Most recent of poet Alice Oswald’s many accolades is the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize, for her 2016 collection Falling Awake. While the words on the page are glorious unto themselves without further enhancement, it is even more enchanting and satisfying when an accomplished poet’s beautiful words are showcased with rich and gorgeous packaging. Such is the case with Oswald’s early work, Dart, produced in a special edition by publisher Faber & Faber.
Artist Jonathan Gibbs’ design feels very attuned to how Oswald approached the extended poem’s subject matter, as she describes it:
“This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”
I don’t know what Gibbs’ creative brief might have been for this lovely assignment, but the phrase “river’s mutterings” seems captured perfectly by the lush tumblings of leaves and strands and colours on the cover.
This inviting book has already inspired me to share its contents:
someone stood shouting inarticulate /descriptions of a shape that came & went/all night under the soft malevolent /rotating rain #todayspoem
When I graduated from university, I started to keep track of my books read in this wee diary that was a gift from my roommate.
I started the books diary in 1983. It’s coming apart at the seams a bit. Over the years, I’ve backed up my list in databases, spreadsheets, Goodreads and other book apps du jour … but I’ve always updated this little diary as part of my reading routine. Yes, this book and this part of my reading ritual is getting on 34 years …
Here are the books I read in 2016 – once again, diligently recorded in my book diary, along with a backup spreadsheet and Goodreads – with links to reviews where I have them. By the way, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list.
I continued my commitment in 2016 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as friends on Twitter continued to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. Now five years in, I still haven’t missed a day, both contributing and enjoying selections from others in this edifying, often spirit-lifting and vital communal experience. I’ve now pondered the works of close to 1,000 unique poets, writers, translators, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often revelatory hashtag. On into its sixth year, I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2017. I hope many contributors will continue or join anew.
I welcomed some wonderful and insightful guest reviewers and correspondents to this blog in 2016. I’m so grateful for the time and thought they spent on their pieces, from which I learned a lot and hope you did, too. Let’s revisit them again:
I went through a protracted period of insomnia last winter and if, after trying to relax and consciously breathe myself back to sleep, I was still wide-eyed in the dark, I would turn on my little book-light and read. This book actually didn’t help get me back to sleep – quite the contrary – but it was stunningly memorable company during those sleepless hours. What an unforgettable wallop of a reading experience.
The Mark and the Void
by Paul Murray
I read this two-volume paperback (a very interesting packaging of the story) mostly at our dining room table. It was February, when this household observes a month of abstinence from alcohol, so the accompanying beverages were likely tea and coffee.
"Loneliness is one of the few growth areas these days." Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void #sundaysentence
Just Watch Me – The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-2000)
by John English (read aloud)
A lot of our reading aloud takes place in the kitchen, with my talented husband cooking and me singing for my supper. We actually read a lot of this book during the interminable 2015 Canadian federal election and it was a great reminder that there were dedicated, thoughtful and honorable politicians of all political stripes as recently as just a generation or two ago.
This poetry collection was company on several subway rides.
by Tracey Lindberg
This book was warm and fascinating company on streetcar rides to physiotherapy appointments.
Innocents and Others
by Dana Spiotta
Among his many talents, my husband is a great seeker and finder of first editions of books. When I fell in love with author Dana Spiotta on the basis of this intriguing New York Times Magazine interview, he made it his mission to find all of her novels for me. And then I read them all this year. To a book, they were amazing. I already can’t wait for what she’ll do next.
Don’t Be Interesting
by Jacob McArthur Mooney
I read this collection (which had me at the John Darnielle references) at home and on public transit.
You know what? I was so wrapped up in the entrancing, often horrifying but also heartwrenchingly beautiful world of this collection that I in fact don’t recall a specific place or moment when I was reading it. What does that say?
by Dana Spiotta
I read this book at home, probably mostly at my desk and the dining room table.
by Anita Brookner (reread)
I read this tiny, battered, much loved paperback on the subway, where a fellow passenger remarked that it was her favourite Brookner.
Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments
by Ulrikka S. Gernes, translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen
This poetry collection accompanied me on more than one road trip.
This one took a while to read – which was fine, as it was a read to savour and get immersed in – so I had it with me everywhere. It’s another book that a fellow subway rider remarked on, most enthusiastically.
I’m thinking of ending things
by Iain Reid
I had the good sense to only read this book during daylight hours.
