Person of Letters: An Interview with Carmine Starnino

PRISM editorial board member Melissa Bull interviews Carmine Starnino.

StarninoPoet, 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 realize 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.

Did you go to McGill after Cégep?

No, Concordia.

And where did you go to high school?

This was the ‘90s, Saint Pius X in the north end, Saint-Michel. Do you know the high school?

Isn’t it the one they talk about it Mambo Italiano?

That’s the one, yes. I went to high school with the playwright, Steve Galluccio. He was a few years ahead of me. We actually lived across from each other on the same block. Isn’t that funny?

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. 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 Can Lit prof. 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 organize 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 scandalized 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 interesting.

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 agonizing.

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 realized 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 judgments, 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 deputizes 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 friendsthey 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 20s, 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 Fall 2015.

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Need some reading recommendations? Here’s PRISM’s “Best Of” to help you out.

It’s the time of year for ‘best of’ lists and present ideas, so PRISM is joining in. We’ve reviewed a lot of books over the past year, and here are some of our favourites. So if you need some great gift ideas, or something to heavily drop hints about, take a look!


status updateStatus Update by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

Status Update is a poetic response to Facebook status updates. And while this doesn’t seem like the most likely source of inspiration, reviewer Claire Matthews said that “If the collection’s conception doesn’t already stun you, then Tsiang’s poetic range and language will.” Status Update was also nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Here’s the rest of Claire’s review, and you can purchase Status Update here.




Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada
Ed. Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris

If you want a good collection of short fiction, look no further. Featuring nineteen stories by authors such as Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alistair MacLeod, and Kathleen Winter, this collection focuses on Atlantic Canada. Matt Snell’s interview is right here, and you can purchase it from Goose Lane books here.



Leaving Howe Island by Sadiqa de Meijer

Our reviewer Claire Matthews called the poems in this collection “a journey into memory, wrought with intensity and freshness.” Leaving Howe Island was also nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. You can read the full review here, and buy it from Oolichan Books right here.



Between cover

Between by Angie Abdou

Between is a novel that examines privilege, mental illness through Vero and Ligaya’s relationship, women from two very different backgrounds. PRISM reviewer Kim McCullough said that “Between is a challenging, enjoyable read that exposes secret prejudices, judgments and privilege that usually remain hidden, or at least masked, in today’s society.” Read the rest of Kim’s review and buy Between here.




Winter’s Skin by Tom Wayman

Robert Colman reviewed Wayman’s Winter’s Skin, “a response to poems, phrases and images in Neruda’s posthumous volume Winter Garden.” Winter’s Skin was also shortlisted for the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. Read the review here and buy it here.



Doretta LauHow does a single blade of grass thank the sun? by Doretta Lau

Keri Korteling said that Doretta Lau’s collection of stories “punches well above its weight.” Though it is a slim book of twelve stories they are as “quick as a jab.” The collection was long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the title story, “How does a single blade of grass thank the sun?” was a finalist for the Journey Prize. Read Keri’s full review and purchase it here.




 Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain and The Hundred Lives by Russell Thornton

In and interview for PRISM, 2014 Governor General’s Award Finalist Christopher Levenson talks with 2013 Finalist Russell Thornton about his two collections of poetry, Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain and his recently released The Hundred Lives. Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (2014), Raymond Souster Award (2014) and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. (2013). Read the conversation here and you can buy The Hundred Lives here and Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain here.

And a few other recommendations: former PRISM editor Jordan Abel’s collection The Place of Scraps, which won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.

And check out PRISM contributor Kayla Czaga’s impressive debut collection of poetry, For Your Safety Please Hold On.

Happy holidays and happy reading!

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Prompt: Seeing Red

redWe know that everybody sees the world in a different way, right? During the process of creating characters, something we do is try and figure out how a character views the world – it’s a part of creating voice and believability. But sometimes it’s hard to get into that perspective.

As a writer and a reader, my attention catches on books. A friend of mine who is a physiotherapist notices how people walk (with their toes turned out, in my case). Hairdressers notice hair. Dog owners notice other dogs. And so on.

So when you’re developing a character, think about what is important to them, what they would notice. Begin with a colour. What’s your character’s favourite colour? Red? Get a pen and paper and list everything red you can see. Did you see this before? Take this further and find out what is really important to your character – their job, their obsessions, their phobias. Now think about what they see when they look at the world.

Good luck!

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Ann Shin “continues to stun readers with her innovation, attention to craft, and rendering of language.”

Family-China-webThe Family China
Ann Shin
Brick Books, 2013

The Family China is Ann Shin’s second collection of poetry, and with it she continues to stun readers with her innovation, attention to craft, and rendering of language. Shin is originally from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, and urban and suburban life are some of the central themes in this collection. Shin also explores migration, death, and how childhood can haunt the present day. Although these five suites have a fine-tuned personal narrative, the poems invite readers to look inward at their own narratives and definition of selves.

