Summer Reading Series 6: Profound Poetry

Hannah Arendt

“Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.”
– Hannah Arendt

As our Summer Reading Series continues with a selection of poetry, we prefer not to linger too long by way of introduction.  As A. E. Housman wrote, “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.”  We tend to agree.  Better to let the poets speak for poetry and let the poems speak for themselves.

The following winners in the category of Poetry, and many others, can be found in the National Magazine Awards archive (magazine-awards.com/archive)

1. “Pa” and “Bq” by Matthew Holmes, Arc (2011 Gold winner in Poetry)
Though we do not always need perfect understanding before (or even after) the reading of a poem, an author’s insight into the creative process is often as delightful as the poem itself.  Holmes offers a welcome hint or two in a thought-provoking introduction, followed by the award-winning pair of poems from his project, “The failing of purity”:

how water bends before letting your finger in, how
rain is coming (the flower says), how
rain is coming, how
luck falls, like salt thrown by a god, it falls not. [Read more]

2. “St. Anthony’s Fire” and “The Perfect Fatherhood” by Shane Neilson, The Fiddlehead, (2011 Silver winner in Poetry)
In these fluid configurations, Neilson muses about two profoundly manifest contemplations of the heart: the ironies inherent in god, and the mysteries of parenthood in its wondrous responsibility for another life.

Robbed of touch with peripheral neuropathies and the visible sores, the manna from heaven contaminated with Claviceps purpurea, whole civilizations monster-movied, disease being the measure of purity in a lost, misbegotten heaven… [Read more]

3.Paradise, Later Yearsby Marion Quednau, Malahat Review (2009 Gold winner in Poetry)
In this playful and insightful work, Quednau composes a rhythmic meditation on the nature of our relationship with nature and, ultimately, with ourselves:

I’ve taught them everything I know: that greed is largely forgivable grandstanding, and making a small ruckus is good, might still change the world, and thirst when it hits you, despite an abundance of water and wine for some, and nothing dripping down the spout for all the rest, is merely stoppered-up desire, and what makes humans so different from that lobster not going at all gently is that we can have what we want – scary thought. [Read more]

Read these stories and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive.

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel | Essays | Sports & Rec | Fiction | Personal Journalism

Summer Reading Series 5: Award-Winning Personal Journalism

The fifth installment of the National Magazine Awards’ summer reading series turns your attention to Personal Journalism. For anyone unfamiliar with this type of magazine writing, let’s borrow a line from the Creative Nonfiction Mandate of The Malahat Review–the literary journal of the University of Victoria and a winner of 26 National Magazine Awards for fiction, poetry and personal journalism. What we find in this genre of writing are stories:

“… strongly based in reality that enlighten or educate the reader via fresh insights, powerful use of language, and compelling storytelling. It is not always enough that the stories have a personal basis–they must move the reader into an apprehension of wider human situations or issues.”

Well put. These NMA-winning personal essays certainly fit that bill. As always, these and other award-winning magazine articles may be mined at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive.

1. Parti sans bruit(“He Left Quietly”) by Anne Marie Lecomte, Châtelaine (2011 Gold winner in Personal Journalism)
A woman desperately in mourning retraces the path of her motherhood after the shocking suicide of her son, probing for a psychology that will repair the catastrophic disorder of grief. Ms. Lecomte’s soulful firsthand account of enduring and transmuting the ultimate family crisis, converting it into wisdom and stark advice for all parents, won a Quebec Magazine Award as well as a National Magazine Award this past spring.

“Ce n’est que maintenant que je vois la cruelle parenté des structures que j’avais tenté d’ériger autour de lui. L’OPP pour lui faire aimer l’école, le PPO pour le mettre à l’abri des pires dérives. Mais, qu’importe nos efforts inouïs, nos enfants ne sont jamais à l’abri. J’invente maintenant un acronyme: POP, pour parents orphelins perpétuellement.” [Lire la suite]

2.Tourists of Consciousnessby Jeff Warren, Maisonneuve (2010 Gold winner in Personal Journalism)
A superdrug for the overworked psyche may have been found in the form of an elixir distilled from a tropical plant long known locally for its psychedelic properties, and the curious Jeff Warren heads down to investigate in this article that just about puts the mercy in immersive journalism.

Of course, he’s not the first outsider to try this super secret sacrament (he can’t even tell us in which Latin American country he imbibed this magical ayahuasca), and not the first Canadian magazine writer to experiment on himself for the benefit of us readers (read Michael Posner’s 2006 Walrus piece “Plants with Soul” for a nice complement to the story of the drug).

But Warren meditates on how the drug can answer the call of the spiritually needy who may still endure blueness despite a century of psycho-analytic attention from Western science.

“I was even more skeptical about the metaphysical assertions. We don’t believe dreams are “real”—why should an ayahuasca vision be any different? Nevertheless, the rich history of ayahuasca usage has undeniable authority; in the end, the only way to really answer these questions was to launch into the psychedelic troposphere and find out for myself.” [Read more]

3. Cause and Effectby Lynn Cunningham, The Walrus (2009 Gold winner in Personal Journalism)
A stirring, eighteen-year portrait of a woman’s unexpected encounter with fetal alcohol syndrome–which affects her step-grandson–and the battles she fought in both his life and her own, this memoir by former NMAF Outstanding Achievement Award winner Lynn Cunningham is the essence of the genre: splendid research and fact-finding couched in dramatic, introspective and exquisitely written personal experience.