I will remember The Clay Girl and the next book on this list, Still Mine, side by side and as my constant companions everywhere (home, out and about, cottage) for two or three weeks. I had the honour in 2016 of moderating a couple of special book club events for the Toronto Word on the Street Festival. Selected contest winners qualified for small, private book club meetings with authors Heather Tucker and Amy Stuart, and it was my job to introduce them to their book fans and keep the conversations going with pertinent questions about their respective books. I prepared exhaustively with questions and observations … but then didn’t need a lot of those preps because those book fans showed up excited, motivated and brimming with their own wide-ranging queries and reflections. It was really rewarding to see such warm and dynamic meetings of readers and writers – truly wonderful!
See my comments about The Clay Girl … I also recall enjoying Still Mine on a coffee shop patio on a sunny Saturday morning while waiting for my husband.
I treasure this quirky read, a spontaneous gift from a lovely colleague.
The Albertine Workout
by Anne Carson
Another Christmas gift, I read this poetry pamphlet pretty much in one gulp while sitting at my home office desk.
In 2016, I read a total of 54 works: 32 works of fiction (novels and short story collections), 15 poetry collections and 7 works of non-fiction. I re-read one book, read 4 works in translation, and read 35 works by Canadian authors. My husband and I read two books aloud to each other this year and have a third in progress as we greet the new year.
Looking back fondly on my 2016 reading, looking forward eagerly and with anticipation to my 2017 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I’ve done in previous years) …
It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.
Postscript (added January 11, 2017)
I love the discussion this post has sparked, both here and on social media, including some debate about whether or not such list-keeping is usual or kind of nutty/anal-retentive. Obviously, keeping these lists every year is part of enjoying my reading. I’ve added a bit more to my scrutiny of what I’ve read every year, not so much with a view to altering the flow of what I decide to pick up and read every year as to just be aware if there was more or different directions in which I should explore. So, for example, I’ve looked in recent years at how much fiction vs non-fiction vs poetry I read, and how many works in translation, how much Canadian versus international literature, how many rereads, read-alouds, etc, etc, etc. Because the lists are easy to scan, I can quickly figure out the author gender mix every year … just to see how I’m doing, usually not to be corrective in my reading habits.
One thing I’ve decided to add to my record-keeping in 2017 is the publication year of each book read, to gauge how much current/hot-off-the-press vs back catalogue/older stuff I’m reading. I love that everyone who has joined this conversation loves their reading, loves to examine it to some extent and loves to share it. We all learn and benefit from that.
Another postscript (added March 17, 2017)
Sarah Emsley has segued a career teaching writing at Harvard University to her beautiful blog, where she writes about Jane Austen, Jane Austen for kids, Edith Wharton, Lucy Maud Montgomery and other writers, and about places she loves (especially Nova Scotia and Alberta). I am thrilled that she has taken a cue from this blog post to restart her own handwritten “books read” journal … and oh my, her journal and mine are twins!
A little over a year ago, my lively poetry-inspired virtual table welcomed 500 poets and translators. Now, 200 more poets and translators have joined a festive gathering that now verges on … well, the possibilities (revelations, touching civility, mayhem …) are breathtaking. As you scan through the list below, you’ll see pairings of poet guests that are poetry unto themselves.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been tweeting a #todayspoem tweet every day since December 26, 2011, inspired by this. In addition to revisiting and going deeper in my own poetry collection, #todayspoem has compelled me to go further afield in print and online, and my daily tweets have reflected both my own explorations and those sparked by other generous and eclectic #todayspoem contributors. While I continue to imagine what this 700 poets and translators I’ve tweeted would have to say to each other if I sat them at a table … again, I’m fantasizing about the new guests who will be joining them in the days, weeks and months to come.
The following are links to more information about each of the unique poets, lyricists, writers who stray into the poetic and translators from whose work I’ve tweeted in just over three years. I’ve highlighted new additions in bold, but in fact, I’ve done my best to check every link in this post to ensure that each provides something interesting, useful – or in the case of a few souls that have managed to elude the all-seeing eye of the interwebs, at least something identifying – timely, whimsical and so on. The links include personal and professional web sites, blogs, journals, articles, interviews, reviews, essays, biographies, obituaries, appreciations and bibliographies.
I kind of hope that these might be starting points for others to explore these artists, too. The excerpts from their work that I incorporated into #todayspoem tweets are also saved as part of the Today’s Poem Pinterest board.
