As a fan of films, and particularly older films, founditmoviesI’m very glad to have a poem in a new anthology called I Found It at the Movies, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson. I’ll be reading (just the one poem) to help launch it on May 1st, 7:30pm as part of Livewords at the Black Swan Tavern with a pile of other poets: Sue Chenette, Glen Downie, Catherine Graham, Maureen Hynes, Tanis MacDonald, A. F. Moritz, Blaise Moritz, Jim Nason, Lillian Necakov, Molly Peacock, Jim Smith, Adam Sol, Richard Teleky, Kurt Zubatiuk. 

Burning Blake


There have been interesting things going on over at blakeHazlitt, named for William Hazlitt. Glad to have my new poem Burning Blake posted over in the poetry department, where you’ll find new work is posted every week.

As many of my friends know, I enjoy the escapism of Doctor Who: a benevolant alien with many faces travelling through time and space. While not a perfect show it’s a very creative one, and it often insists humanity is essentially worthy, and an individual is important. It turned fifty last year, and while there were various forms of celebration, I think this animation I recently discovered by Richard Swarbrick is a terrific one. After fifty years, there’s quite a bit of mythology built up, and yet it all remains quite accessible. Neil Gaiman, explaining why he wrote a particular episode, said “I like mythologies, and I knew what a Dalek was and what planet it came from, or what TARDIS stood for when I was five, before I knew who Thor or Anubis were.”

Note: This essay has been revised slightly since originally posted in 2010.  

I like people. When I meet them, I say “Good to meet you,” because my view is that it’s good to meet them, until they prove otherwise. I even like dogs. I never had one until I was forty, and while I initially found a puppy exasperating at times, now I shower him with affection, rolling him onto his back to rub his stomach, and laughing openly at some of his clumsily expressive moments. phone

But I go out into public and become an angry old man. I sat on a streetcar where a woman – blissfully ignorant of everyone around her – sat on her phone saying, “OK, OK, OK” with a regularity equal to the drip of water torture, so that I had to put on my headphones. I sat in a Starbucks where a man on a phone spoke so loudly he actually penetrated my music, standing at times to adjust his hair in a chrome pillar, and sometimes circling around the tables. He left, and I felt relieved. He came back and sat again, and I started to feel a low-boil of anger. Hugely outgoing people on cell-phones are far too involved to interrupt, but I’ve considered printing business cards that say You’re too loud on your phone, to simply drop on a table and walk away.

In university, I had a brief friendship with a tall, lanky philosophy major of German background. He used to say things like “There’s nothing worse than a fart. It comes out of someone’s ass and goes into your face!” The world is replete with people who don’t hate others, but require greater personal space, and our society is increasingly not designed for them. I can relate to David Foster Wallace – writing about the cruise ship experience in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – when he finds he needs to retreat to his cabin to recharge, even spreading work around to give room service the impression he’s not just hiding. Studies are showing this is biological: introverts are more easily stimulated and need to seek out privacy regularly to recharge, while extroverts are the other way around, less easily stimulated and always seeking out ways to engage the world. It could only have been introverts who sometimes gave in and ran from the ongoing clamour of shells during the First World War. There’s a story of a man brought back, sobbing, to be gently tied up and shot. I studied under occasional public school teachers faintly desperate to create a calmer environment, telling us you don’t need to crumple up paper to recycle it, you don’t need to drag a chair to move a chair. It’s only decades later I recognize they were certainly introverts. Wallace has some sharp comments about overly outgoing people that are perfect: a man “looks like he’s posing for a photograph nobody is taking.”

I’m old enough to remember using a typewriter in university. I thought it was the cat’s pajamas because it had a quick-erase ribbon. Of course, computers were around in the early 1990s but I didn’t feel then that I needed one, and I couldn’t have predicted that we’d eventually have devices so small we’d carry multiple ones, making sure we’re equipped as we go out: cell and iPod, check. I resisted a cell-phone for years, and became among the converted fairly recently when I met a woman I was crazy about who lived on the third floor of a house with a broken doorbell.  That’s all it took. It was either join the twenty-first century, or literally stand out in the cold.

