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Reading and Seeing the Souls that Create Great Works | Review of “Portraits of Canadian Writers” by Bruce Meyer (2016) Porcupine’s Quill

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I have dabbled in both the printed word and photography. Both forms seem to have a certain appeal to different sections of the mind. A carefully crafted phrase seems to enlighten a part of the human psyche while an image tends to bring a certain pleasure to the same spirit, somehow making the whole reading experience complete. Bruce Meyer has been documenting Canada’s literary scene in both written word and in photos for over 30 years, and his efforts have come together in a charming manner in Portraits of Canadian Writers.

Introduction pages 19-20

This collection of photographs and accompanying essays is by no means a complete catalogue of the most important Canadian authors of the past thirty years – though many of them are here – but a small measure of the voices who have contributed to the cultural dialogue Canadian literature has grown into during that period. There are so many I wish I could have met and included – Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Morley Callaghan and many more. I met them or corresponded with them, but I never thought to bring a camera along when I was with them in a restaurant or at a reading. It would have seemed awkward and artificial at the time, and perhaps, something in me thought that those I held as personal icons would live forever.

Our literature is still a very young, very immature literature – we are just now making tentative forays into those literary expressions that signal a certainty and a maturity in a national canon, and chief among those expressions is tragedy. We have, as readers and as makers of literary culture, steadfastly refused to entertain tragedy. This is partially because the idea of hope is so very central to our sense of who we are, and partially because our sense of poetic justice is ingrained in our political and social institutions. We cannot accept the destruction of a protagonist as a viable outcome for imaginations. We seek resolution. We still seek a just society. Perhaps we are too comfortable, too content with our own situations to accept the discomfort of tragedy.

It seems almost cheap to ‘blog’ this well-crafted book here but I get Meyer’s joy of enlightening fellow readers to a new work or a new thought in regards to a favourite author. I have been doing that for a short while here now while Meyer has been both interviewing, writing and photographing authors for decades. That is the joy of this book for us fans of literature. That element of enlightenment about writing we gleam from both the words and the pictures, printed on the quality stock that Porcupine’s Quill always uses for the books.

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Scanned image of “Leonard Cohen” (pages 52-53) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

I took my time looking at this book, sometimes putting it down for a few days and then reviewing sections I had already read. In short I savoured the enlightenment it gave me from both the well-crafted words and the accompanying images. And I have no doubt I will refer this book about writers and their books again in a few months time. There are subtle details and references here that would pique a book-lover’s interest therefore they should not be missed by a “rushed” reading.

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Scanned image of “Catherine Graham” (Pages 86-87) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

Yes, this is a book that should be in every Canadian library for reference but it is also a book that should be read and discussed. Not in a critical way but one that starts thought process and spawns reflections and considerations. It is a gifted read. And charming one at times.

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Scanned image of “Allan Straton” (Page 180-181) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016) Porcupine’s Quill.

Bruce Meyer has given us readers a serious bit of enlightenment for our minds with his Portraits of Canadian Writers. The combination of writing and images engage any reader’s complete psyche and give insight to some of Canada’s greatest wordsmiths.

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Link to The Porcupine’s Quill’s website for Portraits of Canadian Writers

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“The Hobo’s Crowbar was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them”| Q&A with Poet JonArno Lawson

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JonArno Lawson’s works has been endeared by both adults and children for it’s wit and whimsy. He has been a winner of numerous awards – including the Governor General’s award in 2015 for the illustrated children’s book Sidewalk Flowers. It was exciting for me to see that Lawson will be release a new collection called The Hobo’s Crowbar in October, 2016 and he answered a few questions about his new work here.

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1) The Porcupine’s Quill’s website  is calling The Hobo’s Crowbar a “collection of poems brimming with whimsical wordplay.” How would you describe it? What inspired you (if any) to write it?

The Hobo’s Crowbar  was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them, and then explore or fill out later. There was no central idea, just a pile of poems that seemed large enough to make a book from after a few years! Someone told me years ago that bpNichol worked on many of his projects in a similar way – he had files for different manuscripts where he sorted his ideas and poems, and at a certain point he’d realize something was full enough, or finished enough, to make a book out of (if he was aiming for a book – in his case, it wasn’t always a book!). I liked that model of working, and I’ve tried to use the same method, though I think Nichol was probably more organized than I am.

2) The Hobo’s Crowbar is illustrated with woodcuts by Alec Dempster. (Click here for a link to his website) Was there much planning between the two of you for the book? How long did it take to create the book?

 
The oldest poems in the collection go back twenty years. But most were written after 2013. Alec showed me his work after he was done – he’s an amazing artist – I had no input as far as his images went. He came for dinner a few months ago, and brought the woodcut for the cover image to show me the actual size – they’re less than half the size of the images you see in the book. Very small. Which is funny, because the paper cuts he did for Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box were larger than the images you see in that book. He’s full of surprises.

3) Will you be planning any sort of book/reading tour for The Hobo’s Crowbar? (Or even a public launch for the book?) If yes, are there events you are excited to be attending?