A year ago, the table welcomed 300 poets and translators. A year later, 200 more poets and translators have joined the festive gathering, making for some interesting shuffling in the seating arrangements, to say the least. Are Helen Adam and Fleur Adcock having a surprising meeting of minds? How about ee cummings and Nancy Jo Cullen … or Edna St Vincent Millay and Joe Strummer? Anselm Berrigan is now next to his father, Ted, and his mother Alice Notley is further down on the other side, engrossed in conversation with Idra Novey. We trust Helen Guri and Jason Guriel will have no mishaps with wine glasses or cutlery …
I’ve been tweeting a #todayspoem tweet every day since December 26, 2011, inspired by this. In addition to revisiting and going deeper in my own poetry collection, #todayspoem has compelled me to go further afield in print and online, and my daily tweets have reflected both my own explorations and those sparked by other generous and eclectic #todayspoem contributors. While I continue to imagine what this 500 poets and translators I’ve tweeted would have to say to each other if I sat them at a table … again, I’m fantasizing about the new guests who will be joining them in the days, weeks and months to come.
The following are links to more information about each of the unique poets and translators from whose work I’ve tweeted in a little over two years – personal web sites, articles, interviews, essays, biographies and bibliographies. I kind of hope that these might be starting points for others to explore these artists, too. The excerpts from their work that I incorporated into #todayspoem tweets are saved as part of the Today’s Poem Pinterest board.
Even in the afterglow of the Griffin Poetry Prize festivities, which are about as close as you’re going to elevate poetry and poets to a combination of Nobel Prize veneration and rock star status … loving poetry still feels like a rarified pursuit. It touches you, excites you and jazzes you – and yet the eyes of your colleagues, friends and loved ones might still glaze over when you start to rhapsodize about Don McKay, Tomas Transtromer or Louise Glück.
It isn’t enough to try to defend and promote a somewhat misunderstood or underappreciated art form by insisting that those song lyrics your sister can’t get out of her head, even that clever advertising slogan that resonates for your co-worker … well, just might have an element of poetry to it. No, poetry should not be the spinach hidden in the brownie recipe. And no, the benefits of poetry should not be a clinical Yahoo Answers entry, complete with crowd-sourced ratings, right in there with how to remove grass stains from silk or how to configure your web site’s htaccess file.
You want to see that light in your doubting loved ones’ eyes sparked by a whimsical or startling insight from John Ashbery or Kathleen Jamie or Dina Del Bucchia or Lorna Crozier or Phil Hall or … And if you can create that illumination while supporting the poets and publishers and curators of collections and readings events who make it all possible, all the better. Some small acts of poetry are in order.
You can start with something modest and fleeting (but still thoughtful and tailored to the recipient) like this …
Feeling adventurous? Want to kick that stealth poetry thing up a notch? How about trying it in real life, easing some poetry into unexpected locations where people might need it more than they realize?
My own forays into real life stealth poetry have been inspired by Poems in the Waiting Room, a UK-based initiative spearheaded by the Arts in Health charity, which publishes and supplies short collections of poems for patients to read while waiting to see their doctor and to take away with them. There is no charge to the patient or to the National Health Service. What a receptive setting into which they’re introducing poetry – one where people are seeking comfort or at very least some distraction or diversion. With that in mind, I left this in my dentist’s office …
… and this in my doctor’s office, where I was thrilled to see someone actually pick it up as I was departing after my appointment.
I was inspired to think about small acts of poetry (and lifted the phrase, which I hope she won’t mind) from a quietly moving piece by poet Amanda Earl recently posted in the ottawa poetry newsletter.
I am the last person to rabbit on about the therapeutic value of poetry. I don’t really need poetry to have some kind of function in society. I don’t really know what my point is here except to say that these small acts of poetry helped me through a very difficult time.
The elegance and grandeur of the Griffin Poetry Prize events and the relatively substantial media attention they garner, combined with the diversity of poetry and poets the prize showcases, needs as its counterpoint the small acts of poetry that bring it home, by virtue of the personal and trusted recommendation, the hand-delivered physical book object, the intimate connection when it’s most needed … to bring it all swiftly, soundly and beautifully to heart.
What are the small acts of poetry you’re going to give and that you’re going to look forward to receiving?
