Cuneiform and the Epic of Gilgamesh

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I know we don’t have time to formally look at the Epic of Gilgamesh in Social Studies 3219, which is primarily a history course, but here are a couple of videos for those interested in looking a little beyond the textbook. Both tell the story of Gilgamesh (a great hero king of Uruk in Mesopotamia), but the second also includes a bit on the development of writing and cuneiform script in ancient Sumer. Super cool!

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Writing in Love at the Book Fridge

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img_4116Kerri Cull at The Book Fridge has been doing a series of interviews called Writing In Love, in which she talks to couples or married writers about their craft. The cool thing is that she asks each writer questions about their partner or their take on being involved with another writer, but the catch is the questions are answered without consulting the other half. This is really a fun idea and a series I’m looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

I mention this now because my wife, who writes short fiction and novels, and I are featured in the latest edition. You can check it out here.

Recent Radio Interview + Writing Group

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In the last week I’ve been interviewed on CIUT in Toronto about my book. It was a great opportunity to get the word out there in the Toronto area and to be a part of a radio show that actually focuses on poetry. Imagine! Air time devoted to verse. Boggles the mind. The website link is here, where you can find a posting of the latest podcast. I have not yet seen the episode I appeared on posted, but keep your eyes open and it may appear there in the near future.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs trying to come up with the best ways to teach writing to a group of high school kids. So far so good. I’ve also begun a poetry society at the school that meets weekly to discuss work that members have been working on. The provincial Arts and Letters Awards are coming up and I’ve been encouraging the students to enter something and using the poetry group as a forum for revision, editing, and sharing of ideas with the hope that student writing will improve. I’d love nothing more than to see a student of mine win one of the awards, but we’ll see what happens as time passes.

Chasing the Masters

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This is Friday and, like most Fridays in recent memory, there are things that I should do that have not yet materialized. These can range from washing dishes to finishing mini-projects around the house, or organizing the heaping pile of chaos that has consumed my bookshelves. Then there is the writing I have to do for a couple writing projects with incoming deadlines. Lists help keep all this (life) together. There never seems to be enough time to complete everything so I tend to do the most important first and what remains when I’m finished gets tacked on to day 2.

John Milton was the last English literary figure, I’ve heard, who during his lifetime managed to read every work of literature possible. Such a well read man; it baffles the mind. This could never happen today due to the incredible mass of work out there and one finds that, like housework, there are lists of books to read and to be ignored. I’ve spent too much time in recent years trying to come to terms with The Canon. What is important to read for a young poet who wants to read everything?

An university degree makes this question a little easier to answer (and what do we love more than being told what we must read?). The fact of the matter is that it’s probably the best way to read a wide selection of authors from various periods in history and to therefore gain a grounding in the literary world. The sad fact is that you still only scrape the surface, even after reading Atwood to Zwicky. (Aside: there was talk when I was completing my undergrad that Shakespeare’s time in the Canon of English literature might be numbered, meaning that people are actively considering and reconsidering what is actually the most important for students of literature to read. This topic alone could be the subject of many blog entries).

If you’re a fan of the internet (as you no doubt are, since you’re reading this), there are scores of sites and individuals recommending books and authors left, right, and centre. Each new year magazines and bloggers put out “best of [insert year]” lists which give you an idea of what is the latest in contemporary writing (This is why I think a strong critical culture in this country is essential if we are to understand our own writing and what, in fact, people can expect of our authors and publishers). If there’s one thing society is aiming towards in this century, it’s to think and do as little as possible yourself. The problem with these lists is that it can take as much time to sort through the preferences and biases of these list-makers as it can to actually sift through their recommendations.

