Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for December, 2012

December 29th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Venereal Disease covers the Earth

Dropped into the Andersen Library on the University of Minnesota campus yesterday to find this exhibit of documents, posters, and photographs from the American Social Health Association. It explores how the Association used research, education, undercover investigation, and civic action in an effort to eradicate prostitution and human trafficking and promote the prevention and proper treatment of STDs.

Evidently their poster designer

had a soviet

propaganda/Sc-Fi movie


December 24th, 2012 • Posted in Massachusetts

Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common,  a bronze bas-relief funerary monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (located at 24 Beacon Street) - and part of Robert Lowell’s response:

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

Robert Lowell (1917–1977), from For the Union Dead in Selected Poems (Rev. ed. 1993) Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Carved on back of the monument, are these words by Charles W. Norton:

“The White Officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war and risked death as inciters of servile insurrection if taken prisoners besides encountering all the common perils of camp march and battle. The Black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union Cause. Served without pay for eighteen months till given that of white troops. Faced threatened enslavement if captured. Were brave in action. Patient under heavy and dangerous labors. And cheerful amid hardships and privations. Together they gave to the Nation and the World undying proof that Americans of African descent possess the pride, courage and devotion of the patriot soldier. One hundred and eighty thousand such Americans enlisted under the Union Flag in MDCCCLXIII-MDCCCLXV.

December 23rd, 2012 • Posted in On Poetry

It’s snowy in these suburbs…

Snow in the Suburbs 
by Thomas Hardy

Every branch big with it, 
Bent every twig with it; 
Every fork like a white web-foot; 
Every street and pavement mute: 
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when 
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again. 
The palings are glued together like a wall, 
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall. 
A sparrow enters the tree, 
Whereon immediately 
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size 
Descends on him and showers his head and eye 
And overturns him, 
And near inurns him, 
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush 
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush. 
The steps are a blanched slope, 
Up which, with feeble hope, 
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin; 
And we take him in.


December 22nd, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

The Unbelievable Scenery of New Zealand s Hobbit Country

My fine brother is currently cycling around

Hobbit country - New Zealand


are just some of the

many great photos

he’s taken. Hard to believe.

Talk about stirring.

Lupins also happen to loom large in another popular literary destination: Prince Edward Island, Canada

December 21st, 2012 • Posted in Literary Tourism

New report confirms that market for cultural tourism is huge

I am grateful to Steven Thorne for sending over links to a series of excellent posts he has written which both debunk the notion that cultural – and by extension literary – tourists are just a small band of slightly nutty enthusiasts who:

“do not generate sufficient travel volume or spending to justify more than the obligatory listing of arts, culture, and heritage attractions found in a destination’s visitor guide, a few dedicated pages on a destination’s website, or perhaps, help in marketing a heritage trail or an artists’ studio tour; ”

and, clearly and methodically state the case for why towns and cities around the world should wake up to the fact that their cultural assets possess enormous economic potential.

The argument is simple: the market for cultural tourism is huge. This is documented in a new Canadian publication called Cultural & Heritage Tourism: A Handbook for Community Champions, and in the 2009 Cultural & Heritage Traveler Study, which identifies 14 per cent of all domestic U.S. travelers as ‘Passionate Cultural Travelers’ who actively seek out cultural destinations. Total expenditures by these ‘passionates’ is pegged at $43 Billion a year in the U.S. and $8-12 Billion in Canada in The Economic Impacts of Cultural and Sport Tourism in Canada 2007 (the most recent study available).

Thorne argues that many cities in North America are missing out on this market because the ‘marketing planning paradigm’ that their DMOs (destination marketing organizations) work within is obsolete. 

This is exactly the argument that we at Literary Tourist have been presenting for much of the past several years. As Thorne puts it: ” Effective tourism marketing is marketing by segment.  To this end, destination marketing organizations cannot rely on generic leisure travel campaigns to reach cultural travelers.  Cultural travelers must be targeted using purpose-built marketing platforms and targeted cultural campaigns.”

Thorne calls for a “much more sophisticated process of identifying a community’s cultural tourism asset base, uncovering its cultural identity, and crafting a visitor experience that will capitalize on any community’s most strategic asset: its sense of place.” Something perhaps a bit like this one.

I plan in coming posts to describe some of the specific experiences that have brought joy to me as a literary tourist; ones the type of which I think could be replicated, facilitated and nurtured by cities interested in attracting visitors with interests similar to my own.


