no ill-effects at all, so that strikes off the only food I've ever believed I was allergic, or at least intolerant to. I am grateful.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Luminous shards

There is a word that has filtered into the collective consciousness of British poets, as memorably discussed in Peter Sansom's enduring how-to text, Writing Poems, which first appeared in 1994, in a discussion about poetry clichés:

"Writers use them to try and lift flagging poems -- hoping they will inject...emotional resonance. They do the reverse."

He quotes Pound saying "one of poetry's functions is to 'keep the tools clean'... Using poetry clichés ultimately blunts the tools."

His overtaxed word of choice is "shards", one that I think is scarce in Canadian poetry. But I would like to nominate the word "luminous" for this decade's hit list, a word which seems to be shining rather too brightly out of every other poem - particularly American ones - I've read in the last year. It's a bit too… *poetic* to resist calling attention to itself; the poems I've seen it in seem to lean rather hard on it, and now I wince when I see it. It does appear a lot in reviews as well. A shame, as it's a nice word. But it's getting tired. Let's give it a rest shall we? Anyone have a nomination for Canada's most worn-out poetry word?

Rice is a fine word, one that can never be over-used in my cookbooks. And Kheer is one of my favourite desserts, a richer, runnier version of rice pudding, fragrant with cardamom, so good I have been known to eat it for breakfast. In my version, you forget the rosewater; substitute 2 percent / semi-skimmed milk for all or most of the cream; and add a third of a cup of golden raisins to the milk mixture when you add the rice.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Shriiink-wrapping culture & all about oats

So, the latest word is that the Cultural Section at Canada House is being 'restructured'; our previous five representatives in performing arts and music, film and television, the visual arts and literature, have all been made redundant. Two new appointments will be made in Public Affairs, with responsibility for the entire cultural program.

On the one hand it's a relief to know the program is not gone, but on the other hand, five experienced, well-connected and knowledgeable people have been jettisoned in favour of two new generalists. These are not interchangeable bolts that can be plugged in and out of a program, but dedicated employees taking their years of collective experience out the door with them. What a shocking waste.

Taking comfort in food and poetry then.

Madeleine sent me a stunning wee poem by Alden Nowlan, after we talked about the difficulties of making meaningful lives for our aged relatives. It's called Aunt Jane, and it begins…

Aunt Jane of whom I dreamed the nights it thundered,
was dead at ninety, buried at a hundred.
We kept her corpse a decade, hid upstairs,
where it ate porridge, slept and said its prayers.
Speaking of porridge, I was interested to learn when I lived in Britain that there the word is used to mean any hot cereal, almost always oatmeal. But here in Canada, or at least as I understand it, porridge means hot cereal made of rolled oats. Our understanding of oatmeal is different too: what Brits call oatmeal we might mistake for oat bran, as it's more finely ground than ours. And our distinction over use of the word porridge itself may be because we have so many commercially available hot cereals to choose from: Cream of Wheat, Sunny Boy, and my personal favourite Red River Cereal. Not to mention variations made with cornmeal, semolina and any combination of dried grains.

Continuing in this starchy vein, here's an easy and simple sauce for pasta or better yet gnocchi, my current favourite comfort food. In a roasting pan, drizzle 3 garlic cloves (not peeled) and 2 large shallots, peeled and halved or quartered, with a tbsp of olive oil and salt and pepper and then roast for 20-25 minutes at 400, turning often, till golden brown. While you're waiting, pan fry half a diced zucchini in olive oil till golden and set aside. Squeeze out the garlic and pop it with the shallots into a blender or food processor; whizz together with 1 large tin tomatoes with juices, 6 chopped basil leaves or 1/2 tsp dried basil, and 1 tsp balsamic vinegar. Sieve it so it's smooth, and heat gently in a saucepan for about 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Add the zucchini; heat through, season to taste, add 1 tbsp olive oil and serve over hot cooked gnocchi or pasta.


Monday, April 03, 2006

We don't want no cultural representation

As I have been making regular visits to the UK since I stopped living there in '02, I thought I'd let Ruth Petrie, for many years now our esteemed and capable literature officer at Canada House in London, know that I had a new book in print, and see if I could perhaps arrange a reading for next year's visit. We launched my last collection, Old Habits, at Canada House in 1993.

So, on this the first day of Canada's new parliamentary session, I was sickened to receive an auto-reply from Ruth, advising correspondents that "We in the Cultural section have, as of 3 April, been given redundancy notice. "

So much for the High Commission's mandate to represent us in "Canada's most important cultural export market in Europe and second only to the United States in the world.."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spreading the Word

For more than a year now I've been dipping into Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry which was one of last year's great finds at the AWP conference in Vancouver. It's a collection of essays by poetry editors of American literary journals published back in 2001. Though not many of the titles will be familiar to Canadian readers, it is enduring and enlightening reading for anyone submitting poems to literary journals anywhere. The big message that comes through here is the amazing volume of submissions the American editors must plough through to find gold. I'd be interested to know how Canadian submission figures compare: anyone out there know?

