Two months and a bit into it, the #todayspoem inspiration is still going strong. Check the hashtag any day of the week – and at any time of the day, for that matter – and you’ll see that a core of regular contributors from around the world are starting, ending or pausing in their days to savour and contemplate a good poem, and then share it with others. There are more than 70 contributors sharing their #todayspoem selections daily or periodically – I’ve captured them in a Twitter list.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m amazed every day at what #todayspoem contributors are reading and sharing. I faithfully bookmark/favourite the #todayspoem tweets and go back at every opportunity to explore the links, videos, pictures of pages taken straight from volumes, knowing that I’m going to be dazzled, amused and moved anew. I have this lovely feeling, too, that for every person sending out a thoughtful #todayspoem tweet every day or every week, there are even more people quietly reading, enjoying and reflecting on the poems we’re sending out into the ether.
I’m still experimenting with ways of archiving and showcasing all the #todayspoem selections, with links to texts and more information about the poets, poetry collections and publishers. Once I’ve got that figured out for my own selections, I’d also love to be able to find a way to aggregate all contributions in one place, if possible. Anyhow, this month, I started gathering and “pinning” my poems on Pinterest. What do you think?
I’m thrilled to welcome another guest book reviewer to the Bookgaga blog. Braydon Beaulieu is a graduate student in English (Creative Writing) at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. He’s not just a keen observer and examiner of the potential of creative writing in all its forms, but he’s an engaged and talented wordsmith himself. Follow his lively Twitter feed @BraydonBeaulieu to see where words will take him next.
I finished Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros and immediately thought to myself, “How in the world am I going to review this novel without simply gushing uncontrollably?”
Monoceros is magical. Amazing. Any number of happy, shiny adjectives I could think up. It gallops out of the gates from first line, “Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker,” and doesn’t slow down until the last. This is a novel about ripples spreading through a fictionalised Calgary after the suicide of Patrick Furey, a gay teenager at a Catholic school. It is furious, it is in shock, it is in tears, it doesn’t care – won’t care – about Patrick Furey and his empty desk in English class. “So he killed himself,” thinks Petra, the girlfriend of Patrick’s secret boyfriend, Ginger. “So sad. Too bad. Now he’ll stop molesting her boyfriend. So glad. All she did was say she was going to rip his dick off.”
For a novel whose subject matter predisposes melodrama and didacticism, Monoceros remains unsentimental. The first chapter, “The End,” details the becauses of Patrick’s suicide, culminating in his death. For the rest of the novel, he’s gone. This is not a novel about teen suicide, not really. This is a novel about the people who live on. Maureen Mochinski (née Rule)’s inability to pry her mind from her divorce, to remember the dead student’s name. Faraday Michaels’s regret over having not struck up a conversation over iced cappuccinos and her wish that her parents would stop “fornicating all over the house.” Ginger lying in bed as he “noses his fingers for just one ghost of Furey’s perfume.” Walter, the school guidance counsellor, and Max, the principal who’s also Walter’s secret lover. Patrick’s parents. Classmates. These characters who constitute the novel – they are Mayr’s focus, rather than plot. Monoceros is about people colliding and breaking against each other in the wake of tragedy, and learning about themselves as they glue the pieces together.
The novel successfully navigates the way Patrick’s suicide washes over the school. Walter, for example, knows he could have done something to help, could have given the boy an attentive ear: “Walter snared by another circle, layers and layers of concentric circles, till they touch each harsh point on the curve. He didn’t do his job. He failed that dead boy.” Walter’s reaction to Patrick’s suicide speaks to his feelings about his own sexuality. The tension of the novel hinges on the secrecy in which people who identify as homosexual are forced to live and love in a poisonously Catholic environment (not that each and every Catholic environment is poisonous; I’m speaking specifically of the one in this novel). The relationship between Max and Walter mirrors that of Patrick and Ginger: they have kept it secret for seventeen years, terrified of losing their jobs because of their sexuality. This theme, of course, questions the demonising of non-heterosexuality. Ginger unable to come out publicly, his head guidance counsellor and principal obligated to hide their relationship for nearly two decades. Secrecy is what tears at their skin, clamps down on their lungs. Secrecy forced by an environment that views them as sinners for a choice that isn’t a choice. Patrick’s suicide shoves those around him into confrontation with their secrets. The multiple characters that Monoceros follows demonstrate how people inscribe others’ deaths onto their own lives. Walter, regretful. Max, thankful it didn’t happen on school property. Petra wants her sweater back, the one she gave Ginger and then Ginger gave Patrick. Faraday, hopeful, believing unicorns can unleash happiness for the people who surround her, heal the hurt with their alicorns. But for the whole novel, she waits for their arrival in vain. Monoceros does not give its characters a way out; life is about moving up and in, or laying on the couch smoking pot and watching Sector Six, like Patrick’s parents end up.