December 21st, 2012 • Posted in Authors and Books

Review of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet by Nigel Beale

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

My review of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet now live at Guerilla 34.


Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.
— Oscar Wilde


In her poem “I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson compares poetry to a house, open to those with imagination, closed to those who can’t understand.

When a poet fails to hold the house door open, it’s a challenge; when she slams it in your face, it’s an obstacle; if he yells “fuck you” while slamming it and people applaud without knowing why, it’s time to complain.

The review that follows looks at poet Ken Babstock, and his 2012 Griffin Award-winning collection Methodist Hatchet, at tone, and at incomprehensibility. About half way through the review recruits respected American poet Wallace Stevens to assist with the heavy lifting.

Poetry by its nature yields meaning tangentially, “on the slant,” as Dickinson had it; from the room next door. Words in poems are stimuli, symbols used to convey and produce feelings, movement, change…unreality and reality. Poetry contains the kind of opacity that courts attention; a chemical burn that produces pain or tears, pleasure or solace, or, over time, insight, maybe even understanding. It communicates in ways slightly mysterious, often more effective, or less cruel, than blunt, direct prose.

Inside “difficult” poetry anyone can read anything into the lines. It’s as much about reader experience and response as it is about what’s on the page. Rorschach blots, as the late great art critic Robert Hughes once said of Andy Warhol’s work, onto which others can project their interpretations.

As I will illustrate below, there’s too much of a disconnect between context—the exploration, say, of art and culture and the splintering of grand, all-explaining philosophies and unifying narratives—and the poetry that’s made from it in Methodist Hatchet. The slant is too steep. Readers aren’t invited into this erudite little game, and there’s scant incentive for them to join in; to make them care. The conversation is too much within the poet himself.

Must poetry, in order to be new, of necessity also be incomprehensible?

If the poet’s objective is to head in different directions, make an original contribution to the world’s corpus of existing work, break language barriers, discover terra nova in the 21st Century—must the result be entirely unrecognizable?

Speaking from the perspective of a common reader who seeks out, appreciates, and cares for verse he can connect with, the answer is no. While poetic risk-taking is laudable and has resulted in big rewards, it’s seldom successful when the “consumer” isn’t offered anything recognizable to “buy”; when he’s sold monologue instead of dialogue.

T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” at least had footnotes.

Paul Muldoon once told me that a poem may be called a success when it achieves the objectives set out by its author. Fine, if the poet is the only member of the audience, but it’s very difficult to evaluate, or want to write intelligently about something that both lacks beauty and makes no sense. Memorability; authentic, original use of lapidary language; rhetorical power scored to important human themes; synoptic understanding of our complex human lives;  staying power … all of this seems rather quaint, slightly naïve, ridiculous even, in the face of such cool incomprehensibility.

But it isn’t.

These are important judging criteria; their use is, however, precluded when you’re dealing with words that only their maker can understand or appreciate.

Perhaps some poetic genius or super-computer will reveal the intricate connections Babstock’s poems make with profound concepts and other works, thereby discovering clever echoings of wise and revered voices, hidden beauty, underlying structural brilliance. I, however, in my ignorance—my inability to read—just find them irritating. So much so that, as you may have noticed, I’ve yet to engage with them here. I need help. So, from these failing hands, I throw the torch on to another, better qualified …

Wallace Stevens (1879 –1955), one of America’s most respected poets, was a great collector and coiner of sayings and proverbs. Many of his best found their way into his poetry. Below you’ll find a selection of them (in bold, taken from a collection called Adagio), poetically twisted to help continue this critique. Here’s the first:

“All poetry is experimental poetry”

That he is experimenting is, as I’ve said, laudable, and desirable. But just what Babstock is experimenting with in Methodist Hatchet is unclear. The poems may, in their slick, impenetrable fashion, be an attempt to mirror the superficial décor that seems to colour our current world, defining its discourse. They may, in their cache-borrowing, high-brow celebrity name-dropping way, aim to expose a culture whose knowledge is fragmented, only wiki-deep, sounds and looks smart on the surface, but lacks truth, authenticity. Perhaps they lament the loss of past oracles now dumb in the face of secular, capitalist individualism—a desperate attempt to find lost or new answers. It’s possible they share Eliot’s frustration with mermaids singing not at him, but only to each other—his knowing that these voices might well teach life lessons, if only they could be understood. But this is all conjecture, the food that poets who write incomprehensible verse tend to live off.

