The Other 23 & a Half Hours
or Everything You Wanted to Know
That Your MFA Didn't Teach You

by Catherine Owen

Wolsak & Wynn, 2015. ISBN 978-1-928-08800-4.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 02/13/2016

Nonfiction: Creative Life

The sub-title of Catherine Owen's book may have be half tongue-in-cheek but as she says: "It is also a shout-out to the system to encourage a deeper emphasis on poetic craft, and particularly on instruction in the palette of forms, on performance skills and on ceasing to insist on a direct line between a writing degree [Master of Fine Arts] and a teaching job as a de rigeur aspect of being a poet in North America."

Owen approaches her subject with passion, expertly weaving interviews with fifty-eight Canadian poets and a host of other American and international writers into a well-informed book. As she spoke to the poetic community, Owen says she "was filled with awe at how much we are all undertaking, often for very little remuneration or attention, to imbue the art with energy and a diversity of engagement."

In her chapter entitled "Reading, Revising and Performing," Owen describes some unique approaches to the book tour. Wendy Morton of Victoria, British Columbia obtained corporate funding from WestJet and Chrysler to write poems for people on Westjet flights and to travel, on land, in the name of poetry. Owen herself has gone on eight cross-Canada tours, one of which involved over twenty-seven events.

In an engaging chapter on "Memorization," Owen says: "Poems that live in one's blood achieve a true home in the poet." She notes several well-known poets who memorize poems and remember having poems recited to them as children. Diane di Prima was influenced, in childhood, by her cousin Liz who recited poetry to her. BC poet Susan McCaslin has learned that memorizing poetry can be "heart-work." She found that the memorizing the work of others helped to put more passion into the reciting of her own poetry.

"I have come to cast off self-doubt and stand behind my words in the honouring of the craft," McCaslin says.

Other chapters include "Research," Writing Reviews and Criticism," "Translating Other Poets," "Running a Small Press," and "Collaborating."

In "Hosting a Radio Show and Running a Poetry Reading Series," Yvonne Blomer, Poet Laureate of Victoria, B.C. and artistic director, until fairly recently, of the long-running, weekly Planet Earth Poetry reading series is quoted. She advises not to start weekly but rather once a month or even four to six times a year to start.

You could collaborate with "a literary journal, a university or college, or another venue for increased support," Blomer says.

She applied to various Canadian funding bodies to pay for accommodation and fees for visiting poets from across Canada and beyond. As Blomer and her predecessor, Wendy Morton, point out, conversations about poetry support the more "solitary path of writing."

An open mike is part of the evening's presentations at which poets can gain confidence in giving readings while learning from more experienced poets who are headlining for the evening.

Owen has travelled to intersperse "periods of isolation or roosting with jaunts into unfamiliar territories, almost always with a manuscript in mind." She's been to France, Turkey and Mexico.

In her chapter, "Engage with the World," Owen notes well-known poets who travelled for their art: Walt Whitman who travelled extensively across North America, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Canadian poets P.K. Page and Gwendolyn MacEwen.

Appendices with "how to" information further enhance the chapter subjects. There's an extensive bibliography as well as bios of all the poets interviewed.

"The poem matters first. But the poem, in its singing, can take you into so many practices unimaginable without the poem. You lucky poet you," Owen says in her final chapter, "A Way of Life." And she's right—as she so beautifully illustrates in her book.

Catherine Owen lives in New Westminster, BC and is the author of ten collections of poetry. She works in film and TV, plays metal bass and blogs at Marrow Reviews.

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