Remembering Charles Bukowski

March 9, 2019

Twenty-five years ago today we sadly lost genius poet Charles Bukowski.  To remember him, here is an animation of his poem The Man With The Beautiful Eyes.


Time For Ursula K. Le Guin

March 5, 2019

While I have read a great deal of science fiction, fantasy, and poetry in my time, I have never read a single work by the late Ursula K. Le Guin.  No specific reason for that; I just haven’t.  However, a few weeks ago I read something that persuaded me to order what I think is her last collection of essays, “No Time To Spare“, from the library, and I just finished reading it. It was marvelous.

It is a collection of short essays — more properly, long blog posts — in which she covers a wide range of topics including ageing, her cats, breakfast, visits to the opera, the meaning of words, anger, the deterioration of imagination in swearing, the nature of belief, and the Great American Novel amongst many others. I enjoyed it all, but in particular her reminiscences of John Steinbeck, her essay on Homer, and the joys of answering fan mail from children.

She comes across as a thoroughly sensible and likeable woman and I feel certain I have missed out by not reading her before now.


Laurence Gough Revisited

March 4, 2019

First posted in September 2010.

I have now completed my self-appointed summer job of reading all 13 of Vancouver writer Laurence Gough’s series of novels featuring VPD homicide detectives (and eventually husband and wife) Jack Willows and Claire Parker.

I had a marvelous time watching the writer become an accomplished hard-boiled author and then a confident and accomplished novelist. Gough improves and refines his style throughout the series, and his confidence grows with each of the last 7 or 8 books.

These are hard-boiled procedurals, with a satisfying level of violence, set within the geographic, cultural and business textures of contemporary Vancouver. But they also become an extended meditation on both the nature of intimate relationships and of the human condition itself.  The 13-book series takes Willows and Parker through every which way of relationship building; from the first subtle attractions to living with Jack’s children from a previous marriage to being married with an infant son of their own.  This is no longer a particularly successful marriage, but they do the best they can.

I thoroughly recommend him both as a hard-boiled author in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler and Spillane, but also, especially in his later works, as a very good Canadian novelist in his own right.

John Steinbeck

February 27, 2019

Today would have been the 117th birthday of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck. which deserves remembering.

I was reminded of his birthday by a short piece in Literary Hub which reprinted extracts from the original reviews of his major books.   For example, 1937’s Of Mice and Men elicited the following:

“John Steinbeck is no mere virtuoso in the art of story telling; but he is one. Whether he writes about the amiable outcasts of Tortilla Flat or about the grim strikers of In Dubious Battle, he tells a story. Of Mice and Men is a thriller, a gripping tale running to novelette length that you will not set down until it is finished.”

Two years later, Malcolm Cowley reviewed Grapes of Wrath, the third in his Dustbowl Trilogy:

“The author now has a thesis—that the migrants will unite and overthrow their oppressors—and he wants to argue, as if he weren’t quite sure of it himself … Yet one soon forgets the faults of the story. What one remembers most of all is Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants—not pity, for that would mean he was putting himself above them; not love, for that would blind him to their faults, but rather a deep fellow feeling.”

This week I happen to be reading No Tine To Spare, a collection of short essays and blog posts by Ursula K. LeGuin. In it, she devotes one chapter to Grapes of Wrath.  The essay is about the damaged concept of The Great American Novel, which many critics claim Grapes of Wrath to be. LeGuin says it is better than that. It is, she says, “the most truly American book,” adding “A book that makes me cry the way music can or tragedy can  … must have something of greatness about it.”

For me, as a politicized teenager and already a Wobbly supporter, it was In Dubious Battle that spoke to me,  Not the most polished writing but perhaps his dramatic story of the strike is all the better for that. It was Barrack Obama’s favourite book by Steinbeck, too, apparently.

Hollywood seems to be wallowing in remakes these days. They could do worse than take another shot at “Grapes of Wrath“, “Of Mice and Men“, or “East of Eden“.

The First Poet

February 14, 2019

It will no doubt prove impossible to determine when the first “poem” was composed.  However, we do know the first person to attach their name to a poem. It was a high priestess of a temple in Iraq. Her name was Enheduanna and she lived more than 4,200 years ago.

A fascinating article in The Literary Hub by Charles Holton asks why this pioneer is so unknown, especially when compared to the first novelist (Mursaki Shikibu) and the first essayist (Michel de Montaigne):

“She wrote poems, edited hymnals, and may have taught other women at the temple how to write. Archaeologists discovered her in the 1920s and her works were published in English beginning in the 1960s. Yet, rarely if ever does she appear in history textbooks. There are almost no mentions of her within pop culture. No one name checks her in song lyrics, she isn’t taught in MFA courses, and there are no paintings of her except for a few crudely drawn sketches that float around the outer edges of the internet.”

