The proliferation of anthologies of “contemporary poetics,” in the Anglophone world, began some time in the late eighties, climaxed in the late nineties and early noughts, and is, judging by a search of major library holdings, currently in the midst of its dénouement. The cultural history behind this arc probably warrants its own book. From a distance, it appears to follow closely the rise and fall of “Theory” in the academy, with “poetics” apparently having a bit more tenacity than its more visible double. It is also the case, however, that in many circles, what passes under the sign of “poetics” today is not the same as what is regarded as “theory.” Although these modes of literary discourse share certain elements and features (meta-discursivity, a frequently defamiliarizing style, an abandonment of the liberal prohibition on “bias,” a secondary status in relation to “primary” literary texts, etc.), this collection, like many others, adds an important distinction: here, “poetics” appears to be a kind of para-discourse, or dopplegänger—one who walks beside. “Poetics” in this sense refers to a discourse about poetry made by poets themselves, which gives it a unique relationship to its “object of study,” if not always unique methodologies. While this distinction between poetics and theory can not, and probably should not, be universalized into a general principle, it is worth pausing on the fact that in the writing collected here, our attention is always drawn back to the poem itself—even if only to defamiliarize that object again and again. (Roger Farr, “Introduction”)
Roger Farr’s Open Text: Canadian Poetry and Poetics in the 21st Century, Vol. 3 (Vancouver BC: CUE Books, 2013) closes a trilogy of texts of contemporary avant-garde poetry, following previous volumes Open Text: Canadian Poetry and Poetics in the 21st Century (CUE Books, 2008) and Open Text: Canadian Poetry and Poetics in the 21st Century, Vol. 2 (CUE Books, 2009). Deliberately built as a single unit made up of three works, the idea appears as an extension of literary readings, as Farr wrote to end the introduction for the first (and second) volume: “Between September 2008 and October 2009, the time measured by this volume of the Open Text series, the fifteen writers assembled here read from their work at Capilano University as part of our ongoing reading series. This is a record of what transpired.” The books and the reading series, it would seem, both provide an opportunity for dissemination, reading and conversation from a similar aesthetic and series of impulses, one as extension of the other. The first volume includes writing by Annharte, Oana Avasilichioaei, George Bowering, Rob Budde, Louis Cabri, Peter Culley, Jeff Derksen, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Maxine Gadd, Claire Huot & Robert Majzels, Larissa Lai, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Donato Mancini, Jamie Reid, Darren Wershler, Lissa Wolsak and Rita Wong, and the second includes writing by Ken Belford, Clint Burnham, Edward Byrne, Stephen Collis, Phinder Dulai, Emily Fedoruk, Christine Leclerc, Daphne Marlatt, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, Wayde Compton, Jordan Scott, Reg Johanson, Angela Carr, Kim Duff and Shirley Bear. It makes for an impressive list, and an enviable reading series, one I wish I lived much, much closer to. The third volume is used to close the trilogy through a collection of texts on writing from some of the contributors of the prior two volumes, as well as others. As Farr writes to end the introduction to the third volume:
So, included in this final volume of Open Text is an attempt to give some of the poets included in the first two volumes agency in altering the sphere in which their work is received. Put differently, it is an attempt to realize a limited form of self-valorization for both individual writers and the communities they identify with. What is at stake here is articulated differently from piece to piece; in all cases, however, I think it safe to say that “the point is to change it.”
What becomes clear is the insistence that work deemed “difficult” actually requires to be read on its own terms. I mean, it sounds so basic, and yet, this is a repeated mantra from readers and non-readers alike when approaching more challenging works, and the trilogy seems to hold this basic premise as its underlying argument. Farr writes in the introduction to the first volume:
The Open Text project is ambitious, however. When finished, it will consist of three volumes—two of poetry and one of poetics statements—and will be set apart from other anthologies of Canadian poetry in a number of important ways. First, it will bridge several generations of avant-garde writing. Some of the writers here were born before the Second World War, while others were born after Vietnam, allowing readers to trace lines of affinity and of difference across historical moments and cultural / literary movements. Second, it will include an unusually generous sampling of writing from the West Coast, a fact that only becomes significant when we consider that while much of this work is familiar in the US and the UK, it remains largely unacknowledged in Canada. This in turn may be an effect of the third point: the collection includes a significant amount of avant-garde work that treats formal innovation and experimentation not merely as aesthetic progress, but as extensions of specific political, ethical and social commitments.