But I do use my cell-phone sparingly, and mostly privately, because while our perception is that we use technology, I think it also changes us, in subtle ways. I stood on a subway platform with my girlfriend as a guy on the opposite platform sang a warbling, off-key version of an old show tunes classic. He was alone, and wandered up and down the opposite platform like it was a stage. He finished to a smattering of applause, and stood there awkwardly. Turning to my girlfriend I sarcastically said, “Nice to see people carry themselves with such dignity these days.” She called me a grumpy old man, and I gave it some thought on the way home, deciding that lack of dignity wasn’t the real issue. The best I could come up with was “It never used to be a culture where people assumed they had the right to impose their lives on yours.”

Aside from a culture dedicated to narcissism while paying lip service to ideas of community and family, there’s a lack of reverence to consider as well. People can never simply be where they are and appreciate the moment anymore. I’ve been on a quiet streetcar gliding through fresh snow, passing straight through the middle of a quiet city when someone two seats behind me makes a call and starts talking about how he got drunk and puked last night. Until the TTC starts equipping streetcars with tranquilizer darts, a trip on public transit can only be as quiet as the least serene person. I’m frequently forced to retreat behind my headphones, where the real world is veiled behind my music, where strangers are even less real to me and I’m more disconnected. The chances of any small moment of community or shared experience – unlikely to begin with – are even more remote.

And these things spill over into communities in subtle ways too. How often, now, do people say excuse me when they bump into you? When a new cashier opens up in a busy grocery store, do they get the next person in line, or do people dart over from the end of various lines? In subtle ways, we’re all diminished when we can’t anticipate respectful treatment in public places. Undoubtedly, people didn’t have perfect manners ten or twenty years ago, but I think there’s a cumulative, ongoing effect when we can’t find ways to embrace technology without letting it define us. None of this means we need to embrace a complete package of dated values, just a framework of civility for our daily lives.

The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), pay closer attention. There are various scenes where people attempting something – from a personal exchange to a bank transaction – are suddenly (sometimes even inexplicably) surrounded and judged. There’s no question the film is almost cartoonishly heavy-handed at times, but try to find a more recent film that takes the point of view of others looking in, and not the main character looking out, or a film that’s unabashedly about community and our responsibility to something other than ourselves.

In high school, I had a math teacher named Mr. Graham, who taught us in a thick Irish accent. He was strict but fair, taking his time teaching us each concept thoroughly before testing us. He stopped class one day to say he could get a discount on a ticket to Ireland if he lied and said it was a family emergency, and went around the class asking each of us if we’d lie for a significant discount. The first kid said he’d lie, and of course there wasn’t a single teenager who wanted to be the first to sound chipper and superior, so we all said we’d lie. He was particularly fond of me, and stood back, hands on his hips to say “Even you, Alex.  You’d lie.” To this day I regret what I said. He used to stop class simply to lecture us about manners, saying things like “Manners, class.  More important than math, manners!” He’d pick his way through a crowded hallway at the start of the year to put his hands on both my shoulders and say “Great to see you!” Somewhere in the untidy mess of years that I was sorting out what kind of man I wanted to be, I surely saw him for the last time without knowing it. I used to think he was a bit of a dinosaur. Now, I’d say he was on to something.

Carmelo Militano has generously CarmeloMilitanodonated his time to thoughtfully interview a number of Canadian poets for Northern Poetry Review, or The Lonely Offices, always taking the time to thoroughly examine their work. And from time to time, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to have a coffee with Carmelo when he’s visiting from Winnipeg. Recently, I attended the Toronto launch for his intriguing new novel Sebastiano’s Vine, and came up with some interview questions. The result can now be found here, on the Maisonneuve site.

As Luna publicationsMakingBonesCover is not currently producing or distributing books, I’m glad to say Biblioasis is now handling the sales of Making Bones Walk, my award-winning first book of poems.

If anyone is still hunting for holiday gifts, I’ve noticed still has several copies of The Least Important Man and independent bookstores may have it in stock as well.

I’ve also been very glad to see the Best Canadian Essays series carry on, and think Best Canadian Essays 2013 would make a great gift.