The detail with which Mayr explores her characters is astounding. Her use of language is poetic and affecting, and it cuts to visceral details. One particularly effective stylistic maneuver is the obituary column – Mayr establishes the familiar form of the newspaper obituary as a method of detailing characters’ opinions of Patrick and each other. By the end of the novel this gets resignified because the form of the obit is applied to regular narrative; Mayr recasts her characters’ narratives as post-mortem flashbacks. This resignification works well because it serves as a reminder, through blending previously distinct forms, that death is inevitable (sorry for the cliché phrase), and narrative continues after death. Words live on. This continuation resonates with the characters of Monoceros, who continue to live out their stories after the suicide of Patrick Furey, in the best way they know how. Some of them stumble. Some of them gallop free. But all of them will stay with you long after you’ve tucked away the book.
Although it made the most noise and seemed to garner the most attention, the big story was not harsh, borderline slanderous words thrown out as calculated debate tactics by one panelist to two authors whose books were in contention for the winner of this year’s Canada Reads competition. While distracting, that provocation (if you must and haven’t, you can learn more here) thankfully turned out to be something of a sideshow to the much bigger story: that a finale perfectly capturing the fabric of today’s Canada was triumphantly executed with exemplary and quintessential Canadian finesse.
If you missed it, the final round for winner of Canada Reads 2012 pitted the book Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, a story of Chilean refugees in the Pinochet era in the early 1980s, defended by award winning hip hop artist Shad, against The Game by Ken Dryden, a both wide reaching and personal reflection on Canada’s national game from one of its most revered players, defended by actor, songwriter and TV show host Alan Thicke. Hmm, “pitted” sounds like a heated conflict. It generated heat in that the final defenders and the remaining panelists waxed heartfelt and poetic about the inspiring themes in both books, but that heat was warmth, not the more ephemeral sparks of gamesmanship. That collegial and respectful coming together at the end exemplified many of the Canadian values that this annual “battle of the books” culminates in exploring every year. And as finalist Shad remarked at the outset of the final day’s discussions, it was “hair splitting” at that point to crown any of the books a titular winner.
It was remarks like that that also highlighted one of the greatest delights of the entire debate series. Book defender Shad embodied diplomacy and grace throughout the proceedings. He not only courteously acknowledged the views of his competing book defenders, but found regular opportunities (not just ones dictated by specific questions from the moderator, Jian Ghomeshi) to sincerely and evenhandedly praise the other books with a level of knowledge and detail that spoke to his studious reading of and supplementary to the entire finalist list. (He admitted in an off-camera chat after one of the debates that he was reading up on other Ken Dryden books, ostensibly for more debate fodder, but clearly for sheer interest and enjoyment, too.)
There were wonderful contrasts and symmetries produced by the final pairing of Something Fierce and The Game, dichotomies that simply would not have been put in such intriguing relief if the final two were, say, Something Fierce and Prisoner of Tehran (two books both about daunting new Canadian experiences), or The Game and On a Cold Road (paeans to Canadian cultural icons firmly rooted in this country). The contrasts and, in essence, the yin and yang of the final two books made for a satisfying, balanced view of what Canadians should be reading – really, both books if they haven’t already – to truly gain insight into what it means today to be a Canadian.
Some of the contrasts of the two books that were most striking and thought provoking included The Game‘s tribute to but also pointed examination of a sport that is a transcendent cultural touchstone in many ways, part of the traditions of many native born Canadians, but is not without its problems that Dryden pointedly tackled in the early 1980s and are still sadly relevant today. This is set against Something Fierce‘s unflinching account of an extraordinary new Canadian experience (where it might not be readily apparent where Canada actually fits favourably in the story), sparked by political upheaval elsewhere in the world in the early 1980s (interesting!) that is still in many respects sadly relevant today.
