Thursday, 13 November 2014



(Ann Diamond is one of Canada's most innovative and controversial poets and writers of the last 40 years).

John Asfour poet (1945-2014)

I met John Asfour only a few times and never quite believed he was really blind. His default mood was always wry, ironic, gentle and dignified. Expansive in his silences, embracing and generous in his speech. At the cable TV station where we first met in the early 90s, he was seated with his white cane and dark glasses when I rushed in, sweating and flustered. "You look beautiful today, Ann!" -- and he grinned, pleased with his little joke.

I didn't know he had died. I hadn't seen him since a reading in 2011 when he lit the hall with poems of family, loss, emigration. By chance I was in the neighbourhood where we'd had lunch. Remembering that day, I realized I no longer had his number. I had a sudden gnawing sense it could be too late.

Coming home, I logged onto Facebook where, surreally, a notice scrolled down my feed.

Memorial Service for Montreal poet John Asfour.
Thursday, November 6, 2014. St Sauveur Cathedral. 11 am.

I searched in vain for an obituary. Someone had thought to update his Wikipedia page:

"John Asfour (born in 1945 in Aitaneat, Lebanon) (died in 2014 in Montreal, Canada) was a Lebanese-Canadian poet, teacher and translator. At the age of 13, a grenade exploded in his face injuring his eyes during the Lebanese crisis of 1958.

He moved to Canada in 1968..."

In 2009 I had visited him at Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver, where he was writer in residence. We took a walk around the neighbourhood, and went for takeout at a hole in the wall restaurant where he already seemed to be a regular. Later, we went sightseeing at False Creek market. His visiting family cooked Lebanese delicacies and drove him downtown where he was speaking to a class at a college.

Introducing him later, I said a stupid thing. I told the audience that being with John Asfour was like entering a black hole. Lost for words, I struggled to explain. Sharing a space with him was like a journey into one's own heart. One of my favourite poems is his In the Metro: about venturing out in public and feeling surrounded and overwhelmed by human kindness.

The mosque-like Melkite cathedral stood in the distance as the dark-haired woman in a green jacket got off the bus just ahead of me. She wore dark glasses although it was cloudy, and we both crossed the busy street and ran the last hundred meters, thinking we were late. Men in black coats stood on the church steps, talking into cell phones. Inside, mourners had filled half the pews as more were arriving. John came last, in a closed coffin next to a single vase of flowers as Byzantine choral music poured from an amplifier overhead.

Men in robes chanted a liturgy in English, French and Arabic. The priest read from scripture. Then he said: "This is the first day of John's new life." It seemed so obviously true, you wanted to climb in  and share that small dark space with him in blinding light.

John's daughter Mikaela took the mic to read some of his final poems, about approaching death, family, loss, immigration. Novelist Rawi Hage spoke about how it felt to lose this friend, and praised John's commitment to social justice, his great contribution to poetry --

"Everything he did was for others."

He left this world discreetly as he lived in it, vanishing into the vacuum that he once filled with poems. 

Another memorial will be held in Vancouver at Joy Kogawa House where John has many more friends who will also miss him --

Books by John Asfour:

2012: V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown East Side edited by John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Arsenal Pulp Press

2011: Blindfold, McGill-Queens Press

2009 Nisan: poesie par John Asfour traduit par Nadine Ltaif editions Le Noroît, 103 pages

1997: Fields of My Blood (poetry), Empyreal Pressà

1992: One Fish From the Rooftop (poetry), Cormorant Books

1988, 1992: When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, Cormorant Books
Shortlisted for the League of Poets Award (1990) and John Glassco Award for Translation

1981: Land of Flowers and Guns (poetry), DC Books
Three poems by John Asfour


Saturday, 8 November 2014


As long time readers of this blog will know, I love Simple Minds, because of, or rather irregardless of, their arch-pomp and poetic mannerisms. The Scottish alt-rockers have had a rocky career, but a fascinating one, of six stages.  From 1979-1982, they were a young new wave synth band, producing albums as beautiful, strange, and artful as any by Joy Division, New Order, OMD, or Depeche Mode - their natural equals. At this stage, they were heavily influenced by German music. Without Kraftwerk, no Simple Minds.

This period culminated in arguably the most romantic, visionary and poetic album of the last 35 years - New Gold Dream, which famously promised us a miracle. The second stage of their career followed right on the heels of the massive American success of 'Don't You Forget (About Me)' - a John Hughes film song that has become synonymous with feel-good 80s pop. This led to several LPs - the best of which like Sparkle In The Rain - yielded number one hits that were booming, joyous and uplifting, including 'Alive and Kicking' and 'Speed Your Love To Me' - still keeping the Christian tropes of light and brilliance alive as in 'Book of Brilliant Things'.

Basically, this was up until 1986, and at this stage, Simple Minds were one of the biggest stadium acts in the world, realistically viewed as a Scottish U2. They were millionaires and had big MTV videos. Sadly, the third era, that of slow decline, quickly followed - with a series of lacklustre, but still relatively popular, records and singles, increasingly maudlin - so we got songs about Mandela, Biko, a Belfast Child, etc - up until about 1991. By now, The Joshua Tree had made U2 triumphant, and Simple Minds suddenly felt bloated and out of ideas. But they did not seem about to implode, though they did, from 1991-2005.

Their fourth era, which ended in 2005, were bad wilderness years, of almost total disrespect, small tours, and sickly albums that seemed to utterly lack the magic of the first ten years.  It was a sad time to be a fan.  Finally, the slow resurgence began in 2005, hitting a high note with their 2009 album, Graffiti Soul, that was, say, as good as their Neopolis of the late 90s.

You could imagine you now had a second-rate, not third-rate, band to cherish. However, the 6th, triumphant stage of return, really began post-2009.  In the last five years, a new touring line-up, fighting fit, has seen a return to early albums, a realisation among critics that this is a classic group with genuinely important early discs, and some compilations, all solidified their achievement.  And, just as U2 released a portentous and overblown album free on iPhone, here came the miracle, the splendid Big Music.

Q, Mojo, even the NME, have all agreed Big Music is their best album in 30 years. There is something wonderfully moving in seeing these once-young new romantics, for so long stolid journeymen paying for excessive late 80s nonsense, returning, as in one of their biblical lyrics, resplendent with talent, and actually great new songs.  Caught somewhere between 'I Travel' and 'Waterfront', these 12 tracks are as upbeat, well-crafted, haunting, complex, and ludicrously "big" as the Simple Minds we knew and loved, and, in our secret hearts, never gave up on.  Few artists of any sort get to have a come back a quarter of a century later, so let us welcome this brilliant glittering new phase in the greatest Scottish alt-rock band of all time, the genuine peers of even, yes, say it, U2 and Depeche Mode, their only other credible 80s alt-survivors.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...