I’m intrigued by The Capilano Review’s “Manifestos Now!” (3.13 / Winter 2011) issue, produced to explore the question of, exactly, what is it that we are doing? What is it we would like to be doing? There is something about the postmodern literary ethic that often prevents the manifesto, unable to pin down an aesthetic that shifts so quickly that the slow take via manifesto fall far too quickly out of date. Or is it meant to be a simple moment in time? St. Catharine’s, Ontario poet, editor and critic Gregory Betts might just say it best in his “Rise Above History: A Manifesto for More Manifestos,” where he writes:
Why write a manifesto? Why not write literature and let the literature speak for itself? There have only been a handful of moments in the history of Canadian writing when authors here en masse have turned to political polemical forms in defense of their work. These moments, particularly with the turn to modernism and the turn to postmodernism, were marked by significant shifts in literary techniques and styles that were reflective of broader political transformations and contests. As the radical poet F.R. Scott wrote, “This is an hour / Of new beginnings, concepts warring for power, / Decay of systems—the tissue of art is torn / With overtures of an era being born.”
Our current era is not one in which concepts are openly warring for power, though a more muted contest of ideas continues apace. That writers are not turning to political polemical forms such as the manifesto to make their ideas overt might suggest that this is not a period of significant shifts in literary techniques and styles, but such a claim is simply not an accurate reflection of current writing in Canada. Writers here—from Sandra Alland to Rachel Zolf—are actively and aggressively experimenting with and even inventing deeply political forms; furthermore, writers here are participating in and providing templates for the international avant-garde of current writers. The reasons for the dearth of manifestos are inevitably various—perhaps writers have become inured to or complacent with the broader political implications of their literary techniques and styles, perhaps writers have developed new ways to communicate and promote their aesthetical and ideological positions, perhaps authors are more interested in discovering their difference, their individual voice, rather than their affiliation in a shared aesthetic initiative, perhaps the manifesto simply feels anachronistic and out-dated or crass and self-promoting—but the need to clarify the need to reimagine and reinvent writing habits remains strong and pressing. I would like to address and contest some of these commonplace claims against the manifesto as part of a defense on its behalf. I believe that a manifesto is precisely the generic space in which to outline a new aesthetic and to confront and develop its fullest possible significance.
Throughout the issue, there are some magnificent responses, including pieces by Christian Bök, Pierre Coupey, Kim Minkus, Steve McCaffery, Nikki Reimer, Reg Johanson, Amanda Dawn Christie, Colin Browne, and the multi-vocal “Manifesto to Contest the Manifesto Contest,” one of the first published works (its founder and Acting Director has previously had work under his own name in The Peter F. Yacht Club, as well as some collaborative works) by Edmonton’s Alberta Research Group (ARG). As guest-editor Brian Ganter writes to close his “Preface: Manifesto, Unremitting”:
The texts assembled here share only one commonality: they fruitfully explore and expose the promises and limitations, the continuing risks, and possible futures of the manifesto. As a mode of writing, of speaking, and as a visual and digital practice the manifesto has an established past, and, as the contributors show here, is quite capable of being remobilized as an energetic textual force in the present. Will it have a future? In The German Ideology Marx lays the charge against Feuerbach that when his writing is historical it is not materialist and when it is materialist it is not historical. Similarly, the manifesto’s future will depend on its capacity for producing writing and imagery that is simultaneously and rigorously “material” and “historical” at once: the more it falls on one side exclusively or circumvents both altogether, the more its “future” will lie in the literary archives and in the textual museums of human history.
The issue includes some pure manifestos, some statements and explorations, and even a poem or two, some of which even exist in conflict or opposition with each other, such as derek beaulieu’s “Poetry is the last refuse of the unimaginative.” (from his “26 Statements on poetry”) against Jeff Derksen’s “Poetry, like an event, can help make a long moment recognizable.” (from his “The Long Moment”). As the issue as a whole seems to ask, where does one begin?