Catherine Owen, The Other 23 & a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (Hamilton: Wolsak & Wynn, 2015). Paperbound, 208 pp., $20.00.
Faced with the real world of student loan debt, the rising cost of living, the confusing prospects of career, family, or both, a university graduate must inevitably ask what they will do for work and how they will live given their chosen vocation. This may be especially true for MFA graduates, artists or writers who know, unless they are the increasingly rare few who can live off their art or are lucky enough (if it truly can be called lucky) to teach in their field full time, that they will need to support themselves by other means while honing their craft. The challenge—lifelong, perhaps—will be striking a balance between financial security and creative development: of finding a path that will both enrich one's artistic process and afford a full, satisfying life. The actual making of art, in the end, constitutes only a fraction of our lives. Of writing poetry, the medium the author is concerned with, Owen says: "Of course, the writing is paramount, publication is essential and recitation is vital, but these are not the only pacts you make with your art when you assume the strange mantle of a poet in North America."
Rather than a chronicle of starving poets, or an instructional tome on craft and poetics, The Other 23 & a Half Hours is an optimistic, energetic survey of the myriad ways poets can involve themselves in their art, their community, and the world at large. Drawing from the experiences of over fifty-eight poets, including herself, Owen explores activities such as performing, research, and translation, as well as creative endeavours like running a radio show or small press, and working with different mediums. Owen seems particularly qualified to write a book that champions a life of artistic diversity and adaptability. A prolific writer, with ten collections of poetry, a collection of essay and memoir, as well as numerous publications in anthologies, magazines, and chapbooks under her belt, she also works in the film and television industry, plays bass in a metal band and has collaborated with visual artists and poets such as Joe Rosenblatt. Indeed, a DIY punk ethos permeates her book: chapters on running a small press or hosting a reading series tend to favour the "transgressive, discursive" over the mainstream, the grassroots over the corporate. However, the intent is not to denigrate the academe or big publishing houses, but to emphasize the importance of fostering community through helping other writers be read and heard.
Owen's writing is pleasingly anecdotal and conversational, each chapter leavened and enriched by quotes and interview excerpts from an array of North American poets with varied academic and career backgrounds. Whether it's Victoria's Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer giving practical advice on running a reading series, Heather Haley explaining the history and concept of video poems, or Paul Vermeersch confessing his double life as a visual artist, The Other 23 & a Half Hours gamely explores a range of possibilities beyond the strict "publish or perish" paradigm.
While Owen never fails to engage the reader, certain topics receive more or less than their apparent due. For example, the subject of research gets short shrift, at only seven pages, while the chapter on the benefits of memorization, at twice the length, feels repetitive. This imbalance may stem from a reluctance to trim her lively and informative interviews. In other chapters, brevity offers up such throwaway lines as "artists can engage in the appropriation of a culture when they represent these others in ways that may not be sensitive to their context and thus can capitalize on unequal power relations." While the intent here can't be faulted, such a weighted statement requires deeper unpacking if it is to be of any use to the reader. While Owen's book sacrifices depth for breadth at times, this is mostly countered by the appendices, which provide additional, practical advice on the topics covered.
The subtitle, the author admits, is largely tongue-in-cheek, but the book pointedly excludes discussion of graduate-level writing programs or the teaching of poetry, save for two brief chapters at the beginning. Too much significance, Owen feels, is placed upon university writing programs and teaching careers, which are often assumed to be the poet's only viable means of a steady income, prestige and publishing opportunities. While this perception may be slightly overstated, her argument will no doubt speak to the frustration some writing graduates may feel when the dreamed-of teaching job fails to appear. After all, there are far more MFAs than there are teaching positions, and after spending so many years in the academic stream, one tends to equate the tenure track with artistic success. For that reason, readers with or without MFAs will take solace and inspiration from the final chapters concerning the benefits of travelling and living as a "free-range writer," which might include working a regular day job. Owen's book culminates in a call for a diversity of experience that will result in a multiplicity of forms and functions, of practices and engagement with the world, so that a poem "flourishes and sends out ecstatic and exploratory roots."
Ironically—or intentionally—Owen's book may find itself best placed in the classroom to quell students' anxieties about the future and to prepare them to give back to an artistic community that will continue to nurture them in turn.