he’ll (St. John's: Pedlar, 2014)

Former Winnipegger Nathan Dueck finally follows his outstanding 2004 debut, king’s(mère), with he’ll, which explores a fragmentary narrative set in Rat River while playing with Plaut’dietsch.

Dueck explores the sonic qualities of this obscure dialect in a mediation on Mennonites that drags religion, region, and reading across a landscape of lines.

Dueck’s density is as remarkable as his range. Whether plundering the canon for the lines in classic novels that might employ a contraction if written today, transposing songs for musical translations, or simply joking (“‘You haven’t had a night’ / ‘… ’til you’ve had a Mennonite’”), Dueck pushes his language play to the furthest possible extremes.

At the heart of the collections is the apostrophe, both as a punctuation mark and in its literary sense (as an address to an absent abstraction). That’s less alliteration than Dueck would have managed — it’s been a long wait, but he’ll is worth it.

McNally | Amazon

Downverse (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014)

Nikki Reimer’s Downverse has lost its faith in the power of poetry to express any emotion without commodifying it. One of Reimer’s most affecting poems is, oddly, a list of “insurance outcomes”: “Life / The Principal Sum / Both Hands / The Principal Sum / … / Entire Sight of One Eye / Two-Thirds of the Principal Sum.”

In this way, life and limb are literally valued. Another poem sees Reimer expressing herself as we all do, through her monthly budget (she spends 4% of her income on books and 0.3% on the afore-mentioned life insurance policy). However cold such “expressions” feel, they are in fact as raw (in their way) as any properly “poetic” emotion, more indicative of the poet’s real concerns.

Reimer crashing different registers of found text against one another for startling and humorous effects. One poem juxtaposes the oddball opinions that “perhaps what al Qaeda really needed was a fresh start under a new name” and “no matter what his name, or whether he is a stray, the street-savvy dog has captured the public’s imagination.”

Soon the poem announces that “we are focusing more on education when responding to chicken complaints” — whether silly, wry, or deadpan, Reimer plays black comedy off against an anguished frustration.

McNally | Amazon

Fortified Castles (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014)

The book so nice I edited it twice! My favourite poem is dedicated to me!

Abstinence Vampires

The problem with rehearsing Shakespeare for reals
is the puritan bonbons caught in the margins.

There is clearly something wrong with boys,
at least, it’s tough how they act all panoramic.

Imagine Donna Reed as a reverse vampire
except for the missionary-style beatdowns.

There is an infection risk inherent in how we
sit so close to the industrial processing fluids.

It’s funny how the rape fantasy isn’t apparent
until the dancing unicorns get too intimate.

We were tired of the current set of tableaux
(Hollywood, dustbowl, etc.), so we planted trees.

Changing what might indicate an end-of-the-world
scenario is quite important in any new century.

Down here on Earth, we’re happy with teenage
boys and their immigrant solutions in GTA.

Reading smut is a clear gateway to a college education
since the best guys have a purity about them.

These househusbands are so fluffy and silly
for letting themselves become totes gay vampires.

Why do you keep looking at the transformer
towers hoping they’ll become steaming geysers?

Yay for one Tiger Beat fangirl who refuses
to divorce her rainbow-fast ejaculations.

Did you know that vampire blood can cure
any possible STDs, including syphilis?

It’s clearly a tattoo that represents how much
I respect and care for all woodland creatures.

I hope that these half-vampire Juno wannabes
remember to be someone else in their life.

More with Ryan on This Site

An interview with Ryan about us editing his book.

Two poems from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) in various drafts, so you can compare the early versions with the later versions.

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

Here We Are In The Night

My favourite album at the moment is the debut EP from Ghost Twin. “Mystic Sabbath” and “Here We Are In The Night” are necessary listening. Vampire Sex Music!

The First Five Pages (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

The First Five Pages is an excellent primer for a beginning writer, one of the best of its type. Lukeman walks the reader, in clear and direct prose, down a garden path of practical examples and exercises to solve the most common writing problems that beginning writers face.