My #todayspoem choice yesterday was an excerpt from the poem “being Bogey” by Canadian writer Leslie Greentree. She has kindly granted permission for me to post the complete poem here.
by Leslie Greentree
ever since you told me Casablanca was your favourite movie
I knew you would leave eventually could see how the appeal
of sacrificing yourself to a higher good would be stronger than
anything I could offer you how you were one of those men
who had to do what was right and honourable
you be Bogart then lay yourself at the altar of an old empty
promise at the feet of the children who will eventually scorn
your sacrifice as weakness spit I hate you when you won’t buy
them a car or this season’s green Capri pants whenever they
turn those practised pouting eyes on your stricken face
who shall I be then Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember
she too must have always secretly known that love could never
conquer all the pissy details of reality that’s why she couldn’t
offer him her flawed self shall I sit here now with a blanket
over my legs pretending I’m not crippled
the worst part is that even though I’ve been hit by a truck there
is still a part of me that knows that this is the best way to make you
love me if you had stayed eventually I would have driven you
away in tiny increments with my sharp tongue and my clawing
now you will pine for me always and I for you absence and loss
the only guarantees of a great and lasting love the ideal and
torment of what’s lost somehow more real than making supper
washing dishes taking out the garbage but I’m still crippled
still sitting under this blanket and I’m not as drawn to the
romance of this movie as you
William Blake and Robin Blaser have a meeting of minds over appetizers, and the rest of the vibrant, clattering table of poets fades into the background. Lucy Maud Montgomery drops her napkin and Jacob Arthur Mooney gallantly picks it up and returns it to her. Kimmy Beach and Brendan Behan plot postprandial mayhem over dessert, and convince Milton Acorn, Helen Adam, Al Purdy and Paul Quarrington to join them. Suzanne Buffam flirts with Charles Bukowski. Margaret Avison has reassuring words for Ken Babstock. Billy Collins and John Cooper Clarke swiftly find they have much in common; Warren Zevon and Jan Zwicky are less certain of that, but are cordial and collegial nonetheless.
I’ve been tweeting a #todayspoem tweet every day since December 26, 2011, inspired by this. In addition to revisiting and going deeper in my own poetry collection, #todayspoem has compelled me to go further afield in print and online, and my daily tweets have reflected both my own explorations and those sparked by other #todayspoem contributors. So, while I’m imagining what this first 300 poets I’ve tweeted would have to say to each other if I sat them at a table … I’m also imagining the new guests who will be joining them in the days, weeks and months to come.
The illustration, added with good-humoured respect for all fine poets and translators, is Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party — Illustration to the fifth chapter of Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by Thomas Dalziel (from www.victorianweb.org).
Here are the books I read in 2012, with links to reviews (here on this blog or on Goodreads) where I have them. As I’ve done in previous years, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list.
In addition to the interesting and often challenging complement of books I enjoyed this year, 2012 was the year I committed to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as more and more friends on Twitter began to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. It’s been a truly revelatory experience. In a little over a year, I’ve pondered the works of over 260 unique poets, writers, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often surprising hashtag. I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2013, and I hope many will continue or join anew.
I also celebrated some beautifully built books, including:
Well, I’m closing in on 10 months (211 poets in 288 days, to be exact) of #todayspoem. Yep, and so far, I haven’t missed a day. As I’ve mused before, did I have any idea I’d be this far along a journey through poetry when a bunch of us bookish Twitter friends had the first #todayspoem discussion back in late 2011? I knew I would commit to it, and I did. What I didn’t know was how far-ranging a journey it would be, and how much I’d learn from both my own explorations, and from the discoveries I’d make through the generosity and creativity of other #todayspoem contributors (who I hope I’ve accurately captured in this Twitter list).
As far afield as I’ve gone at times with #todayspoem, I notice from keeping track of my choices that there are poets I’ve returned to more than once. The following is a list of the poets I’ve visited and revisited for #todayspoem inspiration, with links (where available) to some of their poems that I’ve chosen, read, enjoyed and derived inspiration or solace from early in the morning.
I’m thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to a very special guest book reviewer. Amanda Earl is an eloquent and prolific literary supporter, and writer and artist in her own right. I suspect many of you reading this blog already know her and perhaps have met her in person at one of the many arts events in which she takes part.Amanda’s most recent poetry chapbooks and e-books are “Sex First and Then A Sandwich” (above/ground press, Ottawa, Ontario, 2012), “me, Medusa” (the red ceiling press, UK, 2012). Her poems appeared recently or are forthcoming in Rampike, fillingStation and In/Words Magazine. Amanda is the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the Bywords Quarterly Journal, and the (fallen) angel of AngelHousePress. Follow her on Twitter @KikiFolle or Pinterest pinterest.com/kikifolle/. For more information, please visit amandaearl.com.
