BC Book Prizes: The Morning After

Well, neither Charlie Demers nor I took the cake, but it was an enjoyable night nonetheless. The Evans Prize went to Lorna Crozier. The Livesay Prize went to Fred Wah. I haven’t read the Evans books so I can’t say whether that seems right or not. But if I couldn’t win the Livesay, I think Fred was a good choice. Is A Door is a good book, and Fred has been such a wonderful supporter, teacher, and friend, I can’t not be happy.

When the shortlists were I announced I was thrilled and nervous, and slightly anxious about the fact that I was being placed in a competive situation with people whom I know and care for. Jeff Derksen said something that really helped make sense of the contradiction. He said the BC Book Prizes in particular are about community—community cohesion and community recognition. It means a lot ot me to have the recognition of my peers, who come from a range of communities that I care very much about, and it means a lot to me to share the shortlist with writers whom I very much admire, David Zieroth, Miranda Pearson, my good friend and colleague Gillian Jerome who has written a gorgeous book, and of course Fred Wah, who besides being all the things named above, worked thoughtfully and generously with me as editor for Automaton Biographies.

Through the interim period between the announcement and the award ceremonies I had that little patch of anxiety that you get—you know the one that you think you ought to be above, but you never really are. Or may be some people really are, but if I’m honest, I never really am. It brought back the ghost of the anxiety I went through in 1995 when I was a finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, along with Wayson Choy, Diana Atkinson, Yan Li and Keath Fraser. Then, I was so full of hope for all the possibilities and the security that public recognition as an award-winning author could bring me. I didn’t win that one either, but that book, and the recognition it brought, did radically change my life. And in the short term, Diana and I went back to our hotel rooms and ordered all the most delicious room service delectables we could find on the menu!

If I wanted to get cheesy and sentimental, I would say that it doesn’t at all matter, and I’m happy with what if got. But of course, it’s always more complicated than that. I’m happy with what I’ve got… and how, under high capitalism, as an all-too-human human, is it possible for some part of me not to want more?  And may it’s that contradiction that I have  to live with and be fine with.

But that’s all ego stuff. Not to be denied, but far from everything. So here’s how it all unfolded:

There was a reception before the big reception at which we were given instructions for the big reception. We met the Lieutenant Governor, Steven Point. He also gave some really good opening remarks in which he talked about the importance of the arts, especially in hard economic times. Brian Brett, who was shortlisted in three categories, took the last award of the evening– the Duthie Bookseller’s Choice Award. He quoted Winston Churchill speaking in response to British Parliament calling for arts cuts during WWII. Churchill, in response to the finance minister’s suggestion that the arts be cut to support the war, said, “If we cut the arts, what are we fighting for?”

I sat between Sara Cassidy from BC Bookworld, and Charlie Demers’s partner Cara Ng. Great conversations on both sides. Sara told me a great story about guerilla gardening on the UVic campus that warmed my cockles (Do I get to have cockles? Where are the cockles, anyway?). I also met Lorna McDonald, who I think will be our new sales rep for Arsenal Pulp.

I spent much of the evening hanging out with Pauline Butling, who  rode from Van with me and Edward because Fred came with the tour, as well as Fred himself, Gillian Jerome and Brad Cran. It was fun to see Todd Wong of Gung Haggis Fat Choy fame there too, and to have brief chat with Cathleen With, who took the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison.

David Zieroth came to say hello. I mistook him for Patrick Lane! How embarrassing….. David, deepest apologies, in a public way.

The BCTF sponsors the Livesay award, which I think is a good thing. In his acceptance speech, Fred spoke about the tour, and hard work that teachers do… which they do. The job is so much work, and such a responsibility. And the cuts that are coming down the pipeline re: education are going to be so devastating. So I’m glad Fred spoke out about that.

Watching all these cuts to education and to the arts I think about Audre Lorde’s much-quoted aphorism: “Poetry is not a luxury.”

