The Other 23 & a Half Hours by Catherine Owen — review by Mark McCawley

The Other 23 & a Half Hours

by Catherine Owen

 

review by Mark McCawley

 
 
Other_23_CoverThe Other 23 & a Half Hours:
Or Everything You Wanted to Know
that Your M.F.A. Didn’t Teach You
by Catherine Owen
Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (May 20 2015)
ISBN-10: 1928088007
ISBN-13: 978-1928088004
$13.54 US pbk | $20.00 CDN pbk | £12.82 UK pbk
200 pages, 5.75″ x 8.5″, Criticism

 
 
Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours is not a “how-to” write book. It is not an instruction manual. It is not a teaching text. It makes no promises and proffers no guarantees. What it does do, though, is combine Owen’s own personal experiences as a poet with the experiences, practices, and expertise of fifty-eight Canadian poets (and a host of other American and international writers) interviewed over the course of several years.

Part literary memoir, part literary criticism, Owen percipiently combines these two non-fiction forms into a single, hybridized, collage-like text in which interviewed poets collectively critique the state of Canada’s poetry and its community, all the while proffering tips, advice, and practices from hard-earned, hard-learned experience whether from an academic or small press background, or anywhere in between.

Be it the chapter, “Reading, Revising and Performing”, in which poet Peter Norman, in a blog for the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, insists that “the bulk of poetry composition is editing. You write a poem once, but you rewrite or edit it up to hundreds of times. That initial surge of inspiration and excitement is important. But if it’s true that execution rather than content determines a poem’s quality, then it’s those obsessive hours of subsequent swabbing and polishing that make or break the poem.” (The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.14) Or, the chapter on “Memorization”, wherein Amanda Jernigan adds “memorization is a natural outgrowth of a life in poetry, whether that life is as a reader only or as reader and writer both: the great poems announce themselves as great precisely because they stay with you, in whole or in part; they allow you to carry them with you through your life.” (ibid, p.30) Or even the chapter on “Collaborating” in which Stuart Ross, “likely the most prolific and adventurous artistic collaborator in Canadian poetry,” (ibid, p.115) co-writes poems with twenty-nine other poets in his book, Our Days in Vaudeville, and provides an introduction to his collaborative history and its importance to his creative life:

“collaborating is absorbing because you’re constantly reacting to someone else’s text. . . That is the sublime beauty of collaboration: you’re implicated in something you couldn’t possibly have written alone.” This is an assertion the poems – composed in a range of methods from word by word to thematically, and by every means from email to in person – attest to.

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.115

Owen’s own critiques of the state of Canadian poetry are largely saved for subject matter her many interviews do not touch upon, or barely so. For instance, in the chapter on “Writing Reviews and Criticism”, Owen suggests part of the problem is “the abundance of poetry books being produced by presses in general. Having so many new collections can overwhelm the possibility of criticism.” (ibid, p.45) Owen adds:

Due to the poetry scene being small and highly interconnected in Canada, poets can be resistant to writing reviews because they worry about offending their peers, who may be on juries capable of either giving or withholding grants, teaching positions or awards. The result is that countless books of poetry emerge every year that don’t even receive one review, and when a review is written it is more likely to be an overview instead. Whole poetic vocations can pass without a single critical essay being composed on the poet’s overall vision.

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.47

Indeed, Owen ought to be lauded for saying so boldly in print what so many have suggested behind the scenes. Those that write reviews “for a different range of reasons: to bring other poets’ work to greater prominence and contribute to shaping the literary canon or, less altruistically, to draw attention to one’s own name, stir up the poetic pot a little and otherwise generate discussion and its concomitant energy.” (ibid, p.48)

Still, there are certain chapters in Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours which are somewhat problematic. For example, in the chapter on “Translating Other Poets”, while Owen outlines the positive aspect of translating other poets in a 1977 Paris Review interview with American poet Stanley Kunitz conducted by Chris Busa: “Every poet I’ve ever translated has taught me something. One of the perils of poetry is to be trapped in the skin of your own imagination and to remain there all your life. Translation lets you crack your own skin and enter the skin of another. You identify with somebody else’s imagination and rhythm, and that makes it possible for you to become other. It’s an opening towards transformation and renewal.” (ibid, p.58-59) Owen, however, completely ignores the status of “second-rate” literary citizen which many Canadian literary translators are relegated. It would have strengthened the book as a whole had this been addressed along with another problematic chapter, “Engage with the World”.

The chapter, “Engage with the World” is problematic because Owen presupposes that traveling the world is a prerequisite for stepping out of one’s comfort zone. There are myriad ways a poet can step outside their comfort zone besides the cost incurred by travel and it’s inherent dangers of cultural appropriation. Considering how many Canadian poetry books based upon travel to distant exotic shores have been published, suggests evidence of a lingering colonial shame which keeps contemporary poets from exploring their own cultural history in Canada. One need not go far to explore, to engage the world. Sometimes that world the poet needs to discover is right before their eyes, only they have been blind to it. Perhaps Owen should have titled this chapter, “Engage the World” instead.

That said, the remaining chapters all but make up for any problems. In the chapter, “Hosting a Radio Show and Running a Poetry Reading Series” Ontario-based poet Bruce Kauffman confesses about running a radio show: “I approached cfrc 101.9 fm with a program idea and a demo. Exactly one year after the poetry open mic reading series was launched, finding a voice, my radio show, was aired for the first time.” (ibid, p.72) Kauffman adds:

I came into my own show feeling a bit techno-challenged and a little naive. I think it’s important to admit and acknowledge your own weakness – and to be open – to growth, but more importantly to change. The radio show itself was built around the open mic at the Artel, and with it an unknown and uncertain mix of readings each week – mostly a mix from me reading from another writer’s books. When I quickly realized this wasn’t sustainable for a weekly one hour show, I made a decision then to begin to include monthly on-air interview/readings with local poets – which grew into both local and not so local poets/authors, and as often as the desire or the need arose – and then, to recording other local events.