A literary agent by trade, Lukeman frames his advice in professional terms: if you find your work being rejected by publishers because of your writing, then Lukeman’s book will explain why, and explain how you can avoid this.

If you are a professional/publishing writer, the book is just a refresher. I would like to walk down the garden path and find an executioner at its end, or find that it has turned into a hedge maze, and die trying to find my way out. Lukeman’s book does not address a writer like myself, so cannot be faulted. However, it does indicate a basic problem with the how-to-write industry that publishes books like Lukeman’s — where is the book I can read next? So few of these books recommend themselves beyond the beginner’s level, despite claims to the contrary.

“Whether you are a novice writer or a veteran who has already had your work publishing, rejection is often a frustrating reality,” reads the back cover. Sure. But what can a veteran gain from this book? I gained some writing exercises I can recommend to students or use in my classes, and a possible textbook/book to recommend, so I was happy to discover this book. I wouldn’t say I learned anything, though.

All that said: I like this book enough to recommend it and assign it as a textbook. It is one of the best of its kind. If you are having serious problems getting your work published, read this book.

Possibly, (probably,) your problems are superficial, or substantial but common problems that plague novice writers. The back cover also proclaims that “If you’re tired of rejection, this is the book for you.” I second that emotion.

The reason that Lukeman’s book towers above similar books is that his focus is so narrow. How do you get an editor to read past the first five pages? In reality, as Lukeman notes, you would be lucky to have an editor read that far. (This often shocks writers, but having been an editor and knowing many editors, I assure you Lukeman is right.)

Let’s run down some of the pros and cons of this book:

  • The use of the masculine, to refer to both men and women.

This may seem like a minor point, but I consider it a major issue. Why not use the feminine to refer to both men and women? In my experience, most student/emerging writers are women. Regardless, I don’t see why anybody finds it confusing to switch from he to she throughout a book. This seems like an unexamined assumption, and even if it is true, the obvious solutions to the overwhelming use of the “generic” masculine is to use a “generic” feminine or simply switch between he/she every chapter or section.

Later on, Lukeman writes:

Despite popular conviction, a writer needn’t wear black, be unshaven, sickly and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children. You don’t need to be a dead white male with a three-piece suit, noble countenance, smoking pipe and curling mustach[e].

Yes. So, you don’t need to be called he. I find the inclusion of both you don’t need to be male to be a writer and the constant use of he bizarre — especially in its unremarkable conformity across many of these books on writing, often prefaced with disclaimers that he also means she.

  • Inclusion of a rejection letter from a Chinese publisher to Louis Zukofsky (rejecting “A”).

This is the epigraph to Lukeman’s book and is the only reason I made it to page five (having just read the disclaimer about the masculine on the facing page). It’s delightful:

Most honourable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight. And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ecotype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own officers.

  • Lukeman is not overly prescriptive.

He follows that epigraph with the following:

Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great.

So why the book? Well,

There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.

Lukeman starts from the right point, it seems to me. And the book, as a whole and as promised, performs surgical airstrikes on the common root causes of bad writing. (We could have a conversation about why what we consider bad writing would be considered good in another time and place — and maybe should. Lukeman’s book does not participate in that conversation, nor should it.)

  • Lukeman is systematic.

This spells death for more complex issues, but when it comes to these simple problems that simply plague poor writers, the best cure is swallowing a system. His categories of error make sense, he focuses a large part of the book on dialogue, and he eventually delves deeper into some structural problems (at a basic level) after focusing on stylistic problems.

Although I think writers should work the other way — address structural problems before stylistic issues — Lukeman is looking at things from the perspective of a reader (the agent or editor) and explaining to writers, in sequence, the things that will kill their chances at due consideration.

  • The structure of the book is elegant, simple, and smart.

As a former editor — I have run literary journals (I even founded one) and ran a micropress — I appreciate how Lukeman has organized the book. He starts with the first thing that will get your manuscript thrown into the trash, then addresses the second thing, and so on.

Writers frustrated with rejection would do well to think through how a professional reader views their manuscript — Lukeman’s approach reveals this, and even if you learn nothing else, you will learn how editors look at your manuscript.

