Reviewed by David Eso
The Other 23 & a Half Hours Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You. Wolsak & Wynn, 2015.
This year’s prose offering from poet Catherine Owen operates as a guide to aspects of the poetic calling beyond poetry itself. While the market is habitually flush with literary “how to” books, these tend to guide initiates through writing practices or methods of finding an agent and publisher. Owen, instead, addresses a seldom discussed set of vocational aspects that poets might pursue to build audience and community or to develop “discerningly open” artistic practices (174). Many successful poets, in Owen’s view, make “pacts” (2) with the activities that form the various sections of this book: research, criticism, reviewing, collaboration, translation, travel, running a small press and organizing readings. The author has engaged most of these areas of poetic activity and passes along her experience. Her reflections on each topic benefit from interviews with fifty-eight Canadian poets that she conducted for The Other 23 and a Half Hours. Their number include established poets (Steven Heighton, Kate Braid, Gary Geddes, Alice Major) and less familiar figures (Jeffrey Mackie, Bonnie Nish). Further, Owen draws on published writings from a range of historical figures (Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman) to enrich her exploration of approaches to craft and community that might have escaped the attention of a novice or engagement by poetry’s veterans. Because “there is more to writing than just writing,” the book indicates why and how poets participate in the “energetic, demanding and fun as hell community of people who want to make poetry matter beyond the page” (4). The author represents the activities of many different poetry camps—from spoken word to experimental—and stresses the importance of launching grassroots platforms for poetry, which “increase the diversity of the scene and serve as a network of aural nerve endings that stretch across this immense country, binding artists together through public presentations of their work” (81).
The book offers no program for a career in poetry, making the title a somewhat tongue-in-cheek jab at professionalized poetry. At the Victoria, BC event in promotion of her book, in July of this year, Owen told the audience that the book grew out of her frustration with the pressure young poets feel to enter academia. While the book may be born out of frustration, no rants eventuate. Owen remains admirably positive (as opposed to naïvely so) about the poetry community in Canada, as do her interviewees. She often employs “enthuses” as a speech marker for their quotations. The book offers an optimistic vision of poetry as a viable calling in the 21st century, despite significant challenges. However, the author does include critiques of (rather than complaints about) the poetic culture in this country. Her points of criticism include poets who do not purchase or read books of poetry, the disregard of mainstream media and that memorizing poems has disappeared from public education. Moments of literal advice in the book are rare and usually given by sources rather than the author herself. The advice on offer ranges from the practical (the author points out abebooks.com to would-be but cash-strapped book buyers and collectors) to the philosophical. “If you have no time to read,” Owen asks, “please don’t find the time to write” (13). The book covers so many topics that it moves from guide to compendium in short order. Wendy Morton describes her opportunities for corporate sponsorships while Alice Major provides insights into the neurological process and benefit of memorization. Beatriz Hausner offers one of the few imperatives in the book: “Translate only the best writers” (65).
Our “business-driven” and “almost wholly prosaic” North American society necessitates the book and its perspective (2). The author sees the pressure for poets to professionalize in the academic context as complicit with a cultural shift whereby capital threatens to become our dominant motivator and value. Poets, in the era of late capitalism, move from positions of cultural stewardship to that of businesspersons, who write for academic credential and cache rather than from any sense of higher purpose or artistic dictate. Owen briefly attended the MFA program in writing at the University of British Columbia, in 2011. Because of the insular, careerist approach she perceived in the (likely representative) program, Owen left after only ten days of study. Outside of the university system, Owen has run two small presses: Wet Sickle and Above and Beyond Productions. Working with Chad Norma and Warren Dean Fulton, she launched and hosted three different reading series (in Vancouver, New Westminster and Edmonton). And Owen, author of ten poetry collections, has been an avid collaborator (with Joe Rosenblatt, for example) and a pioneer of multi-media presentations of poetry.
The author largely plays a reporter’s role in her text, gathering a multitude of approaches to craft and community that poets have employed. Only occasionally will an opinion slip out. “Yes, poetry is an aural and oral art form, best appreciated when well crafted for the page and then brought to one kind of stage or another,” she writes (69). Although the book might benefit from more bold evaluative statements, her subject—the professional life of a poet—justifies restraint. Owen reserves her passion for discussion of poetry itself. Introduction and exploration of career topics covered in the book serve only as tools for disseminating and empowering the art. In areas where the author has substantial experience (running a reading series, e.g.), the text becomes more confident than in other sections and, thereby, more lively. Chapters on subjects with which Owen has less experience (translation, e.g.) benefit from a wide range of commenters and the author’s broad outline histories of poetry in Canada and America.
One fault of the book is that Owen has sometimes inserted, rather than woven, quotations from her extensive interviews. The author does not always fulfill her duty to comment on and conclude from lengthy passages supplied by other poets. Her interviewees often interject, then, where they might better participate in the important conversation into which Owen has invited and conjured them. At times, these voices compile into pastiche where more shaping and interpretation would have produced a more crafted and coherent text. In this sense, the book is introductory—at times skimming too quickly over the large territory it covers. However, the book touches on finer points of the writing life, aspects which might escape the comprehension of initiates—the addictive quality of in-depth research (41), the devaluation of poetry in newspaper reviewing as a response to a glut of poetry titles (44) or translation as both transfer and composition (65). The Other 23 and a Half Hours offers a panorama view of poetic activity in Canada and contains useful elements for diverse readers, from seasoned poets to the simply curious.
As a PhD student at the University of Victoria, David Eso studies the archived correspondence of Canadian poets. With Jeanette Lynes, he is co-editor of Where the Nights are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets, 1883-2014 (Goose Lane Editions, 2015). His writing appears in ARC, CV2, Vallum, Freefall, filling Station, Canadian Literature, the Calgary Herald, the Rocky Mountain Outlook, and Under the Mulberry Tree: Poems For and About Raymond Souster.
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