 
 I’m going to be reading from The Hobo’s Crowbar at the Fog Lit festival in Saint John’s, New Brunswick, at the end of September. I don’t have anything else lined up, but it would be great to have some kind of launch in Toronto. Porcupine’s Quill is pretty wonderful about promoting their titles, so I’m pretty sure we’ll do something here.

4) You still seem to be keeping busy with Sidewalk Flowers. Do you have many public events upcoming for it? How do you feel about the success of it so far?

 
Sidewalk Flowers has had a great run. (Click for a link to my review) And it does still seem to be running, in part because the foreign editions are still coming out a few at a time. Right now it seems to be doing well in Germany – I was delighted when someone mentioned the fact I was half-named for German writer Arno Schirokauer in a radio review (on Radio Bremen). Sydney Smith (the illustrator) and I will be going to Ireland in mid-September to take part in the Children’s Books Ireland festival – we’re supposed to talk about our collaborative process at a session there. It seems every time I think nothing else could happen with the book, something else happens! At first it was wonderful, then I started to find it distracting from other work I was trying to do, now I’m just going with the flow – it’s all good. Time passes quickly and it’s silly not to enjoy the good things as they happen. I’m not great with the unexpected – my nature is more to enjoy watching than to enjoy being watched. But we all need some of both.

5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I’m working on a few different things. Mostly I’m working very hard to finish up a book about playing cross-culturally with children. It’s a non-fiction book. I have to have it finished enough for the publisher to start editing it by the end of July, so it’s pretty close now. I’ve been working on this book for ten years! So many interruptions. . .mostly my own. It will come out in 2017 with Wolsak & Wynn (a Hamilton-based publisher). It’s tentatively called “Around the World by TTC”.  I’m also working on a children’s picture book with Montreal artist Nahid Kazemi.  Later in the summer I’m starting on an Arabian Nights sort of story cycle – this is a big project, I have a lot of work (and reading) to do for it, completely different from anything else I’ve done, so it’s making me a little nervous (but exciting to think about too).

6) In the last Q&A (Link to “I like that kids have fewer filters, and they really don’t care about your reputation”) you listed a quite a few of your favourite writers. Have you discovered any new writers since then that you admire?

 
 Writers I’ve discovered since last time! That’s a good question. . . I’ve become a very big fan of Alison Gopnik. Her books about babies and children are fascinating. She has a book that came out just now called “The Gardener and the Carpenter” – well worth reading. Mark Winston’s “Bee Time” is a great read. “On the Move”, by Oliver Sacks. I’m part way through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book “The Gene: An Intimate History” – very entertaining. He’s a fine writer.
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“I would say a poetry book is like a pet. You just have to get to know it.” / Q&A with poet Niki Koulouris

I discovered Niki Koulouris‘ collection of poetry titled The sea with no one in it a little while ago in a “new releases” section. After reading it, I loved it posted a review. The traffic to that review has been steady for the last few weeks. I am glad to post this Q&A with her for those who are eager to know more about her and her work. 
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1) The sea with no one in it is your first collection of poetry to be published. Has it been well-received by readers so far?
 
 
A: Thanks for your interest in The sea with no one in it Steven! 
I do get a big buzz when readers and reviewers whom I don’t know like it. There have been a couple of reviews that were, on the whole, positive. One was one by Emily Davidson in the Telegraph-Journal, a New Brunswick paper. The other was a review by Georgia Kreiger in Split Lip, an online journal from the U.S. I thought it was an intelligent review and I enjoyed reading it because it even taught me something about my own work. I was also interviewed for that issue (April/June) by chief editor, J. Scott Bugher. So I’m grateful to those reviewers, and to you of course, for noticing the book since it was launched in March! 
 
Readings seem to bring the words to life and I’ve received enthusiastic responses then. A few people have approached me after readings and said that they want to review The sea with no one in it for Canadian journals. It’s on a review list in the Australian Cordite Poetry Review and Tarpaulin Sky for the U.S. I do hope someone picks it up for those magazines. Anyone who wants to review it can also be in touch via The Porcupine’s Quill. Here’s the link: http://porcupinesquill.ca/bookinfo3.php?index=289
 
I think the toughest thing for a writer is knowing that readers will have all sorts of reactions to a book. The sea with no one in it became, on a certain level, about the writing process. Within the work there are motifs of masts, spires and clansmen that may represent the anonymous reader. So the question is whether this anonymous entity, the reader/critic, will end up being the spire of worship or the spire that wounds the author with what feels like the violence of the Klan. 
2) Why do you use poetry to write? Have you ever tried any other forms of writing to express yourself?
 
A: I write poetry because it’s the biggest challenge. When I read work I enjoy it seems like the final word and that nothing more can be said or written about a particular subject. So really I’m trying to do the impossible. I’ve been trying to do it for so long I’ve simply forgotten to give up.
 
I’ve studied screenwriting, short story and non-fiction and, while I enjoy reading all writing, I find the process of writing poetry the most fulfilling. It’s all-consuming so there’s not much time left to write anything else. 
 