Audre Lorde:
“It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

Yes, and in this awful economic moment, in which the a possibilities for thinking are being devasted by our own government, via cuts to both the arts and to education, we need poetry more than ever.We need to know what is possible in the language, not of the past, but of the present, so that we know how to communicate with one another. Language has so much depth and complication beyond the kind of surface meaning we usually search for in the daily news. So reading poetry names and expands how we know ourselves and one another. Without poets testing out their ideas, gushing out their obsessions, or speaking their truths, we forget what we know and what we feel. Without poetic speculation, without the imagination, we have nothing but the systems already in place, making the world over and over again in the same old form. I would like to live an a society in which our sense of relation, our sense of community, with other human beings but also with the lifeworld that surrounds us, is as rich, complicated and hopeful as it can possibly be. And I think that poets, through their use of the imagination and through their deep understanding of the way language works, can show us that.

So three cheers for poetry, and off to the Rebar for breakfast!

Coming Round the Mountain

Whoever is responsible for making time fly needs to go for drug screening. Where did my two weeks go?

The highlight of the break for me was In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge, a conference of experimental and digital writing at the Banff Centre. It was really exciting to see all the things that people are doing with language and new media. I met an artist/writer called Jen Bervin who sews over existing texts– the act of sewing is a postitive feminine gesture that throws the text not under erasure into negative space…. the original logocentric act of inscription strangely undone and then redone. Maria Damon and Adeena Karasick did a wonderful collaboration together called Schmata Schma’ata. There were lots of machine boys there doing cool machine boy things in that wonderful way that they do. Christian Bok is trying to design a virus whose DNA will form a beautiful poem. And when the DNA splits (to reproduce) the RNA strand that it attracts should form a poem that answers the original one. (The base pairs are coded against other letters– so it is essentially Christian’s job to choose a coding that will make the poem work.) He wants to send it into outer space so that long after the human race is gone, some vestige of our intelligence will remain coded into the DNA of this virus. More transcendent than immanent, but cute anyway.

Wonderful evening readings as well. Highlights: Fred Wah, Charles Bernstein, JR Carpenter.

I read on the opening night with Nick Montfort and Chris Funkhauser. Steven Smith really had me working! I was also given spots that were originally meant for Caroline Bergvall and Daphne Marlatt– so I had some big shoes to fill. I spoke in the morning with Nick Montfort, who showed a computer program called ppg256 that generates poetry using text he’s input, along syntactical guidelines he’s set up, but that is otherwise random.

Tensions did emerge between an smart and charming but un-self-consciously gendered ways of working, and a way of working that takes bodies and their histories into consideration.A lot of the feminists in the room were taken aback by the lack of body consciousness among some of their peers. There was a contingent of bright younger women from Calgary who got feisty about it. Check out Claire Lacey’s blog: www. poetactics.blogspot.com. I did a poetic dialogue between Butterfly and Pinkerton to try to poke at some of these issues.

The anxiety that was already in the room got exacerabated when, during the panel on digitial media, Kenneth Goldsmith asked a rather mean question about why the work presented looked so dated, why it wasn’t on the cutting edge. He should know better. The question periods were really short, and it was hard enough as it was to get beneath the surface of anything. That question just put all the panelists on the defensive in a way that I thought was really unrproductive.

Erin Moure gave a very useful talk about translation and the necessity of attending to the sounds and context of non-English languages. JR Carpenter showed a piece called “The Cape” which tells the story of her childhood in transit between Nova Scotia and New York in digital form, using maps, black and white illustrations and captions that tell the story in text when you roll your mouse over the images and maps. What makes JR’s work so remarkable is the way in which it re-imagines and re-spatializes storytelling form. Visually, “The Cape” has a photocopy/zine aesthetic—there is something very charmingly textual—dare I say papery about it. It doesn’t emphasize its own “digitalness” but maintains the DIY look of zine aesthetics. This work, and some of her other projects that actively involve other writers, really open the possibility for collective writing in digital forms that I find incredibly exciting.

Lance Olson showed this very unsettling short film called “Submission”, a recut of a film made by Theo Van Gogh (the great grandson of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, also called Theo Van Gogh) in collaboration with with a Muslim woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Olsen has written a novel about the film and the murder of Van Gogh by a Muslim man called Mohammed Bouyeri. He briefly contextualized the film, but not enough for this audience member at least to realize that he was showing it in quotation marks. The film’s politics of representation are unsettling– lots of images of a woman with a veil over her face, but her body naked, images of lovers killed in their sleep, a long slow shot of a woman’s naked leg with blood running down it. Olsen is interested in interrogating the repressions of contemporary society, and examining the layers of cultural readings that lead Bouyeri to shoot and decapitate Van Gogh. This was a presentation that really begged for an after-discussion, some of which is taking place now, productively, on the Poetactics blog.

