Once a month we’re swapping articles and interviews with western Canada’s oldest literary magazine, PRISM international, to share our writers with a wider audience. This week, PRISM editorial board member Melissa Bull interviews Carmine Starnino.
Poet, editor, anthologist, and critic Carmine Starnino has the kind of multi-faceted career I’ve always admired. Starnino, the former editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve, has published four volumes of poetry. This Way Out (Gaspereau, 2009), was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. He has won the Canadian Author’s Association Prize for Poetry and the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. He is poetry editor for Vehicule Press and senior editor for Reader’s Digest Canada. His Lazy Bastardism: Reviews and Essays on Canadian Poetry was published by Gaspereau in Fall, 2012.
I spoke with Carmine last spring over the phone about how he juggles writing poetry, editing at Reader’s Digest and Véhicule, and writing criticism.
— Melissa Bull
Can you tell me about how you went from writing poetry to publishing poetry reviews and criticism?
I started writing poetry in the last years of high school. Until then I was always thinking along those terms. I was excited by poems when they came up in class, and I remember reacting in ways I realise now are probably unique to poets – obsessing over words and sounds. Then, for whatever reason, I started to write what I thought were poems. I’m not sure what drove me to do it. I don’t have those notebooks anymore but I imagine it was a lot of pastiche. Bunches of lines that just sounded like the poetry I was binging on – ee cummings, say. I threw it all away.
Good for you. I kept most of my teenage stuff and it is awful.
It generally is. I kept at it when I was in Cégep. I lucked into the liberal arts program at Dawson and the poetry portion was being taught by Montreal poet Michael Harris, and things in his class just clicked. He had a way of talking about poetry that was really exciting. He made it seem dangerous. It didn’t hurt that he looked the part: leather-jacketed and rakishly good-looking. I think I had a man-crush on him. Poetry, for Michael, basically involved two things: sex and death; that was it. You have to imagine – I was 17, a good Catholic Italian boy. I had never thought about anything that way. I gather he had a similar effect on lots of students. The thing that maybe distinguished me from some of the others in the class, however, was that the activity of writing poetry was accompanied by lots of thinking about what I was doing. I discovered I had a knack for talking about the stuff – holding forth on what I liked and what I didn’t. That was a skill that emerged quite sharply in Michael’s class. And maybe it was something I took from him, because he was always delivering a crushing assessment on some Canadian poet. So perhaps I was just sort of aping him, I don’t know. But I do remember that, from the start, when I began to take poetry seriously, I began to develop very specific ideas about what poems needed.
So when did you start writing criticism for an audience outside of school?
The criticism didn’t really develop until I got to university and I began taking a class with Wynne Francis, a Canadian literature professor. She was a bit of a pioneer, the first academic to figure out that the Irving Laytons and the Louis Dudeks were important. She started writing influential essays about them when they were still on the rise and became a leading critic on the Montreal group, and on Layton particularly. She never gave me great marks, I have to say, but she saw something in the essays I was handing in and told me to keep writing. She particularly liked the way I was able to organise information and assess what I was reading. I remember her comment, “You need to do more of this”.
Were you publishing any of that criticism at that point?
Bits and pieces for the student paper – nothing major. But Wynne’s praise for my writing left a mark. My start as a poetry critic came, ironically, because of a negative review. This must have been 1992-93, right after Michael Harris published his New and Selected Poems. It was reviewed in The Montreal Gazette and completely slammed. I remember the reviewer being scandalised that Michael had written a suite of love poems to a much younger woman. So I wrote in saying, basically, that was a really shitty hatchet job. It was a long letter – I worked on it for days. Where I got the moxie, I don’t know. I printed it up, I put it in an envelope – remember those days? – and I sent it off. And I got a call a few days later from books editor Bryan Demchinsky, saying in his gruff voice, “I got your letter. I can’t print all of it but I’ll use a few sentences”. And he did – that was a total thrill, seeing my name in print. Then it turned out we knew the same person at The Gazette, and I ran into Bryan in the office and, out of the blue, he invited me to do some reviewing for him. That’s the genesis story. He was a very tough editor and I learned a lot from him.
My dad was a journalist for a long time. He always told me that in his day papers didn’t generally publish negative reviews. If you weren’t reviewed that was your condemnation; it meant that people didn’t think you were good enough to play in the big leagues. So how was it at The Gazette? Was the Harris review an outlier? Were you allowed to write bad reviews? Or were you told to ignore books you didn’t like?
The men I was hanging out with at the time, Michael Harris and David Solway, were very opinionated, and it never occurred to me that I had to have patience for stuff I didn’t like. I never considered it. My feelings ran hot and cold. If there was something I liked, I really liked it and if there was something I didn’t I really hated it. Bryan helped me find a voice. It never occurred to him, either, that I needed to soft-soap my verdicts. He never encouraged take downs – or what Cyril Connolly called “the thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens” – but he definitely helped focus my sentences so that I was saying what I meant. Unsurprisingly, my reviews started to provoke letters.