If I understand correctly, the object of Today’s Poem (#todayspoem) is to expose the general tweeting public (the Tweetosphere) to a daily dose of poetry in 140 characters or less. These poem bits are also posted by ardent poetry enthusiasts or Internet junkies, take your pick, on Pinterest, along with a photo of the author or book cover. Today’s Poem is the brainchild of Vicki Ziegler, who I know as @Bookgaga on Twitter, but haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet. I am trying to lure her to the Ottawa International Writers Festival this fall for tea and book mayhem.
I began taking part in Today’s Poem this year, most likely in January. At first, I simply opened a book of poems at random and tried to find an excerpt that was compelling and brief enough to post. I had some trepidations about this exercise. What if I wasn’t representing the poet’s work properly by excerpting those 140 characters? I found I often had to exclude parts of lines to fit within the 140-character limit or I could choose to continue in another tweet, thereby breaking the line with the noise from the traffic of other tweets. But the thought of the goal of the exercise, to help people (and myself!) rediscover or discover exciting poetry, motivated me to dive in. I think this is a very creative use of Twitter, which is often just a place for narcissistic self-promotion and the repetition of sweet homilies. I commend @BookGaga for her altruism and initiative.
My most recent month-long ritual has been to post lines from the work of Anne Carson, not just her poetry, but also her translations of Greek and Latin plays, her essays and her novellas in poem form. I am fascinated by Carson’s exploration of form, the tension between formal elements and the everyday. As a former translator myself, though never a literary translator, I am interested in Carson’s take on the translation, both in the essays she writes about a single word, such as “bittersweet” and the translations themselves in the way in which they enliven and create their own new spaces, much in the way Erín Moure, another literary hero of mine, does with her translations from the Galician or invented personas.
I think of Anne Carson as a model of literary exploration, my older poetic sister. She is eclectic and daring, willing to try anything to explore the limits of her craft, and I respect that, aspire to it for my own writing. Not to mention that she didn’t have her first book published until she was 42 when Brick Books published Short Talks, probably the most treasured of her books on my shelves. While I’m past 42 by many years, Carson demonstrates that there is hope for the spineless.
Starting August 1, 2012, I posted a line from the most recent collection of her work I own, Nox. I don’t have Antigonick yet, Carson’s update of Antigone in a form similar to that of a graphic novel.
My poetry shelves are arranged for the most part alphabetically, and for the most part, according to the order that the work was published, but books have a tendency to unsort themselves for the avid reader. I posted lines from Carson’s work in approximately publishing order with most recent first.
August 1: “The phoenix mourns by shaping, weighing, testing, hollowing, plugging and carrying towards the light.” Nox (New Directions, 2010)
I am intrigued by Carson’s focus on the retelling of myth and the reanimation of Greek and Latin literature to present day. I wasn’t educated in the classics, alas. Carson’s writing is a way to learn about them, a way in.
I love Carson’s wit and sense of humour:
August 8, 2012: “Always planning ahead that’s me, practical as purgatory my mom used to say.” Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Knopf, 2005)
Am astounded by the beauty of her lines, which aren’t sentimental, but visual and memorable, often with an edge:
August 12, 2012: “A fell dark pink February heaven/Was/Pulling the clouds home, balancing massacre/On the rips.” Men in the Off Hours (Knopf, 2001)
August 18, 2012: “Hotel gardens at dusk are a place where the laws governing matter/get pulled inside out,/like the black keys and the white keys on Mozart’s piano.” The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf, 2001)
Carson deals with concerns such as death, anger, youth, beauty in ways that resonate and strike a universal chord.
August 23, 2012: “Youth is a dream where I go every night/and wake up with just this little jumping bunch of arteries/in my hand.” Plainwater (Knopf, 1995)
For a very good overview of Carson’s work and insightful interviews, I heartily recommend:
I have been gratified by the responses of others on Twitter and Pinterest. Carson’s lines from Today’s Poem have been retweeted and repinned by people from all over Canada and the UK, possibly from the States too. One of the goals of this exercise for me is to spread the good word about poets whose work excites me.
August 31: “Sappho begins with a sweet apple and ends in infinite hunger.” Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton University Press, 1986)