“[S]obriety finally made it to the top of the list, along with completing the last two courses of my Ph.D. I figured quitting drinking would at least free up some dough to pay down my debt and help with the many hundreds of dollars’ worth of required reading. Besides, Andrew was already smoking dope; booze—about as healthy as heroin for FAS kids—would doubtless follow, but it’s hard to lecture about why drinking is dangerous with a third glass of wine in your hand.” [Read more]

Read these stories and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive.

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel | Essays | Sports & Rec | Fiction

Summer Reading Series 4: Fantastic Fiction

“Fiction has been maligned for centuries as being ‘false,’ ‘untrue,’ yet good fiction provides more truth about the world, about life, and even about the reader, than can be found in non-fiction.”
— Clark Zlotchew

We read essays to learn, to taste slices of history, to keep up on current events.  Not so with fiction.  We begin reading every story without any idea of what awaits us.  Reading fiction is an act of discovery, a small journey that is never the same twice, and all that we can hope to discover along the way is something of ourselves.

Our Summer Reading Series continues this week with a selection of award-winning fiction, all (and more) available at the National Magazine Awards archive (magazine-awards.com/archive).

1.Four Cornersby Bill Gaston, Event (2011 Gold winner in Fiction)
“I want, I don’t want.
How can one live with such a heart?”
— Margaret Atwood

The intricacies of a relationship and the confusions of love will never cease to be fodder for the writer of fiction. In this poignant tale of a breakup gone askew, Bill Gaston probes the mysteries of discovering ourselves in others and why we often only want what we can’t have.

“He should have asked her more questions about herself, not let her get away with being so private. And he should have told her more about himself. And about Shannon, about how another new layer of skin grows to protect from each mean flick of the tongue. About how never really listening to Cheryl is part of that thickened skin of his. He really needs most of all to tell her that his ears, and his heart, are full of skin.” [Read more]

2.Shared Room on Unionby Steven Heighton, The Fiddlehead (2009 Gold winner in Fiction)
“No one remains quite what he was when he recognizes himself.”
— Thomas Mann

A young couple. A carjacker who doesn’t drive. A broke, and broken, passer-by. What happens when a chance encounter forces us to confront the things we want above all else to hide about ourselves? Or wish above all else to keep hidden in others? Does the propensity of the human heart toward self-delusion outweigh the achingly desperate need for some semblance of intimacy? Exhausting every nuance of what it means to know, Steven Heighton writes with subtle prose and an exquisite sense of irony in this critically acclaimed short story.

“Though their bodies were jammed together at many points, in this extremity he was fully alone. She must feel the same. He guessed she must feel the same… Surely, whatever happened, they would live differently now.” [Read more]

3.Dead Man’s Weddingby Andrew Tibbetts, The Malahat Review (2008 Gold winner in Fiction)
In this unique and touching coming-of-age story, Andrew Tibbetts chronicles the interactions of two families, one Canadian and one American, celebrating Mother’s Day at their neighbouring cottages. With sharp humour and a keen sense of the profundity of the mundane, Tibbetts explores the clash of cultures, a mother’s desperate love, and the heartbreakingly earnest desire of a young boy to find his place in the world.

“We play nonchalantly. We look casual. Content. Only Sassafras is close enough to see that our calm is pretend, to see how bored we are with Crazy Eights and Old Maid and Go Fish. Only Sassafras sees how full we are of longing for something mysterious and wild, something that has nothing to do with us, but could swerve into our world to make all the known things new and dangerous. Shine your beam of light, Sassafras, to draw them here; come, tacky Yankees, come to spoil the peace and quiet.” [Read more]

Read these articles and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel | Essays | Sports & Recreation

Image of Clark Zlotchew courtesy www.clarkzlotchew.com

Summer Reading Series 3: (Olympic) Sports & Recreation

Like hundreds of millions around the world, we watched the opening ceremonies of the London Olympic Games not only to see what Danny Boyle could do with $43-million and a top-hatted Kenneth Branagh, but also because the grand procession of athletes is the final hurdle in our quadrennial wait between each staging of the greatest spectacle of sport on Earth. Now, at last, the games can begin again.

Fitting with the theme of day, for the third installment of our Summer Reading Series we present winners from the category Sports & Recreation, which are available at the National Magazine Awards archive (magazine-awards.com/archive).

1. “The Team that Disappearedby Brett Popplewell, Sportsnet (2011 Gold winner in Sports & Recreation)
In this terrific investigative article that solidified the long-form chops of the new Sportsnet magazine, Brett Popplewell tells the true story of the greatest tragedy in the history of the sport of hockey–the crash of flight RA-42434 in northern Russia, which wiped out nearly the entire squad of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the country’s premier professional clubs.

