We all owe debts. Some are to mentors; some are to Visa. Writers, like all artists, are eternally in debt: to the books they borrow from, to the readers who support them, to the colleagues who inspire them, to the centuries of writers who’ve come before. In that spirit, what follows is a reading list of owing and being owed.
Every poem in Michael Lista’s first book is based on another poem, an aggressive intellectual experiment that explores the boundaries of borrowing in an effort to destabilize the reader’s relationship with both the poems in question and the broader Western poetic tradition. It’s an enormous gamble, and one that really shouldn’t work. But in Lista’s gifted hands, it does, and what results is a bracing and challenging collection that is as ambitious as it is beautiful.
Zsuzsi Gartner—Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
Is there another Canadian writer who’s more of an influence on young writers in this country? Through her teaching at UBC, her editing at the Vancouver Review, and her own profoundly original stories, Zsuzsi Gartner has helped shape a generation of talent—Sarah Selecky’s This Cake is for the Party is dedicated to her, and countless others (Lee Henderson, Matthew J. Trafford, and Jessica Westhead among them) are in her debt.
George Johnston—Endeared by Dark
George Johnston’s collected poems is perhaps the book to which I’m most indebted. Finding Johnston’s work while I was a graduate student set me on the long and winding course that has brought me where I am. He died before I began reading him, and to this day I feel a sadness over the fact I never had a chance to tell him that his work changed my life.
Emily Schultz—Heaven is Small
I’m referring here specifically to Ingrid Paulson’s design for the cover of the hardback edition of this novel, which, to me, is a brilliant commentary on the sets of coded images that book jackets use to communicate content. Sepia-toned, gauzy image of a woman? You’ve got yourself some historical fiction. Vaguely Asian looking streetscape? Time for something ‘exotic’! In riffing on a Harlequinesque embrace, Heaven is Small reminds us of the extent to which we can be conditioned, and how important it is to be aware of that.
Troy Jollimore—Tom Thomson in Purgatory
Here we have a double debt, first to the painter Tom Thomson, who’s not the same person as Jollimore’s Tom, but lends a name. Second is to John Berryman, whose dream songs provide a template of spirit, vernacular, playfulness, and energy for Jollimore’s sometimes sad, sometimes shocking, and always moving poems.
Miriam Toews—A Complicated Kindness
As a novelist (and, presumably, as a person), Miriam Toews is incredibly indebted to her Mennonite background, and nowhere is that relationship more successfully explored than in this heart-stopping book. I’m indebted to my girlfriend, Danielle, who put this in my hands many years ago and told me to read it immediately. (A further debt: the idea for this reading list was hers, too.) Once, in China, I tried to buy a used mass-market paperback copy of this book from a café owner. She refused to sell it to me, insisting that she would only trade, and would require three of my books for this one of hers. A debt averted.
Nick Thran’s Earworm is a remarkable book, and I could go on and on about its many brilliant borrowings. But for me it all comes down to one moment in the last (and title) poem, in which Thran laments language’s inability to capture the strange and remarkable by listing various experiences and moments for which there are no adequate words. At one point, he turns toward what he has said was a defining moment of his youth. Thran is indebted to the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, and I’m indebted to him for one of those rare moments when two of one’s disparate passions—baseball and poetry—come together:
…For replaying the video clip
of Joltin’ Joe Carter’s ninth-inning blast
in the ’93 Series. For the sound when the ball
hit the bat, and everyone knew they’d won
before it left the park.
Jared Bland is the managing editor of House of Anansi Press and sits on the board of directors of PEN Canada. He was formerly the managing editor of The Walrus, and is the editor of Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules, a 2010 anthology published as a fundraiser for PEN Canada.
Comments herecomments powered by Disqus