For example: the then editor of the (somewhat presumptuously named) North American Review, poet Peter Cooley, said he received about twelve thousand poems a year, all of which he read, before choosing the fifty (yes 50) he could publish per year. And that was at least five years ago, so I'd guess the numbers have been elevating since then. Think on them numbers, folks, while you are gazing bleakly upon yet another photocopied rejection slip, and try to feel a little sympathy for the editors and readers at these publications.

On the editor's side, he comments bleakly
"...writing the cover letter appears the major creative act for a poet. Yes, life is tough, we know that. But to hear of the author's abusive parent, recovery through therapy, botched career, tedious job, demanding children, broken dishwasher or car or toilet, dying parent, dead kitten, impotent husband, rat-infested bar, or frigid wife is not to claim my attention…"
Geez. Obviously I have been needlessly terse in my cover letters if this is what other poets have been sending in.

The other thing I've enjoyed about reading this collection is the sample poems each editor chooses to illustrate points of taste; none of the poets included is familiar to me, but the poems, which the editors in some cases discuss in light of their selection process, are enlightening and often dazzling.

There's also mention of editorial meetings where each shortlisted poem is presented and discussed and argued over before being selected. Certainly I had never given much thought to the passion that the selection process can inspire in editorial staff: neither do the rather businesslike form letters that announce most acceptances give us much insight into that realm of things. Anyway, it makes me feel almost privileged to be kept waiting by a journal if I can imagine that the delay is due to my poems being read so closely and passionately (and not just lost in a pile of unread stuff somewhere on someone's desk).

Most of the editors say that they can tell on first reading if there's anything there for them, so a swift rejection is much worse in some ways than a long-postponed one, though it's all the more clear from all the editors that their tastes are subjective, so we still have that to cling to.

For the prose writers out there, there's a fiction version available too: The Whole Story: Editors on Fiction.

On a rather different note, Mary shared this strange Japanese video the other day, which shows you how to peel a potato, and I think it deserves a wider viewing public. I confess to being rather disturbed, however, by the image of mashing what must be a pretty cold spud after its polar dip.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Black Moss in Spice City

It was a Black Moss kind of night last night. Heard Paul Vasey and Marty Gervais at Mocambo, and had a chance to wave my new book around. Paul had just recovered from laryngitis and a wicked cold but he read well from his novel Last Labour of the Heart, published by Marty's Black Moss Press of Windsor, whence hails our new favourite CBC morning show host. Marty showed off his design and photography skills with his letterpress book Taking My Blood, and read from his new collection Wait for Me, also published by Black Moss.

A couple of nice 'n spicy lunches with ladies this week. We were going to attempt a novelty lunch at the Provincial legislature restaurant, but we were a little late since they close it to the public at 11:30 when the house is in session, and there were a couple of bus tours downstairs taking up space, so we wandered off in search of something else.

Our sure-footed local expert Aurelie took us by the noses and led us to Santiago's, a bright happy Thai, Mexican and tapas place; lively in the evenings and fills up for lunch. It's only a block or so from the legislature, tucked away on Belleville. We got to perch up above the crowd in a booth, while the spring daylight streamed in through the conservatory-like front of the restaurant.The menu includes tapas items which actually seemed large enough for main courses: Thai red curry with shredded squash looked and was confirmed to be amazing; chicken quesadilla is said to be a reliably good standby; and my beef burger with jalapeno relish was very good indeed.

I've walked past The Reef a zillion times, as it's next door to the Yates Street parkade where I often park when visiting Ferris' Oyster Bar directly opposite. I discovered the room is deceptively deep inside and equipped with several comfy booths, each with their own mechanical fish tanks which grind a little strangely in your ear as you read the menu. I'd never had roti, and wondered what it was like, so had one filled with Jerk Chicken, a dark spicy mixture that soaked nicely into the flatbread wrapper. (So the answer is, it's like spicy stuff in a flat bread, and it works!) It came with a fairly bland coleslaw - which was ok given the spice in the roti. I allowed myself to be talked into a noontime Mojito which went a little too well with everything else. We had some plantain chips to start with and enjoyed dabbling them lightly in the spicy Caribbean hot sauce.

Back home, in milder mood, I made a rhubarb custard pie the other night… yum… My recipe also called for a tablespoon of orange peel and a quarter tsp of cloves. You can cover it with a lattice if you like, but it is fine as a single crust.