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Poet Solway challenges both reader and student

by Tim Hornyak

SolwayIn a 1997 regulation match of chess, international grand master Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue, and that small portion of humanity following the game caught its breath. With an artificial intelligence capable of calculating 200 million moves per second, Deep Blue's banks of circuitry and silicon were more than a match for the best that homo sapiens flesh, blood and intuition could offer, a somewhat chilling realization of the decisiveness with which the HAL 9000 computer easily conquered astronaut David Bowman at the game in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Chess has come a long way since its predecessor, chaturanga, emerged in India during the sixth century. A Sanskrit word referring to the four divisions of the Indian army -- elephants, cavalry, infantry and chariots -- chaturanga later spread to East Asia and the Muslim world, which exported the game to Western Europe. Over the centuries, the rules of chess have changed, but it remains one of the most enduringly popular games in history.

Enter Chess Pieces, the latest offering of verse by Concordia's new writer-in-residence, poet and educator David Solway. Over 20 years in the making, the collection consists of 39 adept explorations of both the game's rich intellectual, strategic and poetic traditions, as well as its inherent symbolic dimensions. In "Deep Blue's Downfall," for instance, Solway feels a certain pity for what he sees as the humanizing effects of chess upon the supercomputer's cold, ruthless logic: "A gedanken madonna troubles/ his analysis. The hum of/ circuitry's no proof against/ the arias of the phantom queen/ who reclines in the boudoirs/ of the motherboard or glides/ from chamber to bower powered/ by sexy multiprocessors."

For a volume of poetry, Chess Pieces has seen unusually brisk sales since it was launched by McGill-Queen's University Press earlier this year. Its success may be due in part to its often playful superimpositions of the intricacies of human nature upon the black-and-white dichotomy of the chessboard, or that its poems remain accessible to those with even the most rudimentary grasp of the game itself.

"Handling the Chess Pieces" illustrates six distinct species of killer according to how each captures an enemy piece. In "The Next Crusade," a disillusioned knight dreams of becoming a defector to the Saracens. The book's opening piece sees the game moving its players to Greece, where Solway has lived, taught and found inspiration: "...the sun-numbed terrace/ and the gleaming board,/ the white porcelain cups/ on the marble-topped table,/ and here beside us as we turn to look/ the coral mirror of the sea/ nicked by only the tiniest of flaws."

"Chess is precious, exquisite and physical, and it requires concentration, like poetry," Solway said. "At the same time, chess is ancient. It's been with us forever. Chess is a wonderful metaphor, because the book is not about chess at all. It's something we all know about, even if we don't play. It provided me with a lens through which I could focus on everyday life. The book really deals with relationships. It's about loving in a dark, hesperian and inhospitable world."

Over a career spanning more than 20 years, Solway has published 14 volumes of poetry, appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and, as a lecturer in English literature at John Abbott College, has authored several books on criticism and education, such as the controversial 1997 Lying About the Wolf -- From Lyceum to Sheepfold: Essays in Education.

In it, he partly blames the current didactic fad of "loser-friendly pedagogy" for the astonishing ignorance of contemporary juveniles. In his current poetry classes at Concordia, however, Solway uses a variety of teaching techniques when analyzing his students' nascent writing talents.

"It's been a poetic experience, one of many fine words and phrases, with insight into the nature of poetic form and prosody," said Solway pupil Josh Auerbach, a graduate student studying creative writing. "David is able to take things out of the classroom into the classroom, and vice versa. We don't really have a container for art as an encapsulated experience, and all of life is sort of brought into our classes. It's really great."

"Solway knows exactly what he's talking about, he really does," agreed Stephanie Halley, another creative writing grad student. "One class was about comparing how one grades scotch to how one grades a poem. Both are very subjective, but you can grade them."

"The writer's life is not utopia or a playground, it's a life of difficulty, suffering, challenges and, in many cases, abject poverty," Solway said. "Students should know what it entails. I see the class in part as providing them with an initiation. The paradox of this position is that one must at the same time both deter and encourage. Honesty requires that you alert them to the difficulties of the craft both the social and economic difficulties on one hand, but also the aesthetic and prosodic difficulties as well. Being a poet is a serious job. It's not a hobby."


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