Favourite novels of the year: The Crow Road (Banks) mixes hard-drinking, realistic characters with thoughts like this: “Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.” I loved the precise language and compelling story of Minister Without Portfolio by Canadian writer Michael Winter. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (Winterson) is remarkable for being as accessible as it is potent, though some moments were so brief they felt like a sketch, and I wanted more. Rabbit, Run was compelling, though I’m not entirely sure I’ll jump to read the rest of the series, and The Mosquito Coast was an engaging story with a lot of ideas. The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan (who doesn’t seem to be much talked about these days despite winning awards in his day) was a sad, beautiful novel.bridge

As it was two-hundred years old in 2013, I reread Pride and Prejudice and while I get the themes I still find it fairly dull to be perfectly honest. That’s likely a fault in me, not Austen. Lucky Jim, while slightly heavy-handed, was an intelligent and sharply written novel by Kingsley Amis. It’s only looking back on the year I realize I picked up three readable and thoroughly enjoyable novels by Jack London: The Sea Wolf, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. It’s easy to see why he was a popular author in his day, and remains one. I particularly enjoyed The Sea Wolf for the philosophical discussions. My monster-sized novel this year was Bleak House, which I read in a couple of stages. I enjoyed it, but found it hard to be patient with the leisurely way it unfolded, and thought the description arrived in dollops rather than blended into the story.

Non-fiction: Michelle Orange has the kind of intelligent, slightly offbeat and perceptive voice that make for valuable essays in This Is Running for Your Life. The Christopher Hitchens collection Arguably is excellent and covers a lot of ground. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Richard Holloway) is a thoughtful and perceptive book: at times I wrote down the titles of the books he recommended, and at other times I made note of direct quotes from Holloway, as when he suggests deeply conservative people are “severely rational,” and unable to loosen “clenched muscles.” So terribly true, and yet not the kind of thing  we’re often easily able to put into words.

Sailing Alone around the World (which dates from 1900) had some great moments of description: “The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and The Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away.” Speaking of older books, I loved Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by British humourist Jerome K. Jerome, who tends to sound fairly light until the final moments of each essay, when he delivers a heavier, punchy finale that has all the more impact because he’s been so casual up to that point. The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell, was outstanding and I wrote a blog post about it (not far below).

Poetry: I found much to admire in books by James Arthur (Charms Against Lightning) as well as Darren Bifford  (Wedding in Fire Country) and Michael Lista (Bloom) as well as books by Amanda Jernigan and Karen Solie. It was great to meet Alexandra Oliver on her tour for Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, and it’s a skillfully written, intelligent book I’d recommend to anyone. Glad to see Tangle, a full-length collection of poems from the talented Julie Cameron Gray.

Genre fiction: I appreciated the themes and ideas in Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), but found it somewhat overwritten and heavy with description. It didn’t compare to The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451. After watching some of the TV films, my first Inspector Morse novel was The Way Through the Woods and it’s certainly superior, even intellectual detective fiction. The collection of stories In a Glass Darkly (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) really came alive for me in the last (and longest) story that apparently helped inspire Dracula, but I ultimately enjoyed them all. The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin) is simply one of the best science-ficiton books I’ve ever read.

Favourite music: I have CBC radio to thank for introducing me to the Robert Schumann symphony #2, which is an engaging, balanced and beautiful symphony. With a pair of headphones allowing you to really listen, it’s remarkable. I may have discovered it through Mad Men like so many others, but Tomorrow Never Knows (The Beatles) is a great song, Revolver a great album. I love a couple of new albums of electronica that aren’t the deeply repetitive kind: Immunity by Jon Hopkins and Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards of Canada. It’s worth hunting around or going on Amazon for The Art of the Theremin (Clara Rockmore), which is a haunting instrument I’ve loved since ever hearing it on the brilliant soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann).

Film: I know some were disappointed after expecting something in the same spirit as the Christopher Reeve films, but I thought Man of Steel had a pretty good script and was involving as well as impressive-looking. It came perilously close to tiresome with a long, final fight scene but didn’t quite go over the edge. I caught up with a couple of other blockbusters, Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, reviewing them together for Digital Popcorn as I thought one celebrated a legacy well and the other simply mined it. I revisited Vertigo, which remains the most compelling Hitchcock film for me (I’ve only ever seen it twice, to preserve the potency) with Bernard Herrmann composing one of the best film scores ever. If you’ve never sat down with the Criterion release of Modern Times (Chaplin) it’s a brilliant film that looks terrific restored, and the bonus material is fascinating. Lately I’ve been enjoying film serials and reviewed The Phantom with the captivating Tom Tyler in the title role. I’ve seen a handful of film adaptations of Jane Eyre, one of my favourite novels, but finally catching up with the 2011 film, I thought it was the best one since the 1940s adaptation with Orson Welles.


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