It was a bit magical to be out on the water as part of Word on the Street, reading from water-themed books on the Kajama along with Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). Deborah Dundas of the Star had particularly good questions. I also spent a few days as part of the Thin Air book festival in Winnipeg to participate in book discussions there with Sue Goyette (Penelope) Kevin Chong (The Plague) and Will Aitken (Antigone Undone). Great to have the chance to meet all of them and spend a few days discussing why we trouble to retell stories (I think, to be concise, we do it to reexamine who we are now). Happily, Army of the Brave and Accidental has also had a review in the Globe in an article that takes a look at three new literary time travel novels. Perhaps there was something in the drinking water. I have just a couple more readings from the book planned at this point, including this Wed, Oct 24 after 7pm at the Farside Studio. Also reading are Sam Shelstad, Jennifer Chen and Victoria Hetherington.

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Word

15Sep18

Very glad to say I’ll be a part of Word on the Street for the first time on Sunday September 23rd as part of a brief cruise called Across Water, Through Time. I’ll be discussing Army of the Brave and Accidental but the audience will also hear from Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). We set sail on the Kajama for about an hour. Seems like it will be a lot of fun, and if you wanted to climb aboard, tickets are available here. ArmyCover


Launched

15May18

It was an excellent turnout at Another Story Bookshop for the launch of Army of the Brave and Accidental. I’m pleased with the book as a modern retelling of The Odyssey, and look forward to some feedback from people (I’ve been texted “moving and enjoyable,” by a poet friend, so I hope it’s a comment that becomes a trend). A brief article about what helped inspire the book has appeared here on All Lit Up with a lot of emphasis on pop culture, though it occurs to me now I really should have mentioned other literary influences like Ray Bradbury. By pure coincidence I’ve just heard about the first translation of The Odyssey by a woman, Emily Wilson (reviewed here in The Guardian) which I’m now very much looking forward to reading.

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I’m pleased to say my first novel will launch on Thursday, May 3. It’s a retelling of The Odyssey as modern mythology about friendships, fatherhood and finding your way, and I love the cover, courtesy of Carleton Wilson and Nightwood Editions. Hope you’ll join me after 7pm at Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles. ArmyCover


My David Copperfield failure: I came grinding to a halt about halfway through, despite having enjoyed other Dickens books. It’s really just long enough that I can’t help but be aware of the other books I could read in the same amount of time. I was moved, though, by Copperfield’s last memory of his mother: “I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.”

Also, it seems clear Tolkien must have read Copperfield, as the character of Uriah Heep is remarkably Gollum-like. He’s repulsive and writhes, is described as a “creature,” and a “wretch,” and uses a fawning manner. A sample of his dialogue: “It’s like the blowing of old breezes and the ringing of old bellses to hear you say Uriah.”Hjun2017

Fiction I admired: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson) All the Broken Things (Kuitenbrouwer), Swimming Lessons (Fuller). Mark Sampson is both smart and funny in The Slip, a relevant and entertaining look at modern life and its digitally unforgiving nature. Very glad to see Things Not to Do, new short fiction by Jessica Westhead (there’s a One Question Interview, below). The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (McCullers) is a classic I’d been meaning to read for some time and it’s a poignant, empathetic story that deserves its status.

Genre: Around the World in Eighty Days (Verne) is pretty thoroughly entertaining, and What Dreams May Come (Matheson) is both a good novel and an involving exploration of possible worlds after death. Matheson had clearly done a lot of reading on the subject. You may have seen his memorable original Twilight Zone episodes, or other films based on his novels. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Giant Rat of Sumatra (Boyer) is a fun read that hits all the right notes for Sherlock.

Nonfiction: The Inconvenient Indian (Thomas King) is a conversational but articulate and important book. Hiroshima (Hersey) follows the story of a number of survivors quite closely, and single-handedly began changing American opinions on the use of atomic bombs when it was published. Truly, a remarkable book. The Promise of Canada (Gray) was an enjoyable book that revisits different historical figures, some well known, others nearly forgotten. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (Stephen Reid) is a memoir of life and jail time that has moments that struck me as Orwellian clarity (thinking of his essays here) like the simple but important reminder it’s the wounded who go out and wound others.

