Category Archives: language


Thanks to 49th Shelf for hosting my guest blog post about some poetry sources and inspirations for my own new book of poems, Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them. Read the post at

#NaHaiWriMo Day One

February is “National Haiku Writing Month,” or #NaHaiWriMo on social media. The project, like haiku itself, seems straightforward but is deeply subtle: write a haiku each day this month. The event is based at this Facebook page.

My first foray, below, tries to meet all the criteria of organizer M.D. Welch’s checklist, which, like his other articles on haiku, is helpful and illuminating. (Personally I like the challenge of strict syllabic form, but will experiment with loosening up.)

in the bare-branched bush

sparrows hush as you pass: chilled

kids near a cop car


a political lipogram about #elxn42

“An ‘Anti-Niqab’ Campaign is Anti-Canadian” is a lipogram about Conservatives in Canada’s current federal election, which I’ve written and published at Medium.
A lipogram is a poem with specific language constraints; this lipogram uses only the vowels A and I. For instance, the poem opens as follows:

Barbaric capitalists and patriarchal partisans spin fascist charisma, baiting and panicking nativist Canadians with rabid, atavistic claims: against migrants; against statisticians’ gravitas (as if trivia)…

Read the whole piece at Medium.

Fascist language from 1946 sounds all too familiar in 2015

Over the summer, I read The President, a 1946 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Miguel Angel Asturias. The novel is set in an unnamed nation usually read as Asturias’ native Guatemala, and it recounts the manoeuvres and psychological distress of citizens, under the rule of a despotic dictator, The President, in the aftermath of an officer’s murder.
Although the novel is set in a fictionalized Central American nation, over half a century ago, I was struck by the unsettling, contemporary familiarity of one particular detail: the rhetoric used in a “large printed notice” posted in a bar to campaign for The President’s “re-election” (which much else in the novel suggests is a fixed and foregone conclusion). Despite the incommensurate historical, political, and social differences between early 20th-century Guatemala and early 21st-century Canada, and despite some of the obvious creative license and exaggeration Asturias uses, I find it profoundly disturbing how familiar the language of fascism sounds now: the rhetoric of masculine strength; of law and “order”; of coded, Orwellian uses of “freedom” and vigilance (i.e. surveillance); of party loyalty as morality; of allegiance to other parties as treason; of populist morality and fear-mongering against an imagined hostile Other. I’ve excerpted the text of the fictional re-election poster below. Does any of this sound familiar to you too? Any of it sound like the rhetoric we’ve been hearing about “#BarbaricCulturalPractices”?

“Merely by uttering the name of the President of the Republic we shed light from the torch of Peace upon those sacred interests of a Nation which, under his wise rule, has conquered and will go on conquering the inestimable benefits of Progress in every sphere, and of Order in every form of Progress!!!! As free citizens, conscious of our obligation to watch over our own destiny (which is also that of the Nation) and as men of goodwill and enemies of Anarchy, we hereby proclaim!!! That the welfare of the Republic depends upon the RE-ELECTION OF OUR ILLUSTRIOUS MANDATORY AND ON NOTHING ELSE BUT HIS RE-ELECTION! Why hazard the ship of State in unknown waters, when we have at its head at present the most accomplished Statesman of our day, whom History will salute as a Great Man among Great men, a Wise Man among the Wise, a Liberal, a Thinker and a Democrat??? Even to imagine any other than Him in this high office amounts to an attempt upon the Destiny of the Nation (which is our own destiny); and whoever dares to do so — if any such there be — deserves to be shut up as a dangerous lunatic, or if he is not mad, tried as a traitor to his Country according to the law!!! FELLOW CITIZENS, THE BALLOT-BOXES ARE WAITING!!! VOTE!!! FOR!!! OUR!!! CANDIDATE!!! WHO!!! WILL!!! BE!!! RE-ELECTED!!! BY!!! THE!!! PEOPLE!!!” (254-55)

Work Cited
Asturias, Miguel Angel. The President (1946). Trans. Frances Parridge. Long Grove: Waveland P, 1997.

An acrosticento (for #writing201)

The third #writing201 assignment is to write an acrostic on trust. This acrostic is also a cento, composed wholly of lines borrowed from other poems. While the poem contemplates trust in one’s beloved, its appropriative form queries trust in authorship and textual authority. So it’s an … acrosticento, then?

the promise of no other

holding the grass seed and the dune
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
and people who are not us no matter who we are
the promise of no other, the sleeper in the garden
has a shadow—then the lilacs across the yard
even magnanimous,
rich with darkness. Inside the grass is the wish to be rooted, inside the rain


Each line above corresponds to a numbered entry below, to acknowledge and link to the line’s source. The sources are all poems distributed by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day email service, which I can’t highly enough recommend subscribing to; it’s a great way to sample the spectrum of excellent poetry being published today. And composing a cento of standout lines from other poems is a great way to discover what kinds of poems and voices one is drawn to – and, in the process, to discover one’s own voice too. (David Shields revived the practice of cento and textual collage in his 2010 book Reality Hunger, which is thus also a source for this work, and also a must-read for writers.)

