So in providing a literary-historical context for the Kootenay School, I have to speak to two audiences at once: first of all, those who are familiar with, and indeed interested in, the tradition of the Anglo-American literary avant garde, a tradition that runs, in the first half of the twentieth century, from Stein and Pound and Zukofsky and Niedecker to the New American poetries of Olson, Creeley, Duncan, and Spicer; this tradition was then contested in a Canadian context by the TISH poets (George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Frank Davey) and in the American one by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers (Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten); more recently, “post-Language” writers, sometimes denoted as conceptual or Flarf writers, include the Americans Kenneth Goldsmith, Juliana Spahr, Vanessa Place, Mark Nowak, Rob Fitterman, Rod Smith, and the Canadians Rachel Zolf, Sina Queyras, Christian Bök, Kate Eichhorn, and Darren Wershler. This is all just a list of names, a list that is hardly exhaustive or uncontroversial, but which functions as a placeholder. It can stand in contrast to readers who may come to this text from other traditions, whether from more conservative twentieth-century modernism and anti-modernism (which may run from Eliot and Frost to Plath and Lowell and the contemporary “workshop” or New Yorker poem or follow a less hegemonic trajectory) or the various strands and counter-hegemonic traditions of the so-called “identity” poetics, from the Harlem Renaissance of Hughes and Brooks in the 1950s and then the Black Arts Movement and Canadian iterations in George Elliot Clarke or, closer to home, Wayde Compton, and the gendered poetics of Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood and Lowther; or the various anti-academic and sometimes populist forms from the New York school (Frank O’Hara but also Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett) and its late-century epigones in spoken word and rap poetics to the Canadian small press and visual poetry movements, including Stuart Ross, jwcurry, Daniel f. Bradley, and other carriers of the Coach House torch.
Vancouver writer and critic Clint Burnham, a small-press enthusiast since his time in Toronto in the 1980s, has provided a context for the Vancouver-based Kootenay School of Writing in his book-length study, The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011). Since the 1970s, the Kootenay School of Writing has carved out a unique space in Canadian writing, loosely furthering the original lessons of the 1960s-era TISH into thrilling extremes of language writing, social involvement and community organization, and a list of those who have come through the KSW collective is just as much a list of much of the experimental writing in Canada over the past three decades. For years, KSW has been one of the few bodies in the country willing to engage with the avant-garde in other countries, from New York to Buffalo to San Francisco to Cambridge to London, as well as being unafraid to push the boundaries of what can be considered literary composition. One could argue that a common view held by the wide-ranging styles of KSW writers is that poetry is supposed to be difficult. The standards and influences from which these writers work are simply different, as the quote above illustrates; one needs to engage at a pretty high level.
In many ways, Canada is still a relatively conservative country when it comes to poetry and fiction, and the responses often thrown at more experimental works are usually a binary of outright derision to complete silence. Burnham’s study shows how the Koonenay School of Writing has managed to not only buck the trend, but somehow thrive, despite.
For those unfamiliar with some of the writers who have come through the collective, a relatively randomly-selected list of past and present names would include Lisa Robertson, Colin Smith, Kathryn MacLeod, nikki reimer, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Rob Manery, Deanna Ferguson, Jerry Zaslove, Susan Yarrow/Clark, Lissa Wolsak, donato mancini, Reg Johanson, Michael Turner, Tom Wayman, Aaron Vidaver, Michael Barnholden, Christine Stewart, Catriona Strang, Roger Farr, Dan Farrell, Jeff Derksen, Dennis Denisoff, Peter Culley, Kevin Davies, Edward Byrne, Colin Browne and Stephen Collis. Anyone interested in seeing more examples of some of the writing from the various incarnations of the KSW would be encouraged to seek out the anthology Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1999), or the more recent ANTIOPHONES:Essays on Women’s Experimental Poetries in Canada (Toronto ON: The Gig, 2008), which includes work by a number of the writers mentioned above, both volumes I would highly recommend. For the purpose of The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Burnham focuses on the work of some of the main players of the collective, many of whom first became active throughout the 1980s and into the 90s:
In my readings of work by Colin Smith (the chapter on Social Collage), Kathryn MacLeod (the chapter Empty Speech), and Lisa Robertson (the chapter on Red Tories), gender politics come to the fore. In the Social Collage chapter, the juxtaposition found in these post-lyrics (especially in Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Deanna Ferguson) is analogous to the collage aesthetic found throughout punk—from Dick Hebdige’s notion of the visual look (leather jackets and safety pins, Jamie Reid’s collaged album cover for the Sex Pistols) to musical juxtapositions (between reggae, heavy metal, rockabilly). Here the materialism of the archival substrate—of the objects to be found in the KSW archive—is also discussed in terms of a political economy. And the Lacanian critique of language—especially as outlined in the Empty Speech chapter, maintains a tension between a political materialism and a materiality of the signifier.
Part of the response to Koonenay School of Writing participants over the years have been quite baffling, in part due to the fact that much of their work has been stylistically and conceptually as far away from the perceived orthodoxy of mainstream central-Canadian lyric as could even be imagined, while still regarded as poetry. This lack of outside comprehension hasn’t been helped by some of the members over the years circling their wagons, and one of the complaints that keeps coming up about KSW is how their activities exist on an island, where few outsiders are welcome. Still, if you are interested in great writing, great poetry or simply a broader spectrum of what some call “Canadian writing,” this book is essential reading. Burnham isn’t far off when he calls it “the only poetry that matters.” Perhaps not as close as some of the collective might have hoped.