Monday, 19 January 2009


My Sask Lit students are reading Lloyd Ratzlaff's Backwater Mystic Blues, a collection of memoir-essays, and imitating it. Like Lloyd, they've been writing--in a series of journal entries, two or three every class, that may turn out to be chapters in their own memoir-essays--about such things as where they used to go to be alone, what liquor or cigarettes (if any) they scoffed from their parents or older siblings, and, juiciest of all, who their "most enchanting creature in the world" was.

That last matter raised a storm of delight in the classroom today when one student told us about a certain guy she adored years ago. After a pause, someone else in the class said "Are talking about Neal _______?" She was. Turns out the two students, who don't even know each other, both know this Neal. "I am so going to facebook this guy tonight," one of them said.

(And I told a story of my own. One afternoon in grade five or six, I was sitting in my desk with my head on my left arm down at scribbler level as I wrote My girlfriend is Barbara Barker. (It may have taken a full minute to write it, so enchanted was I by this creature.) I became aware of someone standing in the aisle next to me. It was Barbara Barker, leaning over to read what I'd written.)

I've observed many times that students willing to commit to memoir writing learn much about themselves and about writing. On Wednesday I'm going to remind those students who haven't yet made the commitment that if the 50s-style moments like those lived by Ratzlaff don't work, then what they have to do is let their own realities write and be written. Seems obvious.

Sunday, 11 January 2009


The profoundly irritating Obama playlist thing on CBC Radio 2 has only one more week to go. Starting tomorrow, they want us to vote for the 49 songs, from a shortlist of 100, "that define us," as their promos say.

What nonsense. There is no simple or singular Canadian psyche, soul, identity, essence, or spirit (or any other such term used in the past week by people explaining their nominations for the shortlist) for an immigrant nation like Canada. There is no "fundamental truth about Canada", no stereotypical Canadian cultural moment. No collection of songs--even a shortlist that will include, I'm guessing, songs in French, songs from the north and all the regions of Canada, songs from various genres--can define "who we are".

Have you listened to the lyrics of "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" (the most frequently nominated song) lately?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A missing apostrophe

CBC Radio 2 is running a feature with this rationale (as stated on the Radio 2 website):

"'One of the best way to know Canada is through the depth and breadth of our artistic expression,' says Denise Donlon, Executive Director, CBC Radio. 'We're excited about the new President and we want him to be excited about us, so we're asking our audience to help compile the list of our most definitive Canadian songs!'
A total of 49 songs will be determined.So, what Canadian music do you think are [sic] the most definitive 49 songs from North of the 49th parallel?"

I heard about this feature when I flicked the radio on yesterday morning. The host, Tom Allen, referred us listeners to a website and an email address, both of which included the phrase "obamasplaylist". I bet they left out the apostrophe, I said, probably out loud, as I slammed out of bed, over to my computer to check. Sure enough.

Now, I'm no hard-ass when it comes to punctuation or grammar rules. But I do encourage my students to be at least aware of the choices they're making. So in a series of emails and website comments to CBC, I've been demanding/pleading/suggesting that Denise Donlan and her underlings at least acknowledge that they're aware the apostrophe is missing from the email and website addresses, and that, silly them, they could have just called it "obama playlist" without the s or the need for the apostrophe at all.

And this business about "knowing Canada"--impossible, ridiculous business anyway--is further undercut by grammatical errors in CBC promotional material, don't you think?

Friday, 2 January 2009

As if the teaching work drives the writing work

Today I'm out from under the "special features" on a bunch of Seinfeld dvds, seasons 4, 5, and 6. In one of them, Jerry Seinfeld likens (in retrospect) a season of his show to a transatlantic submarine voyage for which they load all provisions on board and hope they have enough to make it across, knowing they won't be able to surface on the way. In another feature, one of the staff writers speaks of Larry David's notebook, which he's constantly adding to and pulling ideas from. That notebook would be near the top of the provisions list, I guess.

I'm no Larry David's notebook, but here I am, half open on a Friday before the new university term.