Monday, December 27, 2010

My $0.02 about Peter

I wanted to thank Amanda Earl and Greg Frankson for posting about Peter Simpson's recent bit in the Citizen, in which he lists slam poetry as 'hot' and other poetry readings as 'not.' Nice to hear essentially the same response to this bit of ignorance coming from significant folks on both sides of the spoken word/page divide.

And not to repeat what they both said, but excuse me, Peter, I can't say I've ever seen you at a poetry reading, so where do you get off calling them 'funereal'?

This smacks, to me, of knee-jerk-ism. And that's what bothers me. Peter was constrained to present his list as pairs of things that are "hot" and things that are "not," and while he's dead right that, at the moment, poetry slams are red hot in Ottawa, that convention caused him to say to himself, "now I need a 'not' to pair it with." He couldn't really, at that point, do anything but slot "literary" readings into the "not" column, and he could do it with impunity because the stereotype is so ingrained. But of course! Everyone knows that poetry readings are boring, inaccessible, and grim! Cue the knowing chuckles!

It bothers me that people who never go to poetry shows use them to get cheap laughs in sitcoms and McDonald's commercials. It's as though "poetry" is shorthand for "dense, obscure, elitist, boring." But I understand that for the vast majority of people, the last time they read a poem was in high school when someone made them 'interpret' Robert Frost, or Wordsworth, or bloody Keats, and that their only exposure to it since has come in the form of black-turtleneck-clad caricatures, or winking references to angsty teenagers burning candles and writing about death and suffering.

And poetry reading series, far from not being hot, are starting, once again, to proliferate. The House Band Reading Series, Voices of Venus, the new blUe mOnday series, the rapidly growing AB Series, the Poetry Show . . . all new, all good, all growing. Someone, clearly, is enjoying them, if not Peter.

But, hey, I'm probably preaching to the choir here. At least I hope I am. And if I'm not, go find a poetry reading. Somewhere in Ottawa. Here's a good place to start looking. Go into the basement of the Royal Oak on Laurier, or down the stairs into the Manx Pub, or under the Thai Restaurant on Queen at Kent, or the upstairs room (and sometimes the roof) of the Carleton Tavern, or the Raw Sugar Cafe on Somerset on a nice night, or a rainy night, or a stormy snowy afternoon. Get yourself a beer, or a wine, or a cup of coffee or tea. Sit down. Get comfortable. Strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Talk poetry. Or talk whatever you want to talk. Listen to the banter, the chatter, the community, and the poet or poets up there on the stage. Maybe catch a catapulted chocolate or shout out a word to include in the next poem. I've seen people jump up and perform brand new, just-written poems in flash-writing contests. I've seen djembes appear for impromptu jams. I've laughed out loud and chanted along, been impressed and touched and encouraged and reminded why I go to these things, more times than I can recount.

If that's funereal, I really should be attending more funerals.

This was at a poetry reading....

And so was this...
I mean, just look at all these un-pained, smiling, cheerful, non-moping people! They actually appear to be enjoying themselves! (And yup, this picture too was taken at a poetry reading. 'Nuff said.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ain't the Future Something?

My brain hurts. How do they do this?


I was on the bus this morning killing time by scrolling through Twitter. I'm still not sure I 'get' Twitter, but there are a few people I follow that are entirely worth it. William Gibson is one of those. (@GreatDismal, in case you're wondering.) And sometime last night he posted this link with the question, "So just how accurate *is* this thing?" It was a graph of incidences of the use of the word "cyberspace" (of course) in books published between 1700 and 2008. Naturally, it was a pretty simple graph, with one big spike.

He followed that up with a question about the odd bump around 1900 (turns out, I gather, that it's the result of some publications being tagged with their date of founding rather than the date of publication of the actual work in which the word appears. Whew; wouldn't want to think that some careless time-traveler had gone and published a critique of Neuromancer back in 1902: or, as someone Tweeted to Gibson: "@GreatDismal Apparently you were quoted by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1888.")