Both books have a strong foundation in the importance of family, even when those families have their shortcomings, as all families do. As a professional athlete who traveled constantly, Dryden worried poignantly about being an absentee parent, but he also celebrated the generosity of his parents in providing a home and support for he and his siblings to play out and realize their dreams. The word “shortcomings” is too mild to describe the outright dysfunction in Aguirre’s family dynamic – from divorced parents to a mother and stepfather who then drew their children (including a child born while essentially on the run in South America) into subterfuge and danger. But Aguirre’s choice to continue with her mother’s political causes when she became an adult is testament, in part at least, to profound familial love and respect.
The two books are a true study in contrast in terms of authorial voice. The voice of Something Fierce exudes warmth, passion, as well as a youthful, mercurial and unfiltered heedlessness and comparative lack of processing of thoughts and motives. That last is not a criticism, but just a description of the callow narrator’s perspective. The voice of The Game is cooler, more cerebral, more thoughtful, having stepped back more from the events and issues in which the protagonist was directly involved. But a more analytical or meditative approach doesn’t preclude warmth and compassion and humour, too, and it’s there, but more subtly woven into the narrative. Ultimately, both voices convey profound kindness and a desire to do the right thing in the world at large. Aren’t both voices just two sides of the Canadian identity coin?
While attending all four of the Canada Reads debate tapings for web streaming and TV, I was really gratified to talk to lots of fellow readers, particularly non-fiction enthusiasts with very personal connections to the books being discussed. One reader wisely observed that an aspect of the Canadian immigrant experience that many might not realize or appreciate is that many people come to Canada with a heavy and perhaps somewhat grudging heart. Canada may be a choice and even a haven, but a significant number of immigrants are leaving their countries of origin with regrets and reluctance. That remark coupled with Shad’s steadfast and levelheaded defence of Something Fierce were revelations for this reader.
This all is not to dismiss that the words spoken at the beginning of Canada Reads have faded away or necessarily should. They rankle, and will likely be talked about, tweeted, hashed over, deconstructed on blogs and, most significantly, will clutch at and wound hearts for some time to come. Beaming more brightly, though, is that when Canada Reads righted itself after that initial outburst, it brought to all Canadian readers a stimulating discussion highlighting the contrasting but complementary personae, desires and values that make up the Canadian identity.
At the halfway point in the four-day series of Canada Reads 2012 debates, an interesting issue about a fundamental aspect of creative non-fiction is emerging, and it’s got me thinking. I just wanted to set down a few quick thoughts and ask for some reactions, from those following the debates and from those who are fans of creative non-fiction. I’d love to get your thoughts – either here in the comments or via Twitter – on the question of whether or not a non-fiction author needs or should be a character in her/her own work.
In memoirs, literary journalism, personal essays and other narrative forms using factually accurate material as their basis, the author of such creative non-fiction works can essentially take one of two roles in the telling of their chosen stories:
Participant – The author was involved in the true story in some capacity, either as an individual or part of a group to whom something happened, or as a firsthand observer, perhaps with particularly intimate knowledge of the persons and/or events that are the focus of the story.
Reporter – The author gathers and shapes factual information about events and persons with whom the author was not involved, and builds a story through research and filtering of trusted and perhaps not trustworthy perspectives.
This categorization is admittedly basic and simple. Also, categorizing in this fashion is rarely this cut and dried across many works of creative non-fiction. Even if a story is presented in as seemingly objective a fashion as possible, the author is likely to implicitly, subliminally or in fact explicitly demonstrate a bias, an emotional attachment of some sort and so on. There are works that cross, with varying degrees of clarity and success, between the roles of participants and reporters. I’d contend that most often, you see reporter-style non-fiction authors getting increasingly involved in the stories they’re reaching and reporting on, and becoming a peripheral character or voice in the telling of the story.
Of course, there are challenges and dangers tipping in both directions on the objectivity/subjectivity scale with authors reporting on versus participating in the stories captured in their non-fiction works. If a firsthand observer or protagonist is passionately entwined in his/her story, that can make for a captivating, stirring read, but it might also be a read where the veracity and balance of interpretation of events is in doubt. If a reporter remains distanced and cool in laying out the elements and issues of his/her story, does it make for a more trustworthy, balanced account, but also something less compelling? Conversely, if a reporter is too explicitly engaged or has an agenda, does that too plant doubts?
An interesting recent example of a reporter becoming a character in the story on which she was reporting is author Susan Orlean and her book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend. One could take closer and more arms length approaches to capturing the story of the iconic animal figure, an attractive and heroic German Shepherd that went from movie and television star to a still enduring commercial franchise and cultural touchstone. The book could have been a historical or pop culture study, but as she went along in the personal researching and interviewing for the story, Orlean admits to becoming more and more personally engaged in the story. As a result, she speaks directly and describes her participation in the shaping of the story, and why specifically the story of Rin Tin Tin resonated for her, particularly at the stage in her life when she was writing the book. Some readers might find that approach intrusive or distracting, others might find that inclusion (not intrusion) makes the story easier to identify with and even more absorbing.
Much rarer and perhaps temperamentally simply not possible is the non-fiction work where a participant in the story attempts to simply report objectively on the story. Is that possible? Hold that thought.
At the start of the two debates so far, moderator Jian Ghomeshi has cautioned panelists and audience that the debates are about the books, not about the authors. But with just about every question or point of debate, that distinction gets regularly blurred. (You could also say that distinction was downright smeared on the first day by one of the panelists who leveled provocative accusations at two of the authors. Since I’m not completely convinced the provocation wasn’t a stunt, and whether it was or not, it’s a somewhat tawdry distraction, I’ll point to this coverage of the controversy and carry on with the discussion.)
Interestingly, over the first couple of days of the debates, there have been discussion points and references to how much we get to know Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre in their respective books. This doesn’t really come up as a point with John Vaillant, as The Tiger is a book firmly positioned in the unobtrusive reporter-style spectrum of creative non-fiction. (That’s not a dismissive categorization – it’s elegant, masterful, transcendent storytelling with solid reportage as its base.) But if we’re supposed to keep authors distinct from the “characters” in their books, how then are we to assess the “characters” of Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre.
Whatever you feel about issues of authenticity and trust in their stories, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre are clearly the central protagonists of their books. For those that admire and defend the books, and even those who don’t, no one denies that readers have personal reactions or connections to the Marina and the Carmen in the books. The same goes, in many respects, for Dave Bidini, although he balances his own account with a reporter’s instinct for drawing in the perspectives and voices of many other people who have shared his experiences as an up and coming musician travelling the highways and byways of Canada building one’s career. No one has commented thus far in the Canada Reads debates that they aren’t seeing or hearing enough from the Marina, Carmen and Dave of their respective books.
Why then have the panelists, almost to a person, all remarked that they haven’t been engaged by or felt they learned enough about Ken Dryden – the aspiring athlete and happy kid in his dad’s backyard, the victorious goalie on a storied Canadian hockey team, the family man struggling to make family time, the thoughtful mortal struggling with fame and future aspirations – as depicted by Ken Dryden the author? Is it just possible that Ken Dryden the author has pulled off the unique feat of taking a convincing and trustworthy reporter-style approach to a story in which he is the main participant?
Rereading The Game in preparation for Canada Reads, having read it previously closer to its original publication in the early 1980s, I was impressed again at the almost preternatural thoughtfulness with which Dryden stood back from his own life and passions and took a bigger picture view of the nature of the sport to which he’d devoted his life to that point. That he was able to do that so objectively means that perhaps he sacrificed some personal warmth and connection with some readers to put some thought to bigger issues that, as it turns out, are still deeply relevant today. In throwing the net a little wider than his own personal experience, but judiciously using that experience to lend credibility to his broader observations, I think Dryden has crafted a gold standard work of creative non-fiction that is both thought provoking and touching. Maybe that makes it the book that all Canadians should read.
Are non-fiction authors obliged to be characters in their own works? Can they be reporters and even mine their own experiences, but put it to greater creative or critical use? Just some food for thought in the bountiful banquet that is this year’s Canada Reads debates.
It wasn’t until close to the end of Something Fierce, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, that Carmen Aguirre’s youthful account of navigating war torn and dictatorship-ravaged South America in the 1980s began to capture my heart.
It was futile to wait for my spirit to join my body again. I realized as I stood in that Patagonian phone company that maybe it never would. This was the biggest sacrifice I’d have to make. The body cannot take chronic terror; it must defend itself by refusing to harbour the spirit that wants to soar through it and experience life to the fullest. And so it was that, as we stepped outside into the glaring light, got on the first bus we saw and zigzagged our day away, my spirit was left back in the phone company along with the mirrored windows and the echo of voices connecting to far-off homes.