Essays: Revolutions (Alex Good) is a set of opinions on Canadian literature not tied to the kind of received wisdom people usually spit out when asked (if asked at all) about Canadian literature. Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, was an excellent selection, and I was also impressed with the latest in the Canadian series: Best Canadian Essays 2017. Glad to see the series continuing thanks to the efforts of Tightrope Books, Christopher Doda and guest editors. Essays After Eighty (Donald Hall) shows a charming, calm intelligence at work.

The state of the world: A.A. Gill is Away is both a funny and perceptive travel book, with some surprising opinions on how deeply screwed up he finds parts of the supposedly civilized world. A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Henighan) is an alarming, important, concise download everyone should be checking out. Hope in the Dark (Solnit) is a worthy, intelligent book, though I long for the time things were as dark as all that.

Remarkable women taking notes: Notes from No Man’s Land, American Essays (Eula Biss) is an excellent, perceptive set of personal essays that nevertheless relate to the wider world, and Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life (Erin Wunker) is an honest, articulate work that’s also important. While very accessible overall, I thought the occasional term was only fleetingly explained. But more importantly, it enhanced my understanding of what women go through, sometimes just walking home from work. Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia (Sara Jewell) is valuable in a quieter way, taking the form of a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable memoir.

I found The Highly Sensitive Person (Elaine Aron) valuable. It’s refreshing to be referred to not as weak or flawed, but as the “the royal-advisor class,” or “priest class, supplying some kind of ineffable nourishment to our society. I cannot presume to label it.” Generally speaking, the HSP is not valued: “In our culture we are not just a minority but one that is considered to be far from the ideal.”  And yet “we HSPs do a great disservice to ourselves and others when we think of ourselves as weak compared to the warrior. Our strength is different, but frequently it is more powerful. Often it is the only kind that can begin to handle suffering and evil. It certainly requires equal courage … nor is it always about enduring, accepting, and finding meaning in suffering. Sometimes actions involving great skill and strategy are called for.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) is a riveting account of a man eater, but it’s also fascinating for the glimpse into Russia: “Under communism, there was room, albeit strictly controlled, for aspiration, and there was a State guarantee of basic security in terms of education, employment, housing, and food. But most of these assurances disintegrated after perestroika. Replacing them, along with crime, alcoholism, and despondency, were satellite dishes offering multiple channels that allowed you to see just how far behind you really were. Nowadays, in many parts of the world – not just Soboloyne – it is possible to starve while watching television.”

Graphic novels: I enjoyed a couple of graphic novel biographies, including James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner (Capico) and Lennon: The New York Years (Foenkinos). I’d also recommend Snow White: A Graphic Novel (Phelan) and How to Survive in the North (Healy).

Jason (who goes by this name only, professionally) is a Norwegian cartoonist skilled at telling utterly unpretentious, concise but fascinating stories in more then one genre. I loved a number of titles: Why Are You Doing This? and The Last Musketeer as well as I Killed Adolph Hitler and On the Camino. The Toronto library had all these graphic novels.

Poetry: Class Clown, by Pino Coluccio, is a terrific and utterly unpretentious collection I’m so pleased to have. I read Leviathan (Carmine Starnino) and found it superb, as meaningful as it was carefully crafted. Allegheny, BC (Rodney DeCroo) is a collection with refreshing focus, and I managed to get out to celebrate new collections by Jim Johnstone (The Chemical Life) and Shane Neilson (Dysphoria) as well as, remarkably enough, a new collected Aldwn Nowlan. Yes, finally, a collected Alden Nowlan. I’m really enjoying the meditative and thoughtful work of Chris Banks again with The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, and there’s a One Question Interview, below.


Jessica Westhead’s fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for the Journey Prize anthology, and nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared widely in major literary journals. Her first novel Pulpy & Midge was nominated for the ReLit Award. Her critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her new collection of stories is called Things Not to Do.

I’m really enjoying these stories, in particular the way they’re peppered with excellent observations and description. People on a dance floor at a wedding are “shaking everything God gave them.” And your dialogue rings true. Henry Green said that when he heard conversation “people strike sparks off each other,” and “that is what I try to note down.” Do you do research at times? Or is it just a matter of keeping eyes and ears open, as a writer?