Almost every poem has a sidebar-like segment. These fragments emerge from a word within the poem. The words are easy to miss upon first glance because they’re faintly tinted grey. If the word was bolded or italicized, however, it would lose the effect that the poet might have originally intended—that these fragments are memories. They’re inspired by seemingly simple and banal words such as fresh, official, safe, and yes, and then Shin unpacks them. Out of forks emerges:

your thia and yiayia sorted through the burnt rubble rescuing blackened spoons, forks with curled tines  they polished and bundled them into 5 handkerchiefs, one for each grandchild


Although the fragments can be read immediately following the inspired word, they seem better suited to be read after the end of the poem. The tone throughout the collection is so smooth and controlled that if the fragments are read as the inspired word appears, they interrupt the rhythm and flow. They work well as conclusions, as moments the reader might think of when they see a fork, a house, or define what legacy means to them. More than anything, these fragments feel true to each poem. They don’t appear forced or gimmicky. Instead, they add even more layers that Shin has already created through such lines like, “Children in their nightgowns stand waiting to sing,/ as the song skips a generation.” (7)

This line appears in my favourite poem from The Family China. It’s from the suite entitled “Forgotten Fields” and it explores youth—the failings and joys, the overwhelming longing for something different, to be anywhere else in the world. This poem captures what it’s like to grow up in suburbia with such deceptively simple language and evocative images.

Roll me down the length of your long, black driveway.
Let’s steal back what’s ours from closed-mouth houses
where lights are left on, mail delivered, lawns mowed,
while we’re out on the hunt in the dew-wet fields
hungry to find and twist open the seed
of our own promise. We’re not lost,
we’ve just been looking away.


In this poem, Shin uses safe as the key that unfolds a memory, the fragment found beside the poem. It’s an apt choice, a word often associated with the suburbs, though not the first one that comes to mind to those who live there.

The Family China is rich with layers, a dark undercurrent beneath language both simple and haunting. Shin has the skilled ability to evoke whatever landscape she wishes, to bring the reader there and make them feel as if they really know that world. She takes the reader behind the scenes, behind each poem. Shin lures readers further into the world she created and leaves them breathless.

Claire Matthews is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her fiction has appeared in Joyland Magazine and her poetry is forthcoming in Room. Her poetry was also long-listed for the CBC Canada Writes Poetry 2013 Award. She was a cofounder and the Managing Editor of Kwantlen University’s fine arts and literary magazine, pulp. In her spare time, she makes soap and drinks whisky.

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Save The Capilano Review!

TCRIt was a sad day for Canadian literary magazines this week when Descant announced that their Winter issue will be the last, after 44 years of publishing. But you can still do your bit to support lit mags! The Capilano Review needs your help to become an independent magazine

Founded in North Vancouver in 1972 by Pierre Coupey, The Capilano Review has a long history of publishing new and established Canadian writers and artists who are experimenting with or expanding the boundaries of conventional forms and contexts.

So help save The Capilano ReviewTCR has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 to make the six month transition stage possible, to fund office set-up costs, payment to writers and artists in the first year, and printing and design costs for their first independent issues.

Many writers and artists have donated rewards, and for your donation you can receive subscriptions, beautiful cards, manuscript consultations, artist-studio visits, dinners, rare books or paintings. You can pledge $10 or more, and one of the coolest rewards is, for $95, an hour manuscript consultation with one of many amazing writers including Fred Wah, Clint Burham, or Rita Wong, or for $145, an hour and a half manuscript consultation with Jordan Abel, Thea Bowering, and many more.

You can check out the Kickstarter page for more ways to donate. Every little helps!

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Prompt: Translating English into English

Foto_Charles_BernsteinIn today’s prompt we’re going to borrow some techniques from Charles Bernstein. Poet, essayist, theorist, and scholar Charles Bernstein is a foundational member and leading practitioner of Language poetry. Bernstein’s own poetic work explores the wide-ranging uses of language within diverse social contexts, combining the language of politics, pop culture, literary jargon, advertising, corporate-speak, and many others to show the ways in which language and culture are mutually constructive and interdependent. You can read one of his poems, “A Test of Poetry” right here.

Bernstein has many different writing prompts (you’ll be seeing more of them here in future), but I like this one a lot. It’s called “homolinguistic translation”. Find a poem (someone else’s, then one you’ve written yourself) and translate it – into English. You do this by substituting word for word, phrase for phrase, line for line, or a more free translation, in which you respond to each phrase, line or sentence.

A fun way to try this prompt is with a group. Somebody begins by “translating” a poem, and then passing it on to the next person, and so on. When the poem reaches the first person, it’s time to read it out and see how the language has changed… The results can be strange, unexpected and funny.

Good luck!

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