1. CJ Evans, “The dandelions in the moment and then” (2015)
2. Amy Gerstler, “Fruit cocktail in light syrup” (2014)
3. Martha Ronk, “Location LA” (2015)
4. Joseph Fasano, “Testimony” (2014)
5. Sara Eliza Johnson, “Combustion” (2014)
6. Philip Schultz, “Afterwards” (2014)
7. Joanna Klink, from “3 Bewildered Landscapes” (2014)

Feminism and “how words work”

Ansari_HowWordsWork(viaATTN) I posted this picture of @azizansari‘s excellent quip (found via a group called ATTN:) to Facebook … and quickly got into an interesting discussion. Which I’ve excerpted here – minus everyone’s names except mine, but indicating everyone’s gender. (You know who you are; thanks for the discussion.)

Friend 1 (man): Bear with me, Mark, id like your perspective on he following: the problem for me is that the definition of feminism has changed over time and holds some negative connotations. I’m not an expert on the history of feminism, but I’d hesitate to call myself a feminist. Of course I want complete equality for women to be fully gained in all spheres of society in all cultures….but somehow I’d rather call myself something else regarding this topic….an equalist? Once I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said “We are all Hezbollah”, and that made me feel bad because someone went and defined who I am, labelling me in a way I do not want to be labeled. In the same way I do not to be labeled a feminist, not by Mr Ansari, not by anyone. I’ll be an equalist, and even if I’m the only equalist in the world regarding this topic, that’s what I’ll be.

Friend 2 (man): sorry for sounding like an ass, but: being labeled as something is about as bad as someone mis-pronouncing ur name: the only person who cares is you. in my experience the only people who care are people from our generation – who were the first ones to be properly demo’d and categorized for marketing data. now that “big data” is ubiquitous people simply don’t care. everyone’s gotta make $ – ignore it, or rage at every single mouse click and every public space u walk into. but lets not generation gap ourselves unless we have to (aka mark lol)
on a related note, i am a HUGE fucking feminist.
on a somewhat related, but not really note: during the israeli invasion of lebanon in 2006 i saw a alot of “I ❤ beirut" shirts. it was extra interesting cos a lot of people wore them to a lecture series by the graphic designer michael beirut (NOTHING to do w lebanon). i like it when irony works at right angles to reality.

Me: since you’ve asked, i’ll ask you in turn to bear with me (deep breath): the political economy of corporate-managed democracy is the political economy of late patriarchy. the governance trend of the past forty years – our lifetime, basically – has been a “hard right turn” towards corporate-annexed, “managed” democracy (the scholarly term for this turn is “neoliberalism”: the privatization of gain and socialization of cost under an ideology of free-market fundamentalism). this “hard right turn” has also meant an increase in social conservatism: despite important progressive gains (eg same sex rights, gender-spectrum recognitions, employment equity policies), culture today is far more conservative and even more regressively patriarchal than it was in the 1970s: corporations are like feudal family dynasties that depend in part on gendered divisions of labour for their continuance; daycare “policy” in Canada has abandoned public-sector provision for a consumerist rhetoric of “choice” that suggests the government wants women to just stay at home; and domestic and family violence continues to kill more girls and women than all the C20 & C21 wars put together. is it any wonder, in this context, that the word “feminism” has assumed negative connotations, when its basic principles are disrespected and demonized everywhere today? so je suis feministe. the fact this is at all controversial inclines me to repeat it. je suis feministe.