Incomprehensibility in itself is neither new, nor nor for that matter experimental. It’s been around for at least 100 years, as has Modernism’s uncertainty over a godless universe, its introspection, word games, misanthropic despair and solipsistic impenetrability. Methodist Hatchet’s message —with its mimetic account of today’s confusing world—seems to be modernism’s without the redeeming virtue of humour. There’s nothing funny about these poems, they’re unmitigatingly humourless. Unless of course you find funny the possibility that they’re trying to push the boundaries of incomprehensibility to new heights (assuming that incomprehensibility can be measured in degrees).

In Les Fleur du mal, Baudelaire sought to create beauty out of the ugliness and degradation that he saw in contemporary Parisien life. In Methodist Hatchet Babstock—knowingly or not—creates a repelling confusion.

As Jennifer Moore, poetry editor at Another Chicago magazine, put it in her review of the book:
“The reader is left with ‘the fuzz of bafflement’, surrounded by so much stuff, but with little understanding of the significance of the stuff. I wish I felt this was deliberate on the part of Babstock—that he’s making some comment about how hard it is to live in our bewildering contemporary moment—but the poems don’t resonate beyond their own boundaries. The effect of the book is kaleidoscopic, but there’s no center focus to hold the dazzle together.”

This failing is alluded to by Babstock in a Brick magazine [Summer 2011] interview with poet Karen Solie who at one point suggests that he takes manifestations of commerce and culture and art and philosophy and politics as opportunities for imagination; treats them with the same kind of engagement he does feelings, or memories.

Babstock responds: “So using quotation of commerce or reference or joke or dream, I wanted it to feel like it was an acceptance of material. Then one’s own position vis a vis those materials could come in implicitly. The critique will happen anyway. If there’s something missing in the poem, it’s that I may not have allowed enough in, all of these things that represent a wider terrain on which language can go and do something.”

In a discussion that touches on uncertainty, poetry’s virtual reality, the heartbreaking and obstinate silence of the world, parallel reading, speech games, and “morons” who don’t like “the way I write about nothing,” Babstock at one point, referring to symbolic “named others”, says “I didn’t know they were going to flood in, I guess, but they have. What am I going to do about it? J.M. Coetzee’s gonna sue me. [laughter] Why is J.M Coetzee in my book? [laughs].”

Perhaps Babstock sees writing poetry as a form of divine intervention, with himself, like Mozart, a conduit transcribing the voice of God. What is he going to do about it? For one thing, he could think about the reader. For another, consult a good editor.

“The poem reveals itself only to the ignorant man”

Most of these poems seem designed both to show off how bright their author is—and how stupid his readers are—which isn’t all bad of course, because, as Stevens has it: “One’s ignorance is one’s chief asset.”

“Poetry must be irrational”

If, by definition, poetry is an attempt to express the inexpressible, then yes, at least some of it must be irrational, or supra-rational. Words—rational constructs in themselves—must appeal to something beyond their agreed upon meanings, to something emotional, instinctual, spiritual, if they’re to convey anything of reality.

But they must do more than this. If they are rationally incomprehensible they must at least offer some aesthetic appeal, beauty or some other hook, incentive, or intrigue—however exiguously discernible—to make the reader want to read them, remember them, return to them.

Babstock’s poems—forged though they may be from the smithy of the poet’s soul—offer little of this. They may be pure and unalloyed, but of what value is this if the world doesn’t trade in their currency, or wish to? If the world doesn’t wish to pay attention to how it pays attention?

In the entire book there are maybe three or four “word whiff” moments, to use critic Carmine Starnino’s term. “Not enough totems, too many effigies,” to use a David Solway reference.  These are not poems by which “we may try to locate ourselves in the tracklessness of contemporary life,” as Solway once put it, in another context. More often than not they seem like dislocated, incoherent streams of consciousness. Here’s the opening stanza to “Carolinian (Crosscut with Sound)”:

Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance
Of green light-spots we’re leoparded by.
Wild grape ampersand.

Fine perhaps as lyrics to a psychedelic sixties song—“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” say, but nothing that sticking a microphone in front of some stoned sophomore wouldn’t produce.  

These lines sound like they come out of a random word generator. Like free association. Gibberish. For more, see the poems “Russian Doctor” and “Gives you cuddles,” or just let the book fall open where it may.