Thank you! I love writing dialogue. It’s a really effective way of showing a character’s personality, and it’s fun to find the right voice. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to write realistic dialogue by eavesdropping constantly. That’s my research. Going out in the world with my notebook and (covertly!) observing how people relate to each other, and noticing that it’s often the things that go unsaid that are the most compelling parts of a conversation.Westheadcover

It’s so interesting, the way we dance around certain subjects that are loaded for us; very rarely do people come out and say exactly what’s on their minds. I’m fascinated by all the stuff that’s so clearly there, just under the surface. Once I overheard a mother say to her small son, “And sometimes Daddy takes off his ring and forgets to put it back on, and Mommy teases him about it. Because it’s fun to tease.”
One-sided phone conversations are great too because then you’re trying to imagine what’s being said on the other line. This is one of my all-time favourites: “So I was talking to Barry.” (Pause to listen.) “Yeah, I know you’re not comfortable, I told him. If you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll protect you. I told the guy.” (Pause.) “Barry’s cool. He’ll just come over, we’ll shoot the shit. I mean, just trust me. I’ve known the guy since I was twenty-four.” (Pause.) “If there was ever anybody you could trust, it would be Barry. He’s my best friend.” (Pause) “No, he’s not going to do that again, I swear.”
Even people’s self-talk can be wonderfully revealing. Once I saw an unhappy-looking older woman in my doctor’s waiting room, flipping through a Canadian Living. She stopped at a page spread, sneered at it, and then muttered to herself, “Ten-minute homemade ice cream. Yeah, right.”
When you listen closely, also, you start to absorb some of the rhythms and cadences that differentiate people’s speech, and that will start to find its way into your written dialogue. Plus you just might stumble upon a bonus line like this: “I don’t really eat soup. I don’t think I properly take advantage of soup.”

Chris Banks is the author of four collections of poems: Bonfires, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, Winter Cranes, and most recently The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. His poetry has appeared in the New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, the Antigonish Review, and the Malahat Review, among other publications.

I see conscious links in these poems between time and identity: both personal details and larger world events are linked to identity. It’s as though people are going up an escalator, fixed in a set of memories, but aware of the present. Some poems are about getting older. Is this process of getting through life more complex than ever? 

You cannot escape identity is what I have discovered in poetry. As much as I wanted The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory to be about the cognitive dissonance created by a world of thirteen year old Youtube stars, a giant replica of Noah’s Ark, genetically engineered Glofish, climate change, parallel universes, and on and on, it all boomerangs back to how I feel about these topics. No matter how much wisdom I can squeeze out of a poem, I still have to deal with myself at some point.

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It’s hard to talk about identity for me as I am extremely introverted and suffer from dual disorders: major depression and alcoholism which I am recovering from. To say this makes my life challenging is an understatement. I have been accused of being too narrative, too honest in the past, not formal enough, which is hilarious when you think many poems in my last collection were written in perfect syllabics. However, I really wanted to try something different with this new book.

In the poem “Confessionalism”, for instance, I tell a myriad of rapid-fire lies and then one or two sincere things. I hint at this strategy in the the collection’s title poem when I say “I tell elaborate lies to ascertain the truth”. If the zeitgeist is a kind of information over-load, a newsfeed anarchy, then it seems to me this is only way to get that flavour into your poetry.

Because I am a depressive, my brain tells me the world is in bad shape. It is also easy to retreat into nostalgia, to revisit those ghost places which haunt your personal mythlogy, as it reminds you that life was much simpler at one time, or you felt a more Oceanic connection to the world as a child, the world before addiction or depression, but nostalgia itself will not save you. Only connections to living people will.

Identity is somewhat fractured in my new book as I stack my poems with lost things, replicas, viral videos, road rage, but I am still somewhere in the frame. I have a poem entitled “Selfie with Ten Thousand Things” which seems like an apt metaphor for the book. How much awkward bundling of images can I produce to replicate how we take in information without losing myself in the process?  Life may have become more complex but what I really want from poetry, those underpinnings, have stayed the same. “That sweetness in you starts talking to /  a sweetness in me. We infect each other.”