Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Capilano Review 3.14: The George Stanley Issue

There's a phrase of T.S. Eliot's that has been in my mind for a long time. It's called “the intolerable struggle with words and meanings.” And I very recently realized that Eliot is wrong on two counts there. It's not intolerable, and it's not a struggle. It's attention, or attentivity to words and meanings and when you're writing expressively, say, or out of the unconscious, you're not involved with that. Now I'm beginning to think that when I go back to the original work it's going to be more conscious and more concerned with words and meanings than in the past. In the past my biggest strength has largely been spontaneous and... at least half of it has been spontaneous, from the unconscious. But I always have been interested in the choice of the right word. Sometimes the meaning is right but the sound is wrong. Or the sound is right but the meaning is wrong. That's what Eliot called “intolerable.” (“'This is the place': A Conversation with George Stanley,” by Brook Houglum & Jenny Penberthy)

With new editor Brook Houglum at the helm, Vancouver's The Capilano Review presents “The George Stanley Issue” as their spring 2011 release, #3.14, on the Vancouver poet George Stanley. San Francisco-born and involved in the San Francisco Renaissance under Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser before heading north to Vancouver, then Terrace and back to Vancouver, Stanley is the author of the poetry collections The Love Root (White Rabbit, 1958), Tete Rouge/Pony Express Riders (White Rabbit, 1963), Beyond Love (Open Space, 1968), You (New Star, 1974), The Stick (Talonbooks, 1974), Opening Day (Oolichan Books, 1983), Temporarily (Gorse, 1986), Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995), At Andy's (New Star, 2000), A Tall Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (Qua, 2003), Seniors (Nomados, 2006) and Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) [see my review mentioning same here].
Snow moon stars twinkle
for George Stanley

on the outside, a
birthday cake, a
shadow, a squirrel
fried up in grease,

in the ninth line
the fifth circle,
circling useful branches
and a package or two of

in the news,
episodic, contemplating
chains of grace of
these particular
fragmentary evenings,
dreams, and chairs,

a thank you
for a random church,
the goats, and
drinking water,
a return to
first feeling, a
of stars. (Lisa Jarnot)
Part of the appeal of an issue such as this is in the continued realization of the disconnect, the chasms between regions, with much of the high regard for George Stanley and his work still caught up in Canadian regionalism, leaning west, a near-apathy up against the sheer number of writers who have wholeheartedly responded here to Stanley and his work, including Michael Barnholden, Ken Belford, George Bowering, Rub Budde, Steve Collis, Jen Currin, Beverly Dahlen, Lisa Jarnot, Reg Johanson, Kevin Killian, Joanne Kyger, Barry McKinnon, Jenny Penberthy, Stan Persky, Meredith Quartermain, Sharon Thesen, Michael Turner and plenty more.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I've long been partial to the literary festshrift, and consider the form to be an essential contribution to literature generally, something The Capilano Review has long been an active part of, featuring, over the years, issues on Sharon Thesen [see my review of such here], George Bowering and Robin Blaser, among others. Unlike the more formal essay series produced by Guernica Editions (another essential grouping of responses), the festschrift allows for more of a range of responses, from the critical to the creative and all between, from essays and interviews to small memoir pieces, poems and photographs. Featuring two interviews, numerous essays, appreciations and poems, the issue also includes a generous selection of recent poems by Stanley, from a work-in-progress entitled “After Desire,” which includes the title poem:
After Desire

After desire the springs of longing
dry up, beauty is almost unrecognizable,
astonished that you passed it by. The background
wants to come into sharper focus, by default,
but you know the background.

And football keeps us going too, politics, reports from the slave trade.
Always readying ourselves for a funeral—being asked
to real funerals just sweetens the pot—
some kind of game or other always in play.

It's Friday again, time to do laundry.
The world trying to come into sharper focus
has nothing to offer but the impersonal.
Fair enough, but keep the old identity
in your closet, to be trotted out for wear on holy days.
Even if you haven't read a single word by Vancouver poet George Stanley, this issue provides an opportunity for an entry point to his writing, an important connection between the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s to current and recent decades of Canadian writing in Prince George and Vancouver, and “Aboutism,” which he explains in his interview with Houglum and Penberthy:
BH: You were one of the founders of Aboutism—could you tell us about it? What were the tenents, the context? What are your thoughts on it now?

GS: Aboutism was an idea framed as if it were a poetic movement. The manifesto is from Ryan Knighton: “Theory guards us from error; we are for error.”

Aboutism was a reaction to language poetry, and language poetry quite clearly eliminated reference. I think what the language poets were trying to do was similar to what the post-impressionists did in painting. That is, to make a painting not out of the images of the world, portraits, and landscapes and all that, but to make a painting out of paint. So that's a lesson that one learns from Cézanne. So I think language poetry at a theoretical level, with a classic language poet like Clark Coolidge, was attempting to create an art form simply out of words abstracted from their signification. My sense of that immediately was “You can't do that.” It's not possible in language. In visual arts you can take shape and line and colour away from the world and make something new out of them that has nothing to do with any referential object. Abstraction. But you cannot separate a word from its signification. If you have the word “tiger” in a poem the image of a tiger will arise in your mind inevitably. It seems to me that even in the most austere language poets—like Deanna Ferguson or Clark Coolidge—there was always this sort of semantic haze around the poem of the meanings, of the significations that had been excluded but didn't go away.
Admittedly, one of the frustrations with Stanley's work recently has been how difficult it has been to see a copy of his selected poems, produced by a small American publisher; will a Canadian press take up the job of producing same, for those of us north of the border? At least his Vancouver publisher, New Star, has long kept to a commitment of keeping authors' books in print, so there are still books of Stanley's that remain available for Canadian bookstores. At two hundred pages, this is perhaps one of the strongest issues I've seen from TCR in some time, after a run of also-strong issues over the past couple of years, a worthy tribute to a still-working and still-relevant Vancouver writer. At the end of his piece “'Who Marks the Changes?': George Stanley at The End/The Beginning,” Reg Johanson writes:
If so much is changing so fast, if the soul has become privatized, to whom is the poet speaking? What is the world he or she can depend upon to be shared by, or recognizable to “the” audience? The Canada, Terrace, Vancouver, Prince George, San Francisco, or the justice, history, and economy that the poet knew has become a matter of conjecture. Its reality as a shared experience can be no longer assumed. The very idea of sharing can be no longer assumed. Following the trajectory of this style in later books, Stanley is beginning again, attempting to “mark the changes” at the scale of thought and perception. Stanley's work at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century is an exemplary, if despairing, “experimental” account of the passing of one global order and the emergence of another. It is this “heart” in Stanley's work—vulnerable, confused, mourning, mistaking, starting over—that I respect. History, of course, did not end—writing and resistance and resistance-writing continue.

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