But beyond all this there is interest. I enjoy some authors more than others, naturally, and why would I sacrifice stretching my reading enjoyment thin when I can find what I most like and specialize. I do not mean to become a closed-minded reader (that would be ridiculous), but without the ability to read everything I think it’s important to search for what’s best and most entertaining for the individual. In my case at the moment this happens to be Canadian and UK poetry (I’m currently reading Simon Armitage and about to start Nigel McLoughlin’s selected poems). It’s a matter  of specializing, which sounds oddly like the education industry, but is nonetheless true to an extent. None of this is to say I’ve read all UK or even Canadian poets, but I’m working on reading what I can in a way that serves me best. There’s something wonderful in the anticipation of the next great book that floors you, the search or chase involved. I think it would be sad indeed to be able to say you have read everything, like our friend Milton.

Discriminating taste seems to be the term of significance here and, of course, taste is something you can’t argue.

Prescription Poetry

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The history of poetry seems littered with references to the biographical, the ways in which experience can influence the product of one’s writing, or even the impetus for that writing. With our interest in the dark and twisted sides of human personalities, it’s no wonder mental and emotional stress and instability has taken a prominent place in our understanding of writers’ personal lives. There are many writers who, for one reason or another, have experienced duress of this nature: T.S. Eliot checked into a facility for a mental break down, Alfred Tennyson suffered from lifelong bouts of depression, others still resorted to suicide (John Berryman and Sylvia Plath to name just a couple).

I had read somewhat recently (in a source I can no longer remember) that of all types of writers poets live the shortest lifespans (novelists rejoice!). This seems a strange statement to make, but when one focuses on such considerations as those mentioned above, it becomes easier to acknowledge. Is there some way the process of writing poetry (or prose for that matter) is therapeutic? Do writers find solace in composing their inner most thoughts and arranging their personal philosophies or approaches to life in words on the page?

When I was younger and first beginning to explore poetry, I gained the general impression, primarily from amateur writers and people who read some amount of poetry, that writing is often a kind of personal therapy, a way of exploring what one’s issues are and how these can or should be handled. As time went on, this explanation did not seem enough for me. Therapeutic writing became something less than desirable for me, almost as though such an activity was far too withdrawn and personal as to make the product of that writing interesting to anyone other than the person who created it. This was an early opinion before I began writing seriously myself.

I had written one or two “poems” (I call them poems in the flimsiest sense of the word) back in high school, primarily as school work. I found little fun in this at the time and for several years afterward I wrote nothing of a creative nature. It wasn’t until the death of a close friend (the first death I’d experienced close to me) that I attempted poetry again. I don’t believe I can adequately state why I suddenly began to write poems, nor did I know why an overwhelming urge came over me to reopen a relationship with them. The best I can do is reference some kind of inward navel gazing that sought to come to terms with the loss of a great friend. Poetry seemed a way to lay my thoughts, experiences and memories on the table for study, to make some sense of a period of chaos and uncertainty that, for a time, was difficult to cope with. Afterall, didn’t many of the great poets write of lost friends and family members, hard times and inner strife? Tennyson’s In Memoriam is perhaps one of the most accomplished of these and, having been exposed somewhat to this by my father (a lover of Tennyson), it was natural that my reading would come to focus there for some time.

Those early poems were no more than pathetic attempts at writing something of meaning. I had neither the writing skill or  breadth of reading to produce anything worth saving, let alone something to show others. It was that sudden wish to fix how I felt, the therapy of it, that produced for me a strong bond with poetry and poured the foundation for what has turned out to be a love of the power of words. Poetry, I think, needs something to kick-start a relationship with you, whether it be a death, a loss, a moment of utter bliss or some personal or intellectual revelation. It can be difficult and hard to handle at times and to harness poetry’s wonder there needs to be a personal investment on the part of the poet, an honest and deep-felt engagement with an intricate and many faceted mode of expression that, once approached carefully, has benefits that can’t be seen beforehand.

Sure, poetry can be therapeutic to some extent. I no longer think of it in these terms, as I now write for other reasons that are equally difficult to articulate. Poetry has since become one of the most important parts of my life, one that serves as entertainment, hobby, and even contributes to my identity and understanding of self. The need for personal peace certainly can have its rewards.