The first day was a tough one, then, for all the questions laid on the table around the ethics of digital and experimental practices, the circulating nature of subjective agency, and tensions having to do with embodied experience, without a lot of time to think and talk these things through. It was still wonderful, though, for the sheer volume and variety of work we got to see/hear/witness.

The next day, we began with the Collaborations panel, which I moderated. Jen Bervin spoke about her piece on the Mississippi: http://www.jenbervin.com/html/mississippi.html. Historically, the Mississippi has been a moveable river, with a constantly shifting geography. 20th century attempts to fix and contain its path, she suggests, have lead to highly destructive geographic and meteorological consequences. Her work explores the idea of the river with a long, painstakingly constructed textile/sequines piece that snakes along the ceiling of the gallery. D. Kimm, a performance artist and cultural organizer from Montreal spoke about her organizing work, and the way in which she draws different performance communities together in Montreal.

I read Daphne Marlatt’s paper on her behalf because she could not be with us. Then Fred Wah spoke about the Hi-bridi-tea project he worked on with Haruko Okano some years ago. All four speakers engaged from beginning point of their own embodied experience. That seemed to be what was necessary to shift that sense of unease troubled the first day. For me, the question of self-location is be key—which is funny because that is an absolutely humanist gesture. I think I am ok with that.

Erin changed the subject of the New Formalities panel to “Huh? Modalities?” which was hilarious and smart. Fred gave a brilliant evening reading from Sentenced to Light– the “Pop Goes the Neighbourhood” collab he did with Henry Tsang. And Bernstein gave an incredible reading beginning with “In the Middle of the Way” and ending with some poems for his daughter that were so devastating and sad. The body and experience still matter, but our technologies are making the body and experience in ways that are very different from the ways our parents experienced them. The big question that the conference opened up for me is how it is possible to have a knowledge—as self or as collectivity—in the current configuration, in which our communication is mediated in newly specific ways through digital media, new telephone technologies, as well as older forms—film, video…. and writing. Process poetry, Flarf, Oulipo and Dada have much teach us about what we send and receive digitally. When the computer randomly generates poetry and we still receive meaning, where is that meaning generated? How are we to understand that/those generative sites in relation to for the specificities of embodied experience—for Charles Bernstein after the loss of his daughter, for Lance Olsen after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, for Ayan Hirsi Ali, for young feminists in a still-patriarchal world, for Maria Damon and Adeena Karasick finding new, strong voices in collaboration? I think that some of the cultural work done by earlier conferences in the 90s could be productively brought back to the table—It’s a Cultural Thing, and Writing Through Race.

I had a great talk with JR Carpenter a few nights ago about the relationship between computer languages and other second languages. Computer language is always hidden when it is working—the browser does the translation. Is there a relationship between computer languages and non-English languages in an English-speaking context? What would it mean to bring those languages to the surface of our attention? How might one engage creative translation practice like that of Erin Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei in relation to computer language? Are computer languages languages of privilege or languages of marginalization—what is their relationship to contemporary forms of power? I once heard Andrew Klobucar say that in contemporary society tech support fill the same social position we used to give to priests.

I had a week at the Leighton Studios after the residency, which is just now wrapping up. I had a beautiful quiet cabin the the woods, with a wide bank of windows, beyond which all I could see were trees and wandering elk. I’ve made some headway with my novel. I didn’t miss the Olympic mayhem one bit, except perhaps for feeling a tinge of guilt at not staying to witness what some of my fellow citizens, who could not leave, had to withstand. I’m glad that the W2 Real Vancouver Writers Series, Short Range Poetic Device, and super-laureate Brad Cran were there holding off the forces of repression.

Short Line Reading tonight

With Aubyn Rader, Ashok Mathur, Fred Wah and yours truly.

6:30 – 8:30 at the Railway Club, 579 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver.

