January 5, 04 – response to MillAr/Cain's 'Positions, poetics and manifestos?' (Word, January 2004)
After getting my copy of Word in the mail today, I just had to comment.
You're not alone in having been depressed to hear about Carmine Starnino's forthcoming essay-collection: for me, that sense of dread had been building since I'd heard about the thing, two years ago, until I realized he's only rendering himself completely irrelevant. David Solway's recent collection, Director's Cut, also from The Porcupine's Quill, Inc., is equally distressing. (It's only really worth it for the piece on Peter Van Toorn, written for the new edition of his Mountain Tea.) Both push an aesthetic of "us vs. them." And I know how small their "them" is. It becomes less offensive than tedious, after a while, to be that absolute.
Like you, I've wondered about the lack of critical consideration from/about writers of our generation. I think the problem is far larger than simply a lack of "aesthetic statements [...] made by the previous generations of Canadian poets." I think you give previous generations not enough credit. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Canada, at least from what I've seen since (considering I'm the same age as you two), there was much happening in the pages of Open Letter, at the very least. Look at Frank Davey's From There to Here, for example; Line magazine, and West Coast Line. Writing was being done on writing. Interviews were happening. Talk on writing by writers and with writers was far more dominant than it is now. (Is it, as my ex-wife suggests, simply because the government isn't paying for it anymore?) Then again, it almost seems overly simplistic to blame our peers.
Consider the collection of interviews that Harbour put out a few years ago, edited by Tim Bowling. I liked it a lot, but haven't we seen enough interviews with Atwood, Ondaatje, Page? Nothing against them, but where are the interviews with, say, Margaret Christakos, Ken Babstock or Mark Cochrane? Why doesn't anyone talk about Sylvia Legris? Why cover the same old ground if there's so much left untouched? Ask yourself, why is Open Letter still doing issues on Canadian poets of the 1960s? (At least there were two '80s issues once, a long long time ago.)
Also, as brilliant and essential as Avant-Garde for Thee was, I think Christian wasted an opportunity there. Yes, the book needed to be done, but why couldn't he use at least a stitch of the same energy telling media, community, etc. about all the work being done around him, by his own peers? Hey, Darren Wershler-Henry is doing some great work. Hey, what about John Barlow. Steve Venright. Margaret Christakos. Et cetera. It would have started a movement. And movements build. Do you remember when Sloan got noticed? They brought everyone with them, and now there's an East Coast Music Awards. (But I know, I'm being unfair to Christian. The problem, I suppose, with being a large target.)
(Is it because our CANON is still so young? Is CanLit still the awkward teen that wants to be different, but in the way all his friends are?)
What I was attempting with side/lines: a new canadian poetics wasn't an end-all, be-all, but a first step. Unless something happens next by someone else along the same lines of talk, then the whole project seems rather pointless. If we aren't going to bother talking about the writing that we've already done, then why bother doing any more?
It's part of what Stephen Brockwell and I were thinking when we founded poetics.ca last year. We're currently working on our fourth issue. To me, an interesting part of the journal (completely online) is that Brockwell and I have divergent poetics, so there is no way only one point of view can be promoted. And of course, we're not the only ones trying to keep the conversation going: hell, check out Louis Cabri's Phillytalks; check out KSW's W magazine (both are now completely online).
Speaking of other appearances, do you plan to publish the Speak-Hard series at some point? I know you're recording the talks, but will I one day get to read or hear - in a collection of Speaks through BookThug or Coach House or online - the talk that Ryan Knighton did? Or Daniel f. Bradley? I can't afford to just float into Toronto for such things... I deliberately posted my own Speak on my blog before I did, just so there could be useful talk once I got there (not that it made much difference).)
I've so often noticed the discrepancy between artist-talk and writers-talk even in the visual arts community in Ottawa. Oddly enough, it seems the writers are the ones who can't articulate what they think they're doing. Why is that? Is it because artists go through visual arts programs and are forced to explain themselves, but creative writing programs leave students to their own devices? Is it because we're simply not being asked? I won't even go into the deplorable lack of critical reviewing in Canada. With eight poetry collections and how many anthologies, I've barely had any, if any. How can we talk well if there is so little talk?
I have wondered too, for some time: where are the collections of essays by Christian, Darren, Louis Cabri, Nicole Markotic? I know they've done enough writing on writing that there should be collections in there somewhere. At least there's the (finally published) Lisa Robertson collection, from the offices of soft architecture; at least, the recent collection of interviews with Winnipeg poets by Rob Budde that Signature Editions published.
Is it that publishers don't have library sales, so worry about boxes of unsold essays? As brilliant as the Writer as Critic series through NeWest is, they're still working on our parents' generation. When do they get to Dennis Cooley? When do they get to Erin Moure? (I've only just heard about her forthcoming essays from Mercury…) What the hell is wrong with this country? (Will Essays in Canadian Writing ever be saved?)
I've been working to finish my own collection of essays for some time, with works on jwcurry, Christakos, Meredith Qartermain and John Newlove, but god only knows if it'll ever find a home. In the end, will it even matter?
Looking around at other writers in Canada our age: if Starnino is the only one talking, how long before he becomes the only one listened to? Now that's the real danger.
(originally appeared in WORD, Toronto, Volume 10, No. 3, March 2004)