3) Who are some other writers that you admire? What are you currently reading right now?
 
A: I admire so many writers, including Richard Wilbur, William E. Stafford, May Swenson, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. Mavis Gallant is another fabulous writer who recently died – a Canadian writer of short stories. She is underrated in my opinion. Sad to hear about the death of Maya Angelou, so I am reading more of her work right now. It’s led me to revisit indigenous Australian poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Two women who made sure they were heard. 
 
I noticed you recently reviewed Steven Price’s Omens in the Year of the Ox. (Link to my review) I bought his book at a reading late last year and really enjoyed reading it recently. Great to see a young Canadian writer influenced by Gerald Manley Hopkins. 
 
 
4) Have you done any public readings for any of your work? If yes, what was that experience like for you?
 
A: Since launching The sea with no one in it in March I’ve had a handful of readings. I feel it’s important to acknowledge at least some of the people who put the series together for their hard work! Hopefully I’ll get this right. So far I’ve read in Toronto at the Art Bar (Rocco de Giacomo), Plasticine (Michael Fraser), Words Out Loud (Sandra Cardinal), The Best Originals (Norman Cristofoli and Tim Maxwell) and at Ben McNally Books for National Poetry Month (Christen Thomas) and on Nik Beat’s HOWL on CIUT 89.5 FM. I also read at The Poetry Jam in Niagara Falls (Jordan Fry and Priscilla Brett). 
 
Next up, in June, is the Niagara Literary Arts Festival and Mindi St. Armand’s Blue Coffee series. Then on October 25, the Poetry Salon at Urban Gallery in Toronto (Brenda Clews). Hopefully I’ll also be reading at the Alden Nowlan Festival in Fredricton, N.B. in October (Ross Leckie). In 2015, I’ll be reading in B.C. at Spoken Ink in Burnaby on April 21 (Kelly Dycavinu), Wordstorm in Nanaimo on April 28 (David Fraser) and at Planet Earth Poetry in Victoria on May 1 (Yvonne Blomer). 
 
Readings are great for immediate feedback and I’ve really enjoyed them. It’s fun interacting with an audience. I’ve been reading from The sea with no one in it and I look forward to reading new poems as they come up. 
 
 
5) Your bios. list you as being a ‘Canadian-Australian poet of Greek decent.’ Could you talk a little bit of your background? Were there any influences from you life that inspired you to write?
 
A: I grew up in Melbourne. I lived and went to school mostly near the beach. I’ve lived in Toronto for the best part of 8 years. When I just became a teenager I sojourned in Greece, for a year and a half, where I went to a U.S. and English schools. I’ve found it’s easier to write about the exotic. So the Northern Hemisphere is very exotic to me. The longer I spend away from Australia the easier it becomes to write about. I hope the poems transmit a sense of the exotic. I studied Fine Art for a time — painting and printmaking. I love the exotic worlds artists create for us. 
 
 
6) I recently met a poet who lamented that many people are disappointed that her work “doesn’t rhyme.” Do you find that poetry has a stereotypical image that may be keeping readers away?
 
A: People have a lot of different expectations of poetry. I think many readers give up because they are afraid they won’t understand something they are not used to reading. However I would say a poetry book is like a pet. You just have to get to know it. The more poetry you read the more you learn about it. Go to any reading series and you’ll find there’s a community supportive of all genres. People forget they listen to poetry all the time – it’s in advertising and lyrics. The form lends itself to this Age of Information Overload because it can be read in short bursts. 
 
 
 
7) Are you working on anything new right now?
 
A: Yes but I’m not sure what it is yet! However I recently collaborated with artist Eleanor Edgeworth for the magazine The Light Ekphrastic edited by Jenny O’Grady. I wrote a new poem based on one of Eleanor’s works and Eleanor made a new work based on one of my poems.  Here is the link: http://thelightekphrastic.com/koulourisedgeworth/
 
 
8) There are a lot of people who seem to be writing poetry right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?
 
A: That’s why I write it too. I would not do it otherwise. That’s the most important reason. If you want to share it, share it. If you want to make it the best work you can do, make sure your own poem fascinates you. If it doesn’t, it won’t fascinate anyone else. Learn to become a good judge of your own work. Read lots of different poetry. Try to get away with as much as you can! 
 
9) You seem to do quite a bit of traveling. Are you planning any exciting trips in the future? Does traveling help your writing in any way?
 
A: I love to travel when I get the chance. I find it easier to write about new places and experiences. I hope to see more of Canada when I read in Nanaimo, Victoria and Burnaby B.C. next spring (2015) and hopefully more of New Brunswick this autumn. I take any opportunity I can get to travel! 
 
10) Your presence on the internet seems to be limited to Facebook. Does the internet play any role in helping or hindering your writing?
 
 
A: A poet’s main job is to know which distractions are important. Facebook, like anything, has advantages and disadvantages. The internet can be a good promotional tool for a writer. I hope to get a website up soon and get more active. Maybe I’ll blog from time to time. I’d like to do so much more but poetry has to take precedence.