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.72

Owen adds that “poetry reading series are much more diverse in their venues than radio shows. They can be run in cafés, bars, libraries and bookstores or even, usually as one-time events, in bakeries, aquariums, train stations or public parks.” (ibid, p.71)

In the chapter, “Running a Small Press” Owen asserts that in “North America, there is a lengthy tradition of poets serving their literary communities by starting magazines, chapbook presses or, more recently, running e-zines or blog sites. Certain schools of poetry rose to prominence almost entirely on the strength of their small press publications.” (ibid, p.84)

According to Gregory Betts in his discussion of “The Rise of the Small Press Movement in Canada” from the website Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing:

The models of publishing and dissemination developed by early small pressers, especially through such little magazines as Contemporary Verse, First Statement, and Preview from the 1940s, were imitated and developed by dozens of magazines in the 1960s and 1970s through to the present…

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.85

Owen continues that “running a small press, whether a chapbook or trade one, can allow a poet to trumpet their tastes and place their mark on a generation of texts, thereby contributing to Canadian literary history.” (ibid, p.90)

Or in the chapter “Mixing Mediums” Owen suggests that “separation of writer from artist is that writers may still be hovering between clinging to craft on one hand and spiritual mysticism on the other.” (ibid, p.92)

Heather Haley, Bowen Island, BC, resident, has long been known for both her work in fusing music and poetry and running the Visible Verse Festival, a celebration of the art of the videopoem, expands on the history of the medium and her motivations for undertaking the latter multimedia experiment:

I believe Jean Cocteau was the first poet to employ film. In 1930 he produced The Blood of a Poet, usually categorized as surrealist art. Then there were the “film poets” from the West Coast abstract school, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson and Hy Hirsh, the latter two collaborating with John Cage in 1947. In 1978 Tom Konyves of Montreal’s Vehicule Poets coined the term videopoetry, to describe his multimedia work. Rather than get bogged down in semantics, I’d like to point out that I think in terms of moving images, and don’t make a huge distinction between film and video. I work with digital video because it is accessible and affordable, important considerations for most poets. I’m drawn to video because of its populist nature. It lends itself to hybridization and its history of experimentation is a fundamental aspect of the medium. Video is a natural fit for me, having grown up with television and cinema.

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.103

Owen concludes that “regardless of definition, the desire to mix mediums entails the poet taking up another art form in which to explore their creative engagement with the world, whether it’s with paints, movement, the camera, clay or an instrument. Many poets create in mediums other than words.” (ibid, p.93)

In the book’s last short chapter, “A Way of Life: Toward the Impossibility of Summation”, Owen gives a brief summary of the aims and goals of The Other 23 & a Half Hours: “The practices under discussion and exploration…are both means of grounding poetry within the “houses” of other mediums, of enlarging its perimeters and, in doing so, of drawing it into community engagements that intend to make poetry matter…” (ibid, p.141-142)

Indeed, one cannot help but agree with most of Owen’s conclusion:

What has been happening to poetry in North America over the past century is an increasing lodging in the academy. Complaints against this reality are often viewed as requests for a return to some mythical time in the past where poetry meant something to common people. My position is that an art form constrained by either institutional parameters or calls for absurd supposedly working-class accessibility is weakened. Poetry, as with art in general, thrives on freedom and diversity. A poem is a channel for energy and energy is best created in an environment in which the focus is on the art itself: how it manifests, connects, flourishes and sends out ecstatic and exploratory roots. Confining poetry to one kind of coursing is equivalent to what is done to waterways beneath a city when they are enclosed in cement and forced to follow a singular path.

The Other 23 & a Half Hours, p.142

Yes, poetry is an art which thrives on freedom and diversity. Over the past century, though, in the academy where much contemporary poetry has lodged has become increasingly less free and less diverse. Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours seeks out the myriad nooks and crannies where poetry can be free and diverse — whether they be online, on air, in school, or on the streets — and flourish in all of its manifestations.

Engaging, informative, concise, evocative — Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours is a clear, keen contemporary snapshot of Canada’s vibrant poetry community. A must read for any new, emerging poet. UG
 
 

Author photo Copyright © Paul Saturley

Author photo Copyright © Paul Saturley

Catherine Owen lives in New Westminster, BC. She is the author of ten collections of poetry, among them Designated Mourner (ECW, 2014), Trobairitz (Anvil Press 2012), Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn 2010) and Frenzy (Anvil Press 2009). Her poems are included in several recent anthologies such as Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC (Mothertongue Press, 2013) and This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2014). Stories have appeared in Urban Graffiti, Memewar Magazine, Lit n Image (US) and TORONTO Quarterly. Her collection of memoirs and essays is called Catalysts: confrontations with the muse (W & W, 2012).

Frenzy won the Alberta Book Prize and other collections have been nominated for the BC Book Prize, the Re-lit, the CBC Prize, & the George Ryga Award. In 2015, Wolsak & Wynn published her compendium on the practices of writing called The Other 23 and a Half Hours Or Everything You Wanted to Know That Your MFA Didn’t Teach You. She works in film and TV, plays metal bass and blogs at Marrow Reviews on WordPress.com

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