Long time since I blogged, though it’s been an eventful summer. Highlights: Shanghai International Writers’ Festival, Queer Literary Kinship conference in Ghent, and the TransCanada3 conference in Sackville, New Brunswick, plus travels to Seal Cove, Newfoundland with Roy and Smaro.

My new book of poems, Automaton Biographies, comes out in October. Stay tuned for launch dates!

But now, its this start of term. I’m using “Little Red Riding Hood” to teach subtext to first years. More fun than a barrel of monkeys!


Great slippery infectious ones against StoryMill, for wiping out three days worth of writing through a simple slip of the mouse. It’s my fault for not realizing that the scene bubbles in Timeline are actually attached to real scenes in the Scene view. Delete a bubble lose your scene. Delete a bunch of bubbles, lose days of work. And it is not retrievable, even by the whizzes at ArtsIT. StoryMill doesn’t save txt files, it saves whole novels plus research etc. as one big file, easily modified and easily lost. Not recommended, even with adult supervision.

Launch for Eggs in the Basement this Friday!

Please join Nomados for a poetry reading and book launch with Kim Duff and Larissa Lai at 7:30 on Friday May 8 at 1067 Granville Street, alley entrance. BYOB

Kim Duff is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia and a researcher of avant-garde poetry and global spatial logic. Her dissertation focuses on contemporary British literature, particularly literature that engages with Thatcherism, privitization and urban spatial theory. She’ll be reading from her recently published book of poetry, Tube Sock Army, LINEbooks.

“Everyone in the Tube Sock Army can hear technology building its architectures in the voice. And Kim Duff tracks the provocations of this ‘neoliberal domesticity project’ as it gets us to whisper our passwords into our cell phones ‘softly.’ So much for disembodiment. In the intimacy afforded by 30-second intervals, we relax, texting ourselves the grocery list. ‘Truthiness’ breaks down our globalized front doors (the apartment keeps shrinking, but the rent goes up). Nevertheless, it’s in the interstices of these spatializing mediations that we keep vying (hope-full) for contact. This is ‘creature address.’ Hallo:” — Laura Elrick

Larissa Lai, acclaimed author of Salt Fish Girl, When Fox Is a Thousand and [with Rita Wong] Sybil Unrest, launches her Nomados chapbook Eggs in the Basement. Lai has been the Markin-Flanagan Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary (1997-8), and Writer-in-Residence in the English Department at Simon Fraser University (2006). Shortlisted for three awards, Salt Fish Girl was described by Herizons as “hope in the midst of despair.” The Georgia Straight called it “a well-written and highly inventive novel.”

In Sybil Unrest, “Larissa Lai and Rita Wong . . . find in adulterated adspeak a ticker-tape, twitterpoetry that – because it’s more than 140 characters long – makes meaning out of the meaningless. . . . Sybil Unrest argues that consumerism doesn’t necessarily kill us. . . . It fragments us and puts us back together wrong, galvanised with electrical goods like Shelley’s monster.” — Sophie Mayer, Chroma

Praise for Eggs in the Basement:

Procedure-in-a-round, Eggs in the Basement ticks the metronome of everyday diction through looped words and known notions. Text, repeated, collides and colludes meaning, lyric echoic, fierce. Disjunctive narrative swallows its own tail and births eggs into itself. Dim the light and consume immediately. a.rawlings

Spun from a source text generated in a writing exercise, Eggs in the Basement takes this initial set of linguistic, social, geographical, and political constrictions to recombine into poems that perform the possibilities of expression and affect. In this relationship of limit and possibility, this book (which is so aware of its historical moment) works through the everyday terrains of the social and the poetic. It is a book that travels parallel to the forms of freedom (and their negation through consent and force) that liberal democracy slyly serves up in its language of consent. Jeff Derksen

Eggs in the Basement is a brilliant instance of the contrapuntal improvisation that can occur between writing and thinking. In this long poem Larissa Lai develops these linguistic clefts with such acute awareness and intelligence that each poetic shift triggers a new and surprising message, relentless in an absorption of the cascade of signals at the threshold of potential meaning. Fred Wah

the world beneath the world

“The world beneath the world” is what Dionne Brand called it, when she was here reading for Play Chthonics last fall. The world we’d live in if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue, if Lenin not Stalin, if Mao without the Cultural Revolution, if Kennedy not Nixon, without the Viet Nam war or the war in Iraq…. She says that world still exists beneath the surface, that it has a language, that we can go there. Roy and Slav say there are signs all the time, if we pay attention.