Then he started having fun. Next, he graphed out "flying saucer:"

Then he posted a few more searches - "Cthulhu," "opium," "buggery" - and announced he was done, and heading off to bed with the latest Fortean Times. But what was interesting was the graphs other people created following that, which he reposted. I was particularly interested in the "graph of fears," comparing how often the words "negro," "terrorist" and "communist" appeared: 

Sure, just the idea of software that can graph out the frequency of a word across that many books is amazing enough. The idea that Google has that many books digitally stored is also pretty mind-boggling. But it's funny how we can take that for granted and go straight to playing with it, taking the psychological pulse of the last 300 years by way of killing time before bed. We're awash in this kind of massive sea of information, and we have these little toys with which we can all dabble around in it. Here you go, kids: everything Google's got in the literary world from between 1700 and now. Make pretty pictures with it, and maybe learn something.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What Happens After

I just finished reading Jo Walton's new book, Among Others. I read most of it in a morning, and it was an interesting experience. I met Jo about a year and a half ago, when she came to the Festival, and I read her Small Change books then: an alternate-history trilogy which I remember enjoying, although I don't know how much I could tell you about them now: I'd need to reread them.

But Among Others was something new, and something quite surprising. I suppose you would classify it as fantasy: after all, there are real fairies, of the creepy-wood-spirit variety, and a sort of complicated and nebulous form of magic. But unlike almost any other fantasy I've ever read, in this one very little actually happens. In fact, it's all happened already: this book is an aftermath, in a way. It's what happens to the character after the dramatic battle and the life-altering events. When the book opens, it's 1979 in England, the narrator, Morwenna, is fifteen, and she is getting on with the rest of her life after a conflict with her apparently mad, apparently witchcraft-using mother, which left Morwenna lame and her twin sister dead.

Now that seems like a spectacular sort of thing, and the kind of thing that many fantasy writers would choose to end their book with. In Walton's hands, though, the actual events that killed Morwenna's twin are never particularly clear, never described, and certainly not part of the action. The book is written as Morwenna's diary, after it's all over, and she never needs to go back and explain. The Big Battle is background to the everyday world of bitchy classmates, arbitrary rules, trying to get to know a father and family she's only just met, and trying to find a place to fit in, in her typically horrid and petty boarding school. Oh, and reading a lot, with the kind of obsessive ravenousness that a lot of born readers can relate to. (I did.)

Morwenna can use magic - a sort of very vague, sympathetic magic that only really shows its presence in coincidence and changes in fortune - and talk to fairies. She is also a voracious reader of science fiction, and her diary entries are peppered with titles of books she's reading now, and authors she's obsessed with (she's an omnivore with a particular love for Delany, Zelazny, Le Guin, and Tiptree, but she takes in practically every major work of science fiction published pre-1980 on the way.) While she waits to meet up with the fairies - who need her to perform rituals, the purpose of which she's not always entirely clear about - she brings along a book, settles down to rest her bad leg, and vanishes into Callahan's Crosstime Saloon or Cat's Cradle.

Jo Walton's breaking all kinds of SF conventions here. The magic is a lot more ordinary and unremarkable to Morwenna than the latest Asimov, and she isn't an outsider so much because she has a tragic, magical past as because she's a SF-geek bookworm with a limp who has moved to an English boarding school with a Welsh accent and a weird name. Which should sound familiar to anyone who survived being a nerd as a child. (I did.)

Okay, there are points during the story in which Morwenna learns things about using magic, of the Le Guin-like "with great power comes so much responsibility that you're probably better off not even considering using your great power" variety. When she's tempted to do a ritual to find a circle of friends, she's then troubled by the thought that maybe the book club of fellow SF lovers she finds only exist because of her ritual, and are therefore somehow less real, less genuinely her friends. But then, what outsider hasn't wondered if maybe the friends they find are really their friends, or if it's all some kind of elaborate trick?

So the magic probably could stand in for all sorts of things: adulthood, responsibility, taking charge of your own life, moving on out of a tragedy, hanging on to the creativity and wonder of your childhood and using it to strengthen yourself. At its heart, though, I think the book is about being an intelligent and lonely teenager and finding your way: it's a love letter to the intense relationship some teens can have with science fiction and fantasy - or any subculture that involves that kind of intense consumption: perhaps Morwenna could have been a fan of, say, punk music, collecting bootleg tapes and fanzines. But Jo Walton being who she is, it's about magic, starships, and interlibrary loans.