Including a mixture of critical prose, interviews and poetry, the contributors to the third volume include George Bowering, Donato Mancini, Wayde Compton, Cecily Nicholson, Larissa Lai and Rita Wong, Ken Belford, Erín Moure, Danielle LaFrance, Phinder Dulai, Mercedes Eng, Roy Miki, Fred Wah (with Roger Farr), Stephen Collis, Louis Cabri, Jeff Derksen and Roger Farr and Reg Johanson. The works included in this third volume are offered to extend and even open a conversation about writing generally, and specific writing and writers specifically. A particular highlight is the piece “Circles of Intimacy: Translation, Corporality, Responsibility: Mi Versión” by Moure, writing on her past decade or more working more deeply in other languages, from her own writing to translating books from Galician by Chus Pato and from French by Nicole Brossard, among others:
Yes, when I translate, I am giving you, the readers and writers of English books, a book by someone not written in English, because I want you to read it and to feel similar things to what I once felt, reading it. It is affect that drives me to translate works, a corporeality, a relation.
In so doing I am able to share that part of my own corporeality that exists, no, thrives, in other languages, a part most often masked to my Anglo public, who do not see it, even though (maddeningly to me) it is part of my being. I perform this unmasking by translating between languages I know. By listening to the language of someone else as it enters my body.
In an excerpt from Vancouver writer and critic Wayde Compton’s enlightening essay “The Canadian Dub Poets, Aesthetic Conscience, and Donato Mancini’s Critique of the Discourse of Craft,” he suggests approaches to engaging with Dub and Indigenous works, writing that one should be “setting aside one’s own positional idiolect and its terms; by engaging with the experience that the poetry produces; by considering its own methods and procedures; by responding to the modes or registers of language that it deploys; and by reading or auditing it without resorting to the demand that it must decamp before you can admit that it is poetry at all.”
There has long been cultural chasms that the writers that Open Text champions have been caught up in (whether accidentally or deliberately), from purely geographical, to formal and even political. It doesn’t help that a particular formal consideration of poetry over the past few decades in Canada—the metaphor-driven lyric—casts a wide shadow, as does the series of publishers based in Central Canada, allowing for an entire series of other engagements to produce a literature that isn’t heard about much in these parts. Much of that is frustrating, and really showcases the downside of the arguments of Regionalism—many of our regions (and communities) don’t interact nearly as much as they really should, often existing entirely within self-contained bubbles of activity.
If the avant-garde has been characterized by such a dialectical oscillation between formal autonomy / experiment and commitment to causes reflected in engaged contents and expressive social affects, we may now be at a transition point where the pendulum is swinging towards commitment and expression once again—though this may ultimately also propel an experimental push for new forms pertinent to this social moment.
Another way of stating this: we are in the midst of a return, in many communities, to a politicized practice that is positioning itself within the communist horizon—at least, within the field of struggle for broad and fundamental social change and a rejection of capitalism in its totality that is still perhaps best figured, in short-hand, as “communism.” (Stephen Collis, “Notes on the Death of the Avant-Garde (…once again, with feeling…)”)
I’ve long been fascinated in the histories that cumulated in the west coast to bring about such a combination of innovative language writing, and politics (language, social, political, cultural, etcetera), with the loose collective of the Kootenay School of Writing, if not at the exact centre of such, pretty damned close to the centre. There might be pockets throughout the rest of Canada of political writing, but the west coast manages one of the more ongoing and engaged centres for such (and I keep hoping that someone somewhere will write on the hows and the whys of such, in part so I can gain a clarification). We supposedly read for a variety of reasons, but one hopes that if you are reading this, your goals in reading (and possibly writing) include attempting to discover, as opposed to moving through what is already familiar, which alone make these three works absolutely essential.
I’m experimenting with different forms of artistic production. I want to create something that is more embodied and spatial than poetry produced for the page is, to look for more visually-oriented modes of expression. Still thinking in terms of text, moving simultaneously between word and image, one form I try is both: the sampler. A sampler is a piece of embroidery typically produced by girls and women as a demonstration of skill in needlework. It often includes the alphabet and figures to illustrate it, biblical quotes, decorative borders, or sometimes the name of the embroiderer and the date. But I’m interested in the subversive potential of this form. (Mercedes Eng, “Notes for a Subversive Sampler”)