That’s one reason he kept me around, I think. I was writing lively copy that was getting a reaction.
I respect the way my dad did things in his day. But I also think news people, journalists, are very informed individuals, and so their opinions are informed opinions. Independent, knowledgeable points of view can be rare these days. I think people can be schooled, by class or by education, to have quite streamlined opinions. So I don’t know that I would say that no reviews are better than pointedly opinionated reviews.
I agree. And Bryan did as well, I don’t know if you’ve ever met him – he’s a heavy-set, barrel-chested man. He doesn’t have a happy bone in his body for poetry. It’s not really his bag. But he felt that if he was going to edit a books section he needed to run poetry reviews in order to keep up the caliber and cachet of his pages. So he kept assigning me books and I kept hammering out these reviews, and people kept getting angry. I guess he thought it was cool, in a masochistic way.
I guess it’s sort of like the equivalent of an online publication getting hits today; it’s generating attention.
Yeah. So every eight weeks or so I’d hand in my 800 words. What I learned, in terms of keeping to deadline and word count and making sure your paragraphs all lined up and that your ideas snapped into focus, those were lessons impossible to learn otherwise. Certainly I never learned that in university.
I can understand that. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I find it’s very rare to meet people who work simultaneously in creative and commercial fields, though maybe in your case they’re different spectrums of the same field. I have found that I’m a better creative writer for having had to write a lot of articles to deadline. It makes me more efficient with my time, less agonising.
One lesson I learned from working in more commercial fields is that the literary concern about accessibility is wrong-headed. Because the problem isn’t communicating. The problem is: how do you crack this thing so that it’s interesting? As an editor, I know that people are always looking for reasons to stop reading. My job is to not give them any. A magazine article isn’t just competing with social media, it’s also competing with other articles in the same issue. Distractions abound, so you have to make sure the reader is hooked from the opening sentence. Accessibility is a non-starter. The question is: are you entertaining me – are you holding my attention?
When I brought that approach to my poetry criticism, it sparked a mental reboot. It forced me to see prose as an even more powerful medium for talking about poetry. Once I stopped being finicky about how I was supposed to sound in my reviews, I realised that all the tricks freelancers routinely use to keep people turning pages – scene-setting, anecdotes, descriptive detail – could also be deployed when appreciating, or adjudicating, a book of poems. The literary essay therefore becomes a much richer thing. That’s what I’ve stolen from my time on the other side. It’s an amped up version of my apprenticeship at The Gazette. Which is to say it’s perfectly OK to draw on a broader range of rhetorical strategies to talk about poetry in memorable, compelling and thought-provoking ways. And you know, Melissa, I think that’s what really upsets people. It isn’t simply my sometimes harsh judgements, it’s the energy of the sentences delivering their payload. It’s my stylistic attack, the pleasure I take in making my views readable and fun, that truly rattles poets. Not ‘you shouldn’t say that’, but ‘gosh, you shouldn’t say it that way’.
I think about this a lot, too. I am half-Quebecoise, or half-French-Canadian. Francos don’t always talk so politely. They’ll just be like, Here’s a frank thing I thought. What do you think. Editing the ‘Writing from Quebec’ column for Maisonneuve, one of things I’ve learned is that franco-Quebecers are very accepting of critical discourse. A readership’s reaction is not as outré, and I think that culturally it can be quite normal to be highly opinionated (depending on your opinions, of course, some, such as the October Crisis, Trudeau, or Richler are verboten).
I think you’re right. There are probably more venues for zestfully iconoclastic reviewing on the Francophone scene. In the anglo world, it’s rarely accepted. Again, the problem I’m describing isn’t just about being ‘honest’. It’s the combination of that opinionatedness – the clear expression of bafflement or indifference – with a mordant style. It’s a toxic mix for some. It was a major factor in the blowback Richler kept getting, for example. He was a great phrase-maker, and it was always done at another writer’s expense. But Canadians are killjoys: we are always feeling bad for someone.
The more I go on, the more I think that we get so entrenched in our preferred styles and aesthetics. And we can then refuse to consider any other to be valid. This can sometimes amp up into an aesthetic calling out for artists and writers working outside of a lauded genre. For example, I’ve often been called out for writing sad or gritty things in workshops, in super indignant, How-dare-you! ways.