At that point, Aguirre seemed to finally and tellingly encapsulate the profound trauma that the life forced on her by her Chilean revolutionary parents had wrought on her bodily, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. To that point, Something Fierce had intermittently captured my interest with its understandably uneven account of a girl growing to young womanhood living the double and triple life of a political refugee in Canada and undercover resistance operative in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The story veers from a firsthand account of the upheaval, injustice and at times mortal danger of the brutal Pinochet regime – in essence, the disturbing and enraging facts and figures of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine brought to life – to the fancies, dreams, desires, fashion and pop culture whimsies, moods and petulance of a typical teenager perhaps anywhere in the world.
At times, the juxtaposition of a child’s or young woman’s quotidian aspirations with life threatening situations put each world in stark relief. In other instances, it struck dissonant notes, making none of it seem real or resonant. Overriding that was this reader’s discomfort with the decisions of the child’s parents which might have been well meaning, dedicated, passionate, but were also idealistic, naive and heedless, putting this girl and her siblings in extraordinary and almost continuously inhumane circumstances. I admired Aguirre’s precocious and preternatural resilience, but couldn’t get past her use as something just mere shades away from a child soldier, however worthy the cause.
As one of the Canada Reads 2012 finalists, is Something Fierce the book that all Canadians should read? If this book is supposed to say something essential about Canada and being Canadian to all Canadians, I’m not sure. Canada’s role in Aguirre’s story is as something of a stopping or resting point between revolutionary forays. As such, Canada could be viewed as a sanctuary, but it’s seems to be a convenient stopover (in contrast to fellow Canada Reads contender Prisoner of Tehran, where Canada is viewed as a peaceful, protective haven and a truly desired new home). Certainly, Aguirre’s continued life and career is testament that Canada became a home, but this isn’t part of the story or a significant part of the epilogue of Something Fierce. Inspiring to all Canadians, though, is a profile of a young and determined individual to be faithful to family, home and convictions.
How bunches of us bookish sorts on Twitter decided to start our day with some poetic inspiration – and share it with each other – is described here. You can always quickly tap into what we’re most recently sharing and discussing by simply checking out the #todayspoem hashtag on Twitter. You can check the hashtag and see new contributions at just about any moment of the day or night, as contributors are posting an astonishingly diverse and eclectic range of poetry selections around the clock and from around the world.
I’m amazed every day at what #todayspoem contributors share. I don’t have time to read them all on the spot, but I faithfully bookmark/favourite them in Twitter, and go back at every opportunity, knowing that I’m going to learn something new, be entertained, be moved, be surprised … and it’s all those great moments that keep the day rolling along, truth be told.
I’ve kept track of my own #todayspoem selections so far and just wanted to share them, just for fun and perhaps for enticement to more of you to follow and maybe join in. At very least, stop by, read and enjoy. If you’re tempted to pull a book of poetry off the shelf (even a virtual shelf, such as the great poetry resources online at sites such as The Scottish Poetry Library, The Academy of American Poets and the Griffin Poetry Prize, amongst others) and inspired to share what you’ve found, just add the #todayspoem tag to your tweet and a network of poetry lovers will get to enjoy it.
My #todayspoem selections so far …
December 25, 2011 Lorne Daniel (@LorneDaniel) Dog on Ice, from Drawing Back to Take a Running Jump Weedmark Publishing
December 26, 2011 Robert Graves The Cottage
Excerpt: “Now somehow it’s come to me To light the fire and hold the key”
December 27, 2011 Roo Borson The Garden, from Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida McClelland and Stewart (@McClellandBooks)
Excerpt: “Eye of the lake half-closed with ice. Ducks at one end, sleeping.”
December 28, 2011 Charles Wright Little Landscape, from Scar Tissue Farrar Straus and Giroux (@FSG_Books)
Excerpt: “To lighten the language up, or to dark it back down Becomes the blade edge we totter on.”
December 29, 2011 Derek Mahon Homage to Gaia, from Life on Earth Gallery Press (@TheGalleryPress)
Excerpt: “Coleridge kept an Aeolian harp like a harmonica lodged in an open window to catch the slightest flicker”
Excerpt: “Just for today, if I were to pass myself in the street I wouldn’t even raise my hat, or say hello.”
January 20, 2012 Valerie Rouzeau (translated by Susan Wicks) Cold Spring in Winter Arc Publications (@ArcPoetry)
Excerpt: Mirror just let me see is this my head? But aren’t I grimacing, a new line too a bar across my forehead?
Miroir dis-moi voir c’est ma tête? N’ai je pas une grimace, une nouvelle ligne aussi à me barrer le front ? Valérie Rouzeau