Wednesday 30 January 2008

January 30

By now I've worked out the kink in my right calf from springing out of bed to answer the phone. I knew it would be my daughter, Lucy, just arriving in Paris. The poor soul had to carry her bags to the 4th floor of a friend's apartment twice before she figured out which suite was his but she made it.

Picked up a set of essays today on the general topic of what a poem can do, using the poems we'd read as examples. And then assigned the next essay: tell your life story using four incidents involving animals. Informal writing this time, obviously. I'll have to convince these first-year students that even the most ordinary stories they can imagine are in fact loaded with material, if they can commit to going after it. Such switching of gears from a formal essay to something else is not popular with all students. It's just another thing they have to learn, is how they might see it. But the rewards are great, I keep saying.

Sunday 27 January 2008

Travel Piece

Tomorrow my youngest daughter, Lucy, leaves for Paris. She's prepared, I'm prepared. But she's been on the edge of crying for an hour or two now, and I'm on my second scotch this half hour.

I've noticed that as I get older, I settle for the memory of stuff, as if that way I don't have to do whatever it is again. Travel around the world, for instance (I got home 25 years ago to become a creative writing student--see "longer bio" at my website) or go downhill skiing (that would be about 30 years ago at Sunshine--so fantastic an experience, why would I ever need to repeat it?).

Saturday 26 January 2008

Sask Poetry

"Nothing but poems about death and love," said one student, leaving the classroom yesterday. She'd heard/seen 7 presentations of Sask. poems:

love as diseases, love as cure (and probably back to disease again) in "Heal" (Randy Lundy)

the four windows through which a man looks from his vantage point at the very edge of where his body meets the (ever-continuing) world in "Four Windows" (Michael Trussler)

Louise Halfe's "Der Poop", in which a voice calls down the Pope, his Church, his various colonial manisfestations, the Queen's English, and several other hierarchies from her perch on the shitter

a sister who lost her twin in what seems to have been a summer incident in the prairie bush in the kind of day you'd love to spend berry-picking (Judith Krause's poem of that name)

a love poem, the lover wanting ("Orange", Elizabeth Philips)

a poem set in a dance hall--another man, another aging body ("Polka Suicide", William Robertson)

And a couple of others I can't remember right now.

I guess it's commonplace by now to say all poems write to or from birth or death.

I love the Al Purdy story I heard him tell one afternoon at U of A in the early 90s. As a young man I had this manuscript that had everything I could give it (Purdy said). A famous Canadian publisher read it over and rejected it, commenting "This manuscript is nothing but sex and death".

A few years later I realized that there IS nothing else but sex and death.

End of story. You can read Purdy's own telling of that story in the Preface of his Sex and Death, which M&S (I believe) published in 1973.

And I'm dedicating my book to the lover.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Continued from Previous Post (How Could it Not Be?)

The most common choice was Truth 100, because that supposedly contains all the others. I selected Body 100 for the same reason. The idea is, or will be this time tomorrow, officially an option for the next piece of writing to be graded.

Today I read the summary, prepared by Anonymous, of my teaching evaluations from the fall term. I go straight to the comments, which cover the range from pos to neg. The more negative ones still give me pause, reminding me that my professorial ways don't work for everyone.

I still learn from my own classroom. This morning some talk about Christopher Dewdney's "Ten Typically Geological Suicides" lead to new ways of thinking about the poem, for me, and new ways of thinking about any poem, for my English 100 students, who at first wondered why someone would write a poem like that--a playfully serious piece, as I see it--and what makes a list of ten perfectly effective, if wildly impractical, ways to commit suicide a poem. (Ways like standing naked over a geyser, just before it erupts, or consuming a lethal dosage of beach sand.)

Then on to Ondaatje's "Sweet Like a Crow," another list, comparing a young girl to a rusty bible, among other things. Just seeing rusty next to bible is enough for me. Just that pairing of words opens the world a tad more. I hope my students would agree.

Tuesday 22 January 2008


I just got a great idea for a personal essay assignment for my expository writing students: Which of these imaginary classes would you most like to take, and what's in it? Truth 100, Happiness 100, Body 100, The Past 100, or The Future 100.

I'm going to run that idea by them this afternoon, then save it for a little later in the term. Maybe they'd like to invent their own imaginary class.

Meanwhile, which one do you want to take?

Saturday 19 January 2008

What, memory?

Ran into Ken Mitchell last night at Cougar basketball (we're both long-time season ticket holders). He's got another new idea: to open a spoken word, Saturday night event at a local nightspot. Said he wants me to be part of it.

The last time Ken told me something like that, I spent hours memorizing new poems as I wrote them. Took forever. A couple of the poems will show up in My Human Comedy (arriving from the printers within three months). But I realized--this was at a writer's retreat at St. Peter's one February, two or three years ago--that committing work to memory is easier if the work rhymes.

It was cold as hell. I was out jogging in the bright sunshine, turning west along the grid road south of the Abbey. Every step pounded the new poem into memory: something about an east view, an Oldsmobile, can't remember the rest.

Friday 11 January 2008

Just To Say Hello

I must be aging faster than ever. Just now I lugged my pack and gym bag up the stairs, a young woman ten steps ahead of me. Her suite was the one at the top of the stairs on the left. She scooted into her suite, not once looking back, locking and latching the door between her and the point where just then I was turning to head one floor up and across the hall.

As far as I know I was not mumbling or wearing stains. She wasn't taking any chances for what must be good reasons.

It's probably true about the aging, but just now I typed again instead of aging. So I'll take it.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Back In the Classroom Again

Funny, the ideas people get about poetry. As if there's not a million ways to teach, read, write it.

This realization came about, I hope, when one young woman admitted that her dislike for poetry --It doesn't speak to me, she said--derived simply from one teacher's approach to it. I told her we'd check in again in a few weeks.

She and the rest of my Sask Poetry crew have to (if they want the marks) attend a literary event and write it up. For many, this is a challenge. Would it help if they knew any poets? (That way, they'd find out what a broken path poetry and its pracficioners are.)

Monday 7 January 2008

Going Again

Started a new academic term today. One young fellow came up to me after class and said he hoped I wouldn't mind his stutter. He said it gets worse when he's nervous. After we chatted for a while I told him I get nervous going into a class for the first time. "You didn't look nervous," he said. Later he told me he hoped I'd have fun this term.

Earlier, I'd advised a former student who's now an instructor to make sure to have fun with his classes.

Of course, the "fun" here has little to do with jokes and fooling around. It's about being as open as possible to the inherent playfulness of language itself--language as a lively hound dog that can never be fully trained. So I like to tease and otherwise encourage my students to admit such playfulness into their reading and writing practice. Heel, then romp.

Thursday 3 January 2008

The Radio and a New Year's Letter

I've been hearing on the CBC Radio 2 weathercast that today will be "a balmy minus one degree." What about all the other degrees? Would other punctuation help? Maybe take a word or two off: a balmy minus, or balmy minus one, even minus would do.

I also said to a friend, I hope our paths will cross--then a dash, then with us in them. All very well to cross paths, but the point of crossing would not by itself satisfy me. In other words, I can see picking up a broken leaf, saying So-and-so was here. Maybe salute the sky, notice wind for a moment. But I can't see staying there for long.