It’s a kind of puritanism. A deep-socketed political correctness. And eventually you find yourself – if you write enough of these reviews or essays – in a place where you have to keep insisting that you have a right to level your opinions at books. Being a critic is a self-elected role. No one deputises you into this trade. But you keep doing it because you get commissions, and people keep talking about your pieces, and after a certain point you think to yourself, I actually like this and I think I’m pretty good at it. The logic underlying the activity, however, is a belief in the democratic nature of public debate. I write my essays because I trust that the scene can accommodate my voice along with everyone else’s. It’s not about ‘oppressing’ a specific author or ‘excluding’ a rival group of poets (the seductions of my prose aren’t that sinister). It’s an expression of trust in the noisy marketplace of ideas – an arena in which discomfiting perspectives can be aired. But pretty quickly you will get push-back from a wounded soul who, in a bid to to enforce more courteous reactions, will want to shut you down. Can you imagine how many emails Michael Lista’s editor at the National Post must get demanding Lista be fired? I’ve never understood that. I’ve never understood the idea that you silence somebody in the name of keeping peace. It’s censorship gussied up as civility. And that’s what that I find disturbing, the utter sanctimony of it.
So where did you go after The Gazette?
I moved to Books In Canada. I’m not sure how that happened. Someone suggested I write an essay about Irving Layton for Books In Canada and they liked it and they published it. And then I was offered the spot of associate editor and I began assigning reviews. So I began editing for the first time. And from there I jumped to Maisonneuve, because a friend of mine, Derek Webster, had started it. And then I began editing a different kind of writing.
I remember when Maisonneuve started. Saturday Night had shut down, and I was very excited about the prospect of this magazine coming into that vacuum.
Exactly, and then Derek moved to Reader’s Digest and he brought me along. And I’m grateful he did. So for me it’s been interesting because I’ve moved from Books In Canada to Maisonneuve to Reader’s Digest, the audience I’ve been forced to think about has grown. So Books In Canada had a readership of about 1,000. Maisonneuve had a slightly larger readership, in terms of subscriptions and circulation. And then to move from there to Reader’s Digest, where I have to count our readers in the millions has been interesting. And all of this has had an effect on how I see myself as a poet and as a critic. At Reader’s Digest I work with some very, very talented people who have been in magazines their entire career. But I feel like an interloper. I walk into the offices with my TLS, and quote poetry during ed meetings. I’m a very odd beast.
I can understand, I’ve sometimes been the token nerd at my more commercial gigs.
So yes, you know what I mean. All of this has useful because it’s shaped the way I see the poetry I publish and the poetry that I write about.
I find that the professional side of writing and publishing has very much helped me to imagine writing as actual, attainable objects that can exist. I’m always getting all gung-ho about writing I like and saying stuff like, You should submit that! You should write that! We should make a collection! to my friends – they tease me about it, kindly, a lot. But you just get used to making things. Writing is way less ephemeral for me now than it was when I was in my early twenties, for example. And while I can see how beneficial it can be to not have to work while also trying to write, I am grateful for the way this work can be applied back to the arts.
Sure, and it also puts into perspective how inconsequential poetry is in the lives of people. Let me give you an example. We had Zach Wells write a piece for Reader’s Digest called ‘Doctor Igloo’. It was about someone named Dr. Paul Stubbing, who worked as a physician in Iqaluit for three decades. It was a 1,500 word profile, nicely done, nothing too taxing. But it was read by more Canadians than all of the books he’ll ever publish in his lifetime, combined. Sets you back on your heels, doesn’t it? And it’s been tremendously healthy for me to face how small our concerns are when compared to the size of the country. For every literary ‘firestorm’ on Twitter, for every Facebook ‘controversy’ over a bad review, my day job reminds me that people have more important things on their mind: the tar sands, rampant inequality, sexual aggression in the workplace. The fact is, the world that poetry once belonged to – the world that saw the form as a vehicle for major ideas – no longer exists. When you come down to it, other cultural forms (novels, movies, HBO dramas) are now regarded as offering a more useful, accurate and entertaining way of telling stories about ourselves. Poetry’s irrelevance, however, hasn’t changed the fact that it’s still a powerful way to store energy – emotional, intellectual – and to release it. Once you’ve had a taste of building devices that can do that, it’s hard to stop. And speaking as a critic, practicing a minor journalistic art underscores how important it is to do it well – and to have a healthy relationship with the reasons you do it.
Melissa Bull is a writer, editor and translator based in Montreal. Her writing has been featured in Event, Matrix, Lemon Hound, Broken Pencil, The Montreal Review of Books, Playboy and Maisonneuve. She has translated such authors as Kim Thuy, Évelyne de la Chenlière, Raymond Bock, Alexandre Soublière and Maude Smith Gagnon for various publications, including Maisonneuve, where she is the editor of the ‘Writing from Quebec’ column. Her translation of Nelly Arcan’s Burqa de chair was just published and her collection of poetry, Rue, is forthcoming.
Carmine Starnino‘s fifth book of poems, San Pellegrino, is due out from Gaspereau in 2015.