Yesterday I went there, for a few moments– dinner hosted by the gracious Jeff Bear for his sister Shirley Bear, and us– her friends– out at Jeff’s house in Musqueam. Such food! I tried kaaw for the first time, ate oysters, chunks of smoked cod, salmon, halibut. Shirley and Roy remember the possibility of the 60s before the disillusionment of the 70s, hang on to hope, justice in the cells. That world is still possible, if we can figure a way through this one, churning out students like human widgets. My friend Margot calls it a chicken factory, grade ’em by size and quality, so the corporations can pick their minions.

I had to leave just as the fish was arriving. Me and the little dog Decker, we salivate… But left for a good reason– to attend and read for the launch of Fist of the Spider Woman, edited by the lovely and amazing Amber Dawn. There are women out here on the east side actively making that other world, and I am grateful to be able to go there sometimes.

Community Connections

I’m kicking myself for having missed Shirley Bear’s reading at the On Edge series last Wednesday. She’s been an important figure to me in the last few years as an elder, artist and writer. I’m looking forward to having a visit with her later this month.

I’m also really looking forward to the launch for Fist of the Spider Woman, an anthology of horror stories (and other genres) by queer and transgressive women, edited by writer,  performer and editor extraordinaire, Amber Dawn. It’s a huge honour to have a few pieces from my long poem “Nascent Fashion” included.

GLBTQ community has remained so supportive all these years, through the transformations and transmutions of both my person and the community itself. I’m headed to Ghent later this month for a conference on queer literary kinship, organized by Katrien DeMoor. I’m really looking forward to meeting Emanuel Xavier, Robert Gluck and especially Sarah Schulman, and to seeing Anna Camilleri again. And, so serendipitously, it turns out that the lovely and talented Angela Rawlings is hanging out in Ghent for a while. Check it this cool clip of her and Jaap Blonk. I always get excited when my communities collide. I’ll stay on in Ghent for a bit after the conference to spend time with Angela, rest my head, and, with any luck, meet local poets. I may even get some writing done.

And speaking of “Nascent Fashion,” that poem is coming out in my first solo poetry book, Automaton Biographies, which Arsenal Pulp Press is publishing later this fall. “Rachel,” a long poem based on the Ridley Scott film Bladerunner and the Phillip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, will also be in that collection, for those of you who are interested.

For now, it’s the last week of class. I’m looking forward to the end of term, though I will miss my students. Papers are due on Wednesday, and the Canadian Studies class has an exam on April 17th. Study hard, my friends, but don’t forget to ask yourselves why you do so.

Eggs in the Basement

My long poem Eggs in the Basement is out, published as a limited edition chapbook by Nomados Press. Meredith Quartermain just came by last night with 26 lettered copies. Much appreciation to her and Peter both for being interested in it and for producing such a beautiful edition!

Eggs in the Basement is an experimental, process-oriented poem. I generated a body of source text in a ten-minute automatic exercise, separated it as neatly as possible into subjects and predicates and wrote the poem by repeating first all the subjects and and cycling through the predicates in the first half, and then reversing the procedure for the second. Strangely, the result is loosely the story of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, in which two murders are committed by a collective: an initial one, which traumatizes the collective, and a second, which covers over the first and consolidates an violent and violated melancholy from which the group cannot escape. If you’re interested at all, you can obtain the chapbook by writing: Nomados Literary Publishers, PO Box 4031, 349 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 3Z4.

Or check out their website: Nomados

Clarion and Shanghai

I’m really looking forward to teaching at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego this summer. It’s the last week to apply. Get in there, all you talented moonbeams!

I’ll be crossing the Pacific pond shortly for the Shanghai International Literary Festival. I’ll also have talks at Fu Dan University and Ningbo University. I’ve been wanting to go to Shanghai for many years. Looking forward to chats, books, ideas, high-tech, fab food and spectacle in this mythic city.