Friend 2 (man): u actually gave the synopsis of an episode of “untold history of the united states”, by oliver stone. its based on the amazing work of Howard Zinn, historian extraordinary & plenipotentiary.
The episode is “Reagan & the rise of the right”. which btw we’re still dealing with. but they’re finally having their 1960’s moment, which means all the abby hoffmans and timothy learys of the right r coming out now. the big diff being they have money and power. the constant being that people r just as stupid as they always were

Friend 1 (man): thanks. That helped. Mark, I think I’m going to spend the evening rereading your post over and over again until it’s hammered in 🙂

Me: thanks for hearing me. i hope i’ve heard you as clearly too. if you want to follow up any detail, just ask away. fyi, just a few sources for my massively compressed synopsis are: 1) the documentary film The Corporation; 2) Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture; 3) bell hooks’ book Feminism Is For Everybody; and 4) Tim Duvall’s 2003 article “The New Feudalism”

Friend 3 (woman): It is a privilege to be among such esteemed company, gentlemen 🙂
More often than not, labels that minimize, demean, criticize, or exclude tend to break rather than build. When we use guilt- and fear-induced word choice such as “should”, “ought” and “must”, it is an indication and invitation to consider our position/bias/filter introspectively and ask ourselves, in curiosity rather than judgment, why we feel strongly about certain words. These triggers are opportunities to learn, grow, take risks, and become more accountable to our egos.

Friend 4 (woman): I wouldn’t mind adding that actually, the definition of feminism hasn’t changed, but perceptions of it have over time, unfortunately never for the better. Maybe ‘feminism’ no longer makes us think of the mythical bra burnings and rallies, but somehow it’s still perceived as a word that refers to angry people or people who desire to take rights away from others. To shy away from the word is to let those stereotypes live on.

Friend 5 (man): I’m a big fan of Ansari, and consider myself a feminist, but as a linguist, I can tell you that is not “how words work.” A social movement may have a label, but it does not mean that label is fixed, particularly once politicised. Ask any marketing major what to do once a brand has been damaged!

Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

Adventures in Academic Advertising

Mirrlees_GEMI recently had the pleasure of providing a short promotional blurb for a colleague’s new book: Tanner Mirrlees’ Global Entertainment Media: Between Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Globalization (Routledge, 2013). It was interesting to observe the difference between what I supplied, and what they ended up using.

Here’s what I sent:

Comprehensive and tactically plain-spoken, Dr. Mirrlees’ cultural-economic study maps out the complex networks of production, consumption, and regulation that structure today’s culture industry, and offers a key for unlocking its meanings and functions in a neoliberal age dominated by neo-imperial corporations. In the process, this teachable text provides a primer – ideal for undergraduates – on key “macro” concepts in media and cultural studies, like discourse, globalization, intellectual property, and postcolonialism.

Here’s what they ran:

This teachable text provides a primer—ideal for undergraduates—on key ‘macro’ concepts in media and cultural studies, like discourse, globalization, intellectual property, and postcolonialism.

I’m not criticizing anybody, I just think the difference is interesting. (Also – note to self: you’re wordy!) And they ran the extended original on the book’s webpage. Publishers’ advertising and promotion people need a pretty free hand to work with what’s given: advertising is their expertise, it is so not mine. I just like contemplating the specific editorial moves involved here, and how they work to shift units, in this case an academic book.

And of course, Mirrlees’ book is very good, especially for its demystifying treatment of intellectual property, and its elaboration of theories of cultural imperialism.

“Political correctness”: decoding a vicious, pernicious code word

I always cringe when I hear the phrase “political correctness” being used. It’s a deeply coded phrase, and what it encodes is a stubborn, neoconservative cultural politics, a politics of entitlement and disrespect. And yet that politics is so deeply coded that one encounters the phrase being used by people who should know better; and maybe they will learn to avoid the phrase, if they take the time to get caught up on its context and complexity. If I never see it being taken out and waved around in public discourse again, it will be too soon.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, North American academia – and the Humanities and social sciences sector more specifically – found itself in a war of words and policies not only among its own stakeholders, but also with policymakers, and with corporate news media – which, let’s remember, held far more cultural and discursive sway then, before the popularization of the Internet in the mid-’90s. This encounter became known as the “Culture Wars.” In his critical retrospective, Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars, U of Guelph Professor Emeritus Michael Keefer describes the Culture Wars as “a widespread perception of crisis in North American higher education, a perception stemming largely from the outcries over ‘political correctness’ in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s” and continued until the mid-1990s (Keefer vi). Understood in retrospect as a “moral panic” created and fueled by neoconservative ideologues (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, George F. Will, Allan Bloom) to justify the defunding and privatizing of the Humanities and social sciences, the “PC furore” revolved around the coded buzzword “political correctness.”

“Political correctness” remains in use today, usually as a pejorative term that neoconservatives use to ridicule or criticize progressive or left-leaning events or persons, to conjure moral panic over freedom of speech, or to otherwise vilify criticism of inappropriate or untenable claims. Take this Maclean’s article from last year, for instance, which uses the phrase to dismiss the UN’s quite legitimate critique of Canada’s policy language of “visible minorities.”