Crammed with dizzyingly dull wordplay, the poems exemplify disjointed futility. They don’t seem to go anywhere, or achieve anything.

Not that Babstock lacks the capacity to write well …

“If ducks aren’t taken by pike mid-thought;”  
“Everything’s the colour of rabbits, scissored/from another world and pasted on thin”;  
“No one occupies me like me. / And no one makes me lonelier.”

… these lines scattered through the collection are, in themselves, lovely and captivating. It’s just that there aren’t enough of them. Great poems are filled with great lines, nuggets that portend of veins. Here there are too few. Not enough lipstick to entice the search for satisfaction.

“People take the place of Thoughts”

Babstock’s poems are hyphenated by frequent references to “difficult” philosophers and artists. Their names seem sprinkled in like flavourless pepper. Used for show. Little context, just a muttering, some of it inaudible; a joke that only the poet seems to understand. High-styled, pseudo-intellectual lace seductively placed atop the stanzas. Names, gratuitously cited, bobbing on the surface, orphaned, undefined, ill-fitted to any coherent whole. Without relevance, it’s hard to see them as anything but pretentious props, the poet usurping cache, ripping off reputation. 

I can’t help here but think of Warhol and the purloining of brand (Brillo, Campbell Soup) and celebrity (Marilyn Monroe, Eliabeth Taylor) images for his art, and what Robert Hughes said of him: “he came to be credited with sibylline wisdom because his was an absence conspicuous by its presence … the paintings were all superficies, no symbol.”

This is not to say that Babstock doesn’t, I suspect, think deeply and seriously about poetry, and the poems he writes; in fact, the context I’ve heard him provide [notably at the Kingston Writers Festival this past October] has always been much more interesting than the poems he subsequently reads, most of which arrive at dead ends, typically leaving you disappointed and annoyed, led on by mentions of the likes of …

Jeff Coons
Jeff Walls
J.L. Austin
Brice Marden
Max Frisch
Lutz Seiler
Martha Nussbaum

… and so on. To what end?

This is a fine prostitution of cultural capital, quite a display; a roll call that reveals nothing.

Similarly, Babstock pimps the names of Canadian towns, placing them haphazardly throughout the poems, serving them up, as much as anything it seems, to satisfy some Canadian content wonk at the Canada Council. Their presence seems farcical.

While there may be all sorts of interesting underpinning ideas and stories behind them, none, as I’ve said, make their way into the poems. Only a request to:

Slide an arm right through
the surface of this picture,
into whatever spatial realm lies
behind the illusion of depth, to hold
the hand of the person
wanting so badly to be seen precisely
as they feel themselves to be

(from “The Décor”)

The fact that depth is only an illusion makes it very difficult to want to decorticate meaning, or care about seeing this person “as they feel themselves to be.”

The central question then becomes, is it worth it? Will there be a pay-off? As Irish-born, Newfoundland-based poet Patrick Warner puts it in a recent Canadian Notes & Queries magazine review of the book: “I repeatedly asked myself: Is it worth the Google time to unpack this passage, this phrase? Will I find in it anything more than a series of effects, a cleverly ornamented quiff? Am I witnessing only the vanity of the poet as he stares into the mirror of his technique?”

“The poet seems to confer his identity on the reader …

If Babstock’s identity is defined by feelings of anger, cynicism and disgust, then he succeeds in transferring it—not so much because of content, but because of attitude, tone.

When I pick up a book, I expect to learn something, find insight, pleasure, a laugh or two; new ways of appreciating the world, or seeing it, new words, new meaning, beauty. I want to feel something: admiration, stimulation, growth; a yearning for more; a desire to return, remember—“as if I’d had my skin ripped off,” to quote Irving Layton. Methodist Hatchet offers none of this, just a kind of nugatory sneer. A negation.

Because of this, I do feel something, but I suspect it’s not what was intended: anger at being duped into thinking that something might be gained in the reading. Babstock is one of Timothy Murphy’s frauds “who hold their audiences in contempt.”

