Monday, 30 September 2013

Video from my reading at the LOOK Festival

Below is a link to a YouTube video of me reading "Upon scribbling another poem on dying," the last of 6 poems that I read at last Saturday's LOOK Festival in London, Ontario on a beautiful day beneath the trees ...

I also read Woodlot, Autumn Green, Tree Hugger, The Sapling, and Initials just before the closing poem that was taped.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Problem With Poetry

Being both a writer and reader, having been a publisher and having worked for decades in the retail end of the book trade, I’ve been exposed to all sides of the publishing industry. And yes, it’s an industry. And yes, even poetry has become an industry and has been for some time.

This doesn’t mean that its goal is to make boatloads of money. Poetry certainly does not: for the author, the publisher or the bookseller. But it’s an industry in that it’s controlled by an elite circle that holds a disproportionate amount of power and influence in how poetry is presented to the public and in how it’s sustained. Having been out-of-touch with the general populace for decades, poetry in Canada subsists through government arts funding – via the Canada Council, as well as a provincial body for administering money to book publishers (the Ontario Arts Council in the case of my own province), and, in the method applicable to literary magazines, through entry fees charged to poets who wish to enter the myriad of prestigious contests that the established periodicals constantly offer.

And here lies the long-standing issue I’ve had with the “poetry scene” in Canada: its emphasis on competition and its obsession with contests and awards – and the ego that comes along with them. Read any bio of a poet on tour, making a stop in your town, or the back jacket of their latest book, and it’s little more than a list of finalist and first-place finishes. The poet has won this award, and that one, made the shortlist for this prize, and that one. There’s scant mention, if any, about the actual poetry the author does – and that’s because the poetry itself has become secondary in importance. It doesn’t matter if the verses are ones that will resonate with readers, or listeners, or is even any good. What counts is that Poet X has been published in 57 literary magazines and has been nominated for 26 awards, winning a half-dozen times, providing the material needed for which to brag about over some pompous gala’s fondue. And of course, it doesn’t matter if Poet X even reads the periodicals he or she is published in – they’re merely stepping stones to achieving the publication of another volume of verse that’s entirely his or her own. 

So who reads these esteemed literary journals (in which being published is a requirement for having a book of poems released by what the CanLit clique deems a “recognized press”)? The general public? Hardly. Most of the readership are the poets and the aspirants who are   manipulated into signing up for a subscription via the aforementioned “contest fees.” Let’s face it, how else will these pretentious quarterlies obtain any hint of a readership? By making the purchasing of a year’s worth of issues a requirement for a writer to submit poems to a publication’s annual or semi-annual contest. And without a list of awards and honorable mentions to back up a poet’s curriculum vitae, then CanLit isn’t interested in publishing a person’s manuscript.

The defenders of the CanLit system will argue thus: “but without that recognition, without achieving national awards and publication in peer-reviewed journals, then most publishers in Canada will be unable to sell a poet’s book.” And why is that? Could it be because the poetry is irrelevant to the average reader, that it simply mimics the style that’s been embraced as the standard by an elite, academic, often Toronto-centric circle of adjudicators? That much of it is obscure, cut-up prose, has little semblance to the cadence and emotion of the past, when people bought up poetry books because the words and stanzas meant something to them?

Today, the books and authors that CanLit will espouse as “the voice of Canadian poetry” occupy little hovels in bookshop corners, being outsold by almost every literary genre imaginable. But that’s okay, because our publishers don’t need Jane and John Public to buy their books – they get most of their money courtesy of arts grants and contest fees. Literary publishers themselves freely admit that if it weren’t for the grants, they could not survive. They could not survive because people aren’t interested in reading the books they publish, and people aren’t interested in reading them because the poetry presented, for the most part, is indistinguishable from most of the other poetry books on the shelf, none of which are presented for the reader’s benefit, filled with poems that follow a tired formula of endless opacity, concluding with a “killer” line desperately yearning to sound more profound than it could ever hope to be.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of published poets (and by published, I refer to the guidelines set forth by the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and institutions such as the League of Canadian Poets) clearly appear to write their poems in order to impress:  editors, publishers, and contest/grant adjudicators. Without this triad, without these “keepers of the keys to the Kingdom,” poets cannot be published – really published, that is, as opposed to the independents or self-publishers whom they ignore, bar from their tier-driven organizations, and even downright disdain (and yes, there are, admittedly, heaps of equally narcissistic self-published poets worthy of such).  It’s here where the biggest problem with poetry today rests: this establishment of wine-and-cheese editors and the faithful, prolifically published disciples of versifiers ever-eager for that next photo-op available at the Toronto soiree of their choice.

I’m not necessarily saying that poets should never enter contests. Or hope to win awards. I’ve entered a few of both, when there isn’t some $35 fee that pretty well forces me to subscribe to a magazine I really don’t want to read. There are a few contests that are free (and of course, poets need to be aware that even some of the free ones, that promise publication in some hard-copy monstrosity, are exploitive in that if you want to see your work in print, then be prepared to shell out $75 or so to see it); and there are those with a very nominal monetary requirement that may be all well and good and whose administrators are not out to prey on poets. But overall, the Canadian landscape (and the American one, and the British one, etc.) is filled with calls to enter, dangling that carrot of success and achievement before the noses of the naive. “Who Says Rhyme Doesn’t Pay?” boomed the full-page ad in a national poetry journal, calling for contestants for its annual “Poem of the Year” award. I’ll say it doesn’t pay. Simply because this magazine won’t publish rhyming poems or any of the “doggerel” that its editors hope will pour in from seniors who place stanzas in church bulletins, along with the thirty or so dollars per entry sent by those with delusions of a first-place finish, fleeting recognition and a decent dollar prize (editors who are always prepared to exploit those they normally reject come contest time – when they need a hefty infusion of funds). Granted, the issues of this periodical, when they arrive over the next twelve months, will no doubt find a place on a person’s bookshelf, after he or she has quickly leafed through it, reluctantly admitting that the photographs inside are far better than the poems therein, much like those brightly coloured books you had as a child that wooed you with their pictures but at least had a text that in some meaningful way, spoke to you where you were, at that moment, and that today you can still recall.

-- Andreas Gripp

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Poem from The Penitent up on YouTube

Thanks to the folks at London Open Mic Poetry Night (in particular Erik Martinez-Richards) for posting the video below and writing the summation on YouTube. It's my live rendering of the first poem from my latest book, The Penitent ...

The text of the poem can be found in several places online including Internet Archive, Google Books, and on Scribd below: