Monday, January 09, 2006

shift & switch: new canadian poetry

Every few years in Canada, outside of the visible mainstream of Canadian poetry (something that mainstream Canadian writing seems quite intent on marginalizing), someone decides to open up the conversation a little more by publishing an anthology of "avant-garde" and/or more "cutting-edge" writing, in increasing combinations of text, visual and even sound (poetry anthologies in Canada, I've noticed, also seem to come out in waves, so if one appears, you can usually expect anywhere from two to five more to appear). In many ways, I wonder if all anthologies of "new" writing that come out are simply trying to replicate a more modern version of the importance of Donald Allen's seminal anthology, The New American Poetry (New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), influencing writing and reading on both sides of the border, culminating (in Canada) with the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963? (Writing has become too big; the influence of such a collection can never be repeated.) Previous incarnations range from Raymond Souster's influential anthology New Wave Canada (with editorial assistance from Victor Coleman; Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966), Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), George Bowering's The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984), Michael Holmes' The Last Word Anthology (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1995), Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar's Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1999), Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie's cd Carnivocal: A Celebration of Sound Poetry (Calgary AB: Red Deer Press, 2000), Jay MillAr and Jon Paul Fiorentino's chapbook response to the then-forthcoming Breathing Fire II (Vancouver BC: Nightwood Editions, 2005), Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2004), and even my own side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002), working to take the straight poetry anthology further.

Focusing more on visual poetry/poetics, there have been fewer examples, with the 1960s on including publications by bill bissett's blewointmentpress, including books, chapbooks, magazines and anthologies, and bpNichol's ongoing productions (up to his death in 1988) that included grOnk and Ganglia. More recently, there was Michael Dean and jwcurry's HEADS & H&Z (Underwhich Editions, 1985), which was a reprinted selection of jwcurry's Curvd H&z material that he had been producing, at that point, for a little over half a decade; it was an anthology that, some have suggested, beaulieu was trying to replicate in his own box of text/visual materials, courier (Calgary AB: housepress, 1999) (suggested most recently by Daniel f. Bradley in his own shift & switch review). As Dean wrote in his introduction to HEADS & H&Z: “Consistent through curry’s publications is this sense of a text being complete only when it has found its format. And as the text achieves its format this achievement tends to turn the text back on itself, reflecting automatically, and more deeply, on its content.” Still, given that so few trade collections of Canadian writing have included visuals at all, it becomes hard to complain.

The most recent version of any of these anthologies is Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), edited by Calgary poet/editors derek beaulieu and Jason Christie, and Toronto poet/editor a.rawlings, with text and visual contributions by derek beaulieu, Gregory Betts, Michael deBeyer, Alice Burdick, Jason Christie, Chris Fickling, Jon Paul Fiorentino, ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Gamble, Sharon Harris, Jill Hartman, Jason Le Heup, Jamie Hilder, Geoffrey Hlibchuk, Matthew Hollett, Jesse Huisken, Kedrick James, Reg Johanson, Frances Kruk, Larissa Lai, Glen Lowry, Danielle Maveal, Jeremy Mcleod, Max Middle, gustave morin, Janet Neigh, a.rawlings, Rob Read, Jordan Scott, Natalie Simpson, Trevor Speller, Nathalie Stephens, Andrea Strudensky, Hugh Thomas, Mark Truscott, Douglas Webster, Jonathon Wilcke, Julia Williams, rita wong, Suzanne Zelazo and Rachel Zolf (there are interesting links to most of them here).

"It seems that a lot of Canadian poetry anthologies are more about Canada than about the poems, more concerned with defining a National Poetic than with providing incidences of exciting and intelligent writing, such that the term 'Canadian' pertains less to a geographic boundary on a map and more toward some paranoic literary marker meant to distinguish our writing from American or European poetry. A lot of anthologies play it safe by showcasing already published and possibly well-known writers in an attempt to demonstrate an upper echelon of Canadian writing. While the writers that have writing in Shift & Switch are Canadian, their concerns include and extend beyond being an example of Canadian writing; their poetry reflects the presence of diverse and numerous talents just below the surface radar of Canadian Literature." (from the introduction by Jason Christie, p 10)

What makes the anthology interesting is that there are a number of writers here that are below the radar, including names I previously haven't heard, and writers whose names I've heard, but work I haven't seen (and I've been pretending to pay attention), such as Kruk, Webster, Neigh, or Lowry, and then just others that are plain brilliant, no matter what the context, such as Suzanne Zelazo, Mark Truscott and Rachel Zolf. Given that she has published poetry only sparingly (focusing on fiction), and predominantly in self-published titles (but for the recent West Coast Line issue that featured a selection on her work; see my post on same), it's good to see poetry by Larissa Lai, and Vancouver poet Reg Johanson, in comparison, who has barely published at all. It's amazing, too, to see the work of Ottawa poet/performer Max Middle get some larger attention, as he has been publishing and performing furiously over the past couple of years (another above/ground press chapbook, he says, is forthcoming). As far as the anthology as a whole, names I know and otherwise, there are a number of truly interesting and progressive texts represented here, including the aforementioned, as well as Gregory Betts, Julia Williams, Nathalie Stephens, Rob Read, a.rawlings and Jon Paul Fiorentino.

As editor derek beaulieu writes in his introduction (and all three introductions are available online):

"For too long and for far too often, Canadian poetry anthologies have presented a neo-conservative poetic as the 'cutting edge' in Canadian poetry, marginalizing voices that work to challenge the reading & writing status quo. The poem as finely wrought epiphanic moment of personal reflection (the poetry norm) undermines mass-culture & political sameness; it does little to question or confront how language itself defines the limitations of expression -- both personal & critical.

Anthologies that emphasize the classical & humanist definitions of poetry without considering work being done in alternative forms do little to further the writing of Canadian poetry as they offer only what is most palatable to the most conservative of audiences.

An alternative must be offered." (p 7)

Impressive, too, that the editors would include as much visuals as they have, since visuals in trade books seem few and far between (the production values of "Cantextualities: Contemporary Visual Poetry in Canada," the visual poetry issue of Open Letter edited by Jars Balan [10th series, number 6, summer 1999], was unusually bad). Unfortunately, very little of the visual pieces do anything for me, and even for me, who knows so little of visual works, I feel as though I've seen so much of this type of work before in the works of older Canadian writers, including bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, bill bissett, jwcurry and others, but for a piece here or there by Max Middle, or derek beaulieu's "For Brian" piece (otherwise, I know for a fact that derek, one of the most visible of the younger visual poets in Canada, can do better, and has, such as the work in his Coach House Books collection with wax; we will know more when his book of visuals from Talonbooks comes out in the spring…). Windsor, Ontario writer gustave morin, as well, has produced some extremely interesting visual works, but unfortunately, there is little evidence of it here, and Jason Le Heup, who used to self-produced odd chapbooks of visuals when he still lived in Vancouver, included text as his submission (he's been threatening to produce a full manuscript of visual pieces for years, but so far, nothing seems to have surfaced).

"who what how is introduction is editing is reading and how do we read how do we give our bodies over to text we recognize or don't and how do we comprehend 'Language is speech less speaking' while 'every body participates in language all the time' (Simpson 140) while simultaneously 'This is as your language swallows me' (Stephens 146)

and as 'we transfer between us' (Neigh 108) there may be ( )duction of thought of 'what difference a fucking line makes' (Lowry 95) of the moment 'voice' (Morin 106) breaks through to share its urgent admission of the imperative 'open your mouth and speak. Sing' (Scott 128) of 'make this sing' (Zolf 182) yes 'touch her. she sings' (Williams 174) all because 'She broke into a run up its language / … / then around the whole thing to force it downward in its throat' (Le Heup 86)" (from the introduction by angela rawlings, p 12-3)

The smartest part of this anthology, as beaulieu writes, is the framing of such as an "introduction" and not as any comprehensive sort of anthology of young(er) Canadian avant (usually where my problems with an anthology begin and end, in foolish claims of "representation" -- see my piece on Breathing Fire II, for example). Shift & Switch is a hit and miss anthology, with far more hits than misses, and an important opening to further reading. As such, I would highly recommend this, as well as some of the Canadian publications that also favour such writing, including (in no particular order): filling Station, dANDelion, Matrix, above/ground press, MODL Press, Talonbooks, Coach House Books, The Mercury Press, Insomniac Press, The Capilano Review, Nomados, The Gig, BookThug, W magazine, West Coast Line, STANZAS and Open Letter (etcetera).

Launches for the anthology have already happened in a few places west, but are still to happen are Ottawa (mother tongue books, 1067 Bank Street, Friday January 13th at 7:30pm), . More information on Shift & Switch launches can be found here.

Related entries: Ron Silliman's review, a.rawlings' response, etc, with links here.


Jessica Smith said...

wow, rob, this is so informative and link-y. thanks.

a.rawlings said...
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