One of the usual suspects

The phrase also gets an annual dusting-off during the holiday season in neoconservative news media reports of a purported “war on Christmas.” The phrase has nothing like the traction it had in the early 1990s – when you couldn’t swing a black and smoking Christmas tree without hitting some old white fart brandishing a new book denouncing the censorious menace of “PC” – but it has persisted, viciously and perniciously, in everyday speech, popular culture, and public discourse. “Political correctness” is still a card quickly played by conservative or otherwise privileged voices who complain of being “censored” – not just the usual rightwing media suspects, but also a curious and tenacious class of strident yet paranoid academics whose definitions of political correctness – as some kind of discursive “tyranny,” or liberal conspiracy, or “threat” to academic freedom – have helped establish the phrase as a rhetorical stick with which to beat progressive intellectuals. Or intellectuals generally, for that matter. I’m not linking to any such definitions or diatribes. Google “political correctness” if you want, and then take in the lunacy of even just the first page of results. But I will stoop to briefly administer some undeserved oxygen of publicity to a recent example in peer-reviewed scholarship – on account of its windy bombast, and its startling success in finding refereed publication some twenty years after this party more or less ended:

One of the abominations of our day, and there are many, is the beast of political correctness that has been turned loose on the world. Born of genuine humanitarian impulses, it now threatens to devour much of what is greatest in our literature and forever separate the children of our culture from what is essential to their humanity. (272)

Whoa, this opener makes PC sound like a Monsanto product. Actually, in this particular article, this chimerical “beast” threatens to suggest that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist text, instead of just a “beautifully written” one that “should still be read” (278) – as though analyzing the book’s racism somehow means we shouldn’t, or haven’t.

But – its purported “beastliness” and “tyranny” aside – what does the phrase actually mean, as a phrase so cherished and widespread in neoconservative usage? “For the sake of reporters and columnists who might want to come clean and openly mock the virtues that would otherwise remain hidden by the PC label,” Keefer directs our attention to Wayne Booth’s “list of synonyms for political correctness”:

(1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting people’s feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9) anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous. (qtd. in Keefer 11)

More plain-spoken versions of this definition appear as ripostes to a diatribe against political correctness that was published (unsurprisingly enough) on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website:

“Political Correctness” – Buzzword used to express the absurd notion that the majority is being dominated by the minorities. (foundationist)

Political correctness is formalised good manners. It has been a benefit to society. Before it became influential it was common to see overt racism, sexism, homophobia, jokes about the disabled and so on. Fortunately a culture of respect for diversity developed and with it a culture of disrespect for rudeness – political correctness. … The term ‘political correctness’ can be used as a verbal weapon by those who want to do extreme things, things which would attack equality and human rights. When others complain, the response ‘that’s just political correctness’ is supposed to be a conversation stopper, because political correctness is supposed to be wrong. Complaining about political correctness is as absurd as complaining about good manners. The response ‘that’s just political correctness’ usually translates as ‘that’s just being polite’. (Zara)

In other words, “political correctness” is a nasty way to describe talking nicely, as though talking nicely is nasty. This rhetorical duplicity, coupled with the privileged, dominant positions from which pronouncements on political correctness typically come, has made the phrase “political correctness” slippery, robust, and insidious. The phrase thus provides a present-day example of “political speech and writing” as “the defense of the indefensible,” as criticized by George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English language.” The phrase “political correctness” is a perfect example of a phrase whose cryptic complexity lets it smuggle into one’s speech or writing a formidable freight of covert (and perhaps, sometimes, unintended) meanings that can detract from or even derail the point of a statement in which it’s used, when it’s not being openly used to justify oppression.

Amidst the flame wars, troll rampages, and other hostilities that attend a digital mediascape much more populous and interactive than it was in the mid-1990s, it is a tragedy of English vocabulary and public discourse that one of the main progressive take-away points from the “political correctness” furore – that we be courteous, thoughtful, sensitive, inclusive, and above all respectful in our language – has been lost, body-snatched by a sneaky and vicious code word for the privileged, entitled, and bigoted to claim not only license but even moral high ground for their vituperative sound and fury.

Works cited

Booth, Wayne. “A politically correct letter to the newspaper.” Democratic Culture 3.1 (1994): 2.

Curtler, Hugh Mercer. “Political correctness and the attack on great literature.” Modern Age 51.3-4 (2009): 272-79.

Derry, Alex. “Political correctness gone mad?” Maclean’s 10 Aug. 2011

foundationist. Comment 2 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon Apr. 1946. Rpt. in Stanford U. Web.

Zara, Steve. Comment 4 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011