The pain of the loved ones left to grieve–including the family of the team’s Canadian coach–as well as the terror of the survivors, the chaos of the scene, the circus of the investigation, and the confusion of the one man who decided not to board the flight that day–all are recounted honestly in Popplewell’s masterful reconstruction of an event that affected countless lives all over the world.

“While the bells rang out above the dead, the phones began to ring. It was morning in North America. Late afternoon in Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, as news of the crash reached the families and friends of the men being pulled from the wreckage.” [Read more]

2. “Cycle of Lifeby Rich Poplak, explore (2009 Gold Winner in Sports & Recreation)
An ode to a father’s enduring inspiration, Rich Poplak tells the story of how his dad’s passion for the pedal became his own, and how the pain of pushing his body to new frontiers of athleticism ultimately became instructive of the bonds between father and son.

“I once believed that the time I spent in the saddle amounted to nothing more than wasted hours acquiescing to a foolish obsession. This I no longer believe. As I matured as a rider—as piss and vinegar dried up, giving way to the canny wisdom of a veteran—I came to understand cycling as a means of managing will. The paradox of endurance sport is that it becomes about everything besides the body.” [Read more]

3. “High Standardsby Alex Hutchison, Canadian Running (2008 Silver Winner in Sports & Recreation)
Four years ago, just before the start of the Beijing Olympic Games, 7-time NMA nominee Alex Hutchison set out to investigate why the Canadian Olympic Committee had imposed extraordinarily tough qualification standards for the marathon–alone among all athletic events–that resulted in fewer Canadian runners winning the right to compete for their country.

As the Olympics come around again this piece is especially worth revisiting, not in the least because this year, again, no Canadian women qualified for the London Games’ marathon (3 men qualified, marking the first time Canada has had Olympic marathon competitors since 2000; the men’s marathon is August 12).

“Setting appropriate Olympic standards demands that we think carefully about the role of amateur sport in society. Do we want role models, or just medals? Ultimately, it’s a clash between two visions of what the Olympics represent.” [Read more]

Read these articles and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel | Essays

Kenneth Branagh photo credit: Phil Noble/Reuters; courtesy The Guardian.

Summer Reading Series 2: Great Essays from the NMA Archives

“What do I know?” asked Lewis Lapham.

“The question distinguishes the essay from the less adventurous forms of expository prose—the dissertation, the polemic, the article, the campaign speech, the tract, the op-ed, the arrest warrant, the hotel bill. Writers… begin the first paragraph knowing how, when, where, and why they intend to claim the privilege of the last word. Not so the essayist, even if what he or she is writing purports to be a history or a field report. Like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the essayist lights out for the territories, never sure of the next sentence until the words show up on the page.”*

Our summer reading series continues this week with a selection of award-winning essays, all (and more) available at the National Magazine Awards archive (magazine-awards.com/archive).

1.The Ultraviolet Catastropheby Alice Major, The New Quarterly (2011 Gold winner in Essays)
Are the limits of our world finite, or can there be something beyond its edges? Is death a tragedy, or is it merely catastrophic, like the draining of waves of light into a black hole. Alice Major explores what the science of quantum physics can teach her about catharsis following the death of her father, in this essay that preceded her recent book, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science (University of Alberta Press).

“How can a body be capable of so little and yet a mind be capable of so much? Humans are fascinated by such extremes. This is the material for our stories, the stuff of our legends. We don’t really find the ordinary terribly exciting. We seem to find that such singularities illuminate the human condition.” [Read more]

2.A 10 Percent Worldby J.B. MacKinnon, The Walrus (2010 Gold winner in Essays)
“I speculated in passing that, when seen through the lens of deep time, ours is a 10 Percent World–a blue-green globe that reflects just one-tenth the natural variety and abundance it once did.”

11-time National Magazine Award winner J.B. MacKinnon attempts to untangle prevailing notions of normality in humankind’s understanding of its own impact on the Earth. We tend to err not in our assumption that, previous to the age in which we live, the natural world was comparatively more vibrant and less degraded (though that is not uncommonly a disputed premise); rather, it is the scope of our vision of the past that is limited, perhaps so severely that it begs a completely new set of eyes. 

“The purpose of all of this,” writes MacKinnon, “… is not to demand some romantic return to a pre-human Eden, but rather to expand our options. Our sense of what is possible sets limits on our dreams.” [Read more]

3.The Big Decisionby Chris Turner, AlbertaViews (2008 Gold winner in Essays)
One of Canada’s foremost science journalists, Chris Turner lays bare the case for nuclear power in Alberta–yes, home of the oilsands–severing myth from fact while ruminating on both. Perhaps at its heart, it’s an argument for a badly needed argument, yet without vacillation:

“The most egregious myth, however–the one that could damn Alberta to a nuclear future as the 21st-century economy races greenly past–is the one that says it’s our only choice. Allow me to be exceedingly blunt: that’s just bullshit.” [Read more]

Read these essays and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel

* From Lewis Lapham, “Figures of Speech” (Harper’s, November 2010, p.7)
Huckleberry Finn illustration from the wonderful 1885 edition of the novel, published by Charles L. Webster & Co, whose illustrations were commissioned of New York artist Edward W. Kemple.