… it is easiest to recognize this when listening  to music—I mean this sort of thing: the transference”

The only discernible rhythms or music in Babstock’s poems are wretched. Like a retching, gagging reflex, the words are frequently curt, abrupt, aggressive; projectile:  

Scything the new, chilled air over Moabit –
Skeletal, balletic – the cranes insist
        We graph it out
Form up in the EU yellow and blue. Cost
Of jet fuel per person, cost of Khartoum.
        Egypt at the Pergamon. Jeffs
At the Hamburger Bahnhof, again,
Koons and Wall, or walyas and the man
In Mauerpark market
Raking crop circles in crepe batter
Over a heated skillet.

(from “As Lowell on the Ringbahn”)

Call my response what you will—the despairing scream of an amateur—but reading Methodist Hatchet was like living in a bad marriage; a via dolorosa. Stevens again has this covered when he says “In the end, the aesthetic is completely crushed and destroyed by the inability of the observer who has himself been crushed to have any feeling for it left.”

December 21st, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Bookstore cat photo of the week

Hodge, named after Dr. Johnson’s great cat, hangs at Selected Works in Chicago:

December 20th, 2012 • Posted in Nigel Beale's Biblio File Interviews

Audio Interview with Laurie Lewis on Book Design and the University of Toronto Press


Laurie Lewis began her publishing career in New York City with Doubleday in the early 60s acting as liaison between the book design  and printing departments. In 1963 she moved to Toronto and joined the University of Toronto Press. When Allan Fleming came on board as Chief Designer in 1968 a new Design Unit was formed and Lewis became Fleming’s assistant. The department produced many important books, winning numerous awards both nationally and internationally.

For her outstanding service to the design community over the years, Lewis was made a Fellow of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada in 1975, proposed by Allan Fleming and Leslie Smart. She was vice-president of the Ontario Chapter from 1975 to 1977 and continued to support and contribute to the organization for many subsequent years. She also encouraged graphic design internationally through workshops in publication design in South East Asia and in South America, via volunteer assignments with the Canadian International Development Agency

Lewis  introduced computers – the original Macintosh 512K – to the design office at University of Toronto in 1984. In 1991 she took early retirement in order to pursue interests in writing and small publishing. She is the founder and director of The Artful Codger Press, established to encourage the publication of memoirs and life writings.

After retirement from volunteer work Laurie began what she calls “another life.” She became editor of Vista, the publication of the Seniors Association in Kingston, and began a new career as a writer. In 2011, at the age of 80, her first memoir, Little Comrades, was published by Porcupine’s Quill, and was selected by The Globe and Mail as one of the Top 100 Books of the Year 2011. Her next book, Love, and all that jazz is scheduled for publication in 2013.

I caught up with Laurie Lewis recently at her home in Kingston, Ontario where we talked about her impressive career, her colleagues, and some of the more collectible books that she has had a hand in designing. Please listen here.

December 17th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Crime novels set in Russia

Boris Akunin – Sister Pelagia series, Russian Orthodox nun, czarist Russia

                            – Erast Fandorin series, suave, young policeman in Tsarist Russia

Sam Eastland – Inspector Pekkala, czarist-era cop in 1930′s Stalinist Russia

Brent Ghelfi – Alexei Volkovoy series, Russian undercover agent

Andrey Kurkov – aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov and his penguin Misha, Kiev

R. N. Morris – Porfiry Petrovich, Czarist-era policeman

William Ryan – Alexeii Korolev, policeman in Stalin-era Moscow

Martin Cruz Smith – Arkady Renko series, police detective, Moscow 

December 16th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Crime Mysteries set in Africa

    Suzanne Arruda – Jade del Cameron, photojournalist 1920′s East Africa

     Nick Brownlee – Jake and Jouma, retired Scotland Yard detective, Mombasa, Kenya

     Nina Darnton – stand alone set in Nigeria

     Adimchinma Ibe – Nigerian detective Peterside

     Jassy Mackenzie – PI Jade DeJong, Johannesburg, South Africa

     James McClure – Kramer and Zondi series, a white detective and Bantu sergeant in apartheid South Africa

     Deon Meyer – several standalone crime novels set in South Africa

     Tamar Myers – missionary Amanda Brown, 1950′s Belgian Congo

     Malla Nunn – 1950′s South African policeman Emmanual Cooper

     Kwei Quartey – Inspector Darko Dawson, Ghana

     Alexander McCall Smith -  No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Botswana

     Roger Smith – stand alone crime novels set in Capetown, South Africa

     Michael Stanley – David “Kubu” Bengu, assistant superintendent, Botswana

     Robert Wilson – Robert Medway, fixer, East Africa