  • The book is useful to editors, who are not writers.

As an editor, you need to know more than this. But if you are a budding editor, rather than a budding writer (I believe a writer needs to be both), this is also the book for you.

How to Write a Lot (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2007)

What first interested me about this book was its publisher — the American Psychological Association. Subtitled A Practical Guide for Productive Academic Writing, it seemed like the perfect book for the PhD student I was at the time.

Silvia is a psychologist and takes a straightforward, no-nonsense, behavioural science approach to writing. Although intended for academic writers (specifically, for psychologists), the first half of the book is the most practical, widely applicable, concise and clear writing on writing effectively and productively that I have ever come across. Everything Silvia says in the first half of the book is useful for creative writers — more useful than any other writing book on the same topic.

The first two chapters — on establishing a writing schedule, and on common but specious barriers to writing — actually changed my life. The third chapter, on motivational tools, was a minor revelation, but a revelation nonetheless.

The fourth chapter, on being accountable to other writers and thus adding a social component to our writing, convinced me to begin a practice I sorely miss … my friend Caleb Zimmerman and I would meet up on campus every morning, just to verify that we were both awake and mobile rather than asleep, and then separate to go write somewhere. We would check in on each other later, usually. It was the simplest and best writing practice I ever engaged in, and I miss not having a job and focusing on writing like this. (I also miss Caleb!)

No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)

An instant classic of conceptual writing. Fitterman combines emotionally charged found text that cycles around themes of isolation and loneliness, pulling from disparate authors to compile a book-length poem.

A single voice emerges through a litany of self-loathing that is often hilariously high-pitched:

My hobbies include: being sad and lonely
all the time and my interests
Consist of people I can’t have.

Fitterman’s true subject is not loneliness and self-loathing, but the way poetry mediates personal expression. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you start writing poetry:

I feel so lonely,
Like I need somebody. I even wrote a poem about these feelings
today — fuck, I just need to turn everything around.

Critics of conceptual writing often complain that it lacks true feeling. Fitterman, however, proves that experimental poetry can be just as engaged with honest emotion as conventional poems — even while pointing out that there’s no such thing as “honest emotion.”

The Writing Moment (Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2014)

Simply put: the best book on writing poetry I have ever seen, and the only book on the craft of writing poetry that I recommend. From the preface:

“The second assumption about the creative process upon which this book is founded derives from the first assumption: if poems arise out of a convergence of occasions, then the best way to teach the tools, techniques, and traditions of poetry is to immerse poets in the complex blend of occasions that characterizes the act of writing. This immersion is an effective way to encourage poets to write poems that — to honour the root of the word “verse” — turn, unfold dynamically with ingenuity, imagination, and skill. The following chapters accomplish this immersive introduction to craft by pairing my thoughts on a topic with a series of practical, hands-on writing moments.

“These writing moments are micro-writing exercises that invite you to try your hand at the topic under discussion. I call these short exercises writing moments because of the helpful double meaning of moment. These writing moments are “moments” because they will only take a short time to complete and because, when you undertake them, you will be “having a moment,” experiencing a break from the day-to-day that may already be common practice for you: turning—from a dinner table conversation or from an obligation at work or from a mindless stroll—to your notebook to scribble down the line or the form or the vision that just struck you.

“The writing moments have been designed with two goals in mind. The first goal is to immerse you in this meeting of life and art, this convergence of occasions, by coupling active practice with abstract explanation; as is the case with all poets, your reading process will also become your writing process. The second is to initiate you into the two extreme poles of the poetic practice: the work—the writing routine, the daily grind, the practice that becomes a habit—and the invigorating experience of inspiration—the burst of insight or feeling with which a poem so often begins (and the experience that can transform the writing habit into an addiction). Writing moments take place within the purview of both of these poles, nurturing your habit and stimulating you to compose new work.

“Each section also ends with a number of writing exercises and a pair of sample poems composed by some of the many talented students with whom I have had the good fortune to work. The writing exercises will give you the opportunity to further expand on the work undertaken during the writing moments, encouraging you to test out the new lessons and techniques as you compose new poems.” (xiv-xv)