Holton suggests there are three main reasons for this lack of celebration. The first is that cuneiform scholars “have an almost divine-like ability to take ultra-fascinating ideas and make them slightly less exciting than a traffic ticket.”  The second is basic sexism (although the first novelist Shikibu was a Japanese woman).  The third is that historians tend to concentrate on events and inventions that are more technical than humanist.  Holton stresses that

“[i]t is incredibly inspiring that the first author that we know of in all of human history was a woman living within a kick-your-teeth-down-your-throat, highly repressive patriarchal society. I imagine it took a lot of courage for her to step out of the convention of anonymous writing and boldly attach her name to her works.”

Some of her poems at least can be considered radical:

“In one of Enheduanna’s Inanna poems, Inanna kills An, the chief deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and becomes the leader of the gods herself. I’m not sure how the male religious establishment felt about this, but I’m guessing they weren’t thrilled. Perhaps we could regard this as the first feminist poem?

We should thank Holton for reminding us that, regardless of patriarchal suppression, artistic endeavour has always been a gender-neutral exercise.


Mixed Media

February 3, 2019

One of my favourite writers is Jack Kerouac, and I was unaware of his paintings.   One of my favourite painters is Vasily Kandinsky, and I didn’t know he was also an accomplished poet.  Luckily, two articles side by side in today’s Hyperallergic set me straight.

Woman in blue with black hat: Jack Kerouac

Michael Valinsky writes a review of Beat Painting, edited by Sandrina Bandera, Alessandro Castiglioni, and Emma Zanella, suggesting that:

“the recent monograph of Kerouac’s never-before-seen paintings sparked something inside of me that evoked my teenage discovery of poetry and language, and of a Paris I had — and would — never know.”

“Accompanying the exhibition Kerouac. Beat Painting (December 3, 2017–April 22, 2018) at the Museo MA*GA in Gallarate, Italy, the catalogue presents a collection of essays and images addressing Kerouac’s life as an artist, not of the pen but of the brush.”

“At first glance, the paintings look like yet another example of Jackson Pollock-esque Expressionism. (Pollock and Kerouac were contemporaries.) But, the more you look at the paintings, the more you study their poiesis, their emphasis on abstraction as a means of representing an emotion or a feeling, the more you’ll notice how unique they are — the more you’ll see how their themes intersect with those in his writings. Museum Director Sandrina Bandera writes in the catalogue that the paintings “reconstruct a narrative in which the written works and the forays into figurative art would perfectly coincide: different aspects of the same poetic journey.”

In another article, Douglas Messerli discusses Kandinsky’s use of colour in his prose poems. From an early work, Seeing …

Blue, Blue rose up, rose up, and fell.
Spiky, Thin whistled and tried to barge its way in, but
didn’t get through.
On every corner there was a din.
Fat Brown got caught, apparently for all eternity.

Apparently. Apparently.

… through his late Dadaist language plays such as Open:

Now slowly disappearing in the green grass.
Now stuck in the grey muck.
Now slowly disappearing in the white snow.
Now stuck in the grey muck.
Lay long: long fat black tubes.
Lay long.
Long tubes.

So interesting to get this pairing of articles, these pairings of media, together.

Borderline Invisibility

January 27, 2019

We are probably all aware that books by some authors — Clancy, King, Rowling, Martin, Patterson, etc. — sell in the millions of copies.  However, there are authors, and publishers, who aim for a very different market. has a delightful piece this week about writers and presses that limit their editions to a few hundred copies, and some even reduce their output to single figures.

The main section of the article deals with poet and artist Margaret Galey who published a book of 38 poems, all using only the letters from a sign “Hello, Please Remove Shoes”. The book had a run of just five copies.

The article’s author also contacted Happy Monks Press who limit their editions to 25 copies, of which 10 are for the author.  Others really are one-offs:

“For Alternative Press, which was run by Ken and Ann Mikolowski for more 30 years (1972–2004), Robert Creeley handwrote a poem on each of the 500 letterpress postcards he was given and made no copies. This means his “Collected Poems” will always be incomplete. Creeley’s postcards were put in mailers, along with bumper stickers, bookmarks, and other goodies, and sent to subscribers. The content of every envelope was unique.

Having consciously self-published my own books in very limited editions (though one of mine did break the 1,000 copy barrier), I’m glad to see that writing just for the sake of writing (“borderline invisible”) can still be fashionable.