Monday, November 01, 2004

ALL AMERICANS: recent works by Rob Budde, Fred Wah & Stephen Cain

It seems interesting, with the argued movement of the United States from Nation to Empire over the years, Canadian poets are making their own comments on ourselves and our neighbours to the south (are we us, still, because we are not them?). In Prince George writer Rob Budde’s chapbook my american movie (Prince George BC: wink books, 2003), Toronto writer Stephen Cain's "A History of Canada" from the anthology Career Suicide (Montreal: Moosehead Anthology IX / DC Books, 2003) and shared Calgary/Vancouver poet Fred Wah’s housepress chapbook, All Americans (Calgary: 2002), the work is thick with references, although very little of it to do with the situations current. The three pieces all work as sequences reacting to other works, in those places where histories overlap, and are forced to interact. The place where cultures collide.

Rob Budde, originally from Winnipeg but now living and teaching in Prince George, British Columbia, has worked the long poem / sequence in most of his previous writing, best exampled in the collection traffick (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1999). Part of a longer work-in-progress of sequences (declining america) the chapbook my american movie is written as a series of eleven film clips – unpaginated blocks of rolling prose – claiming to work in reaction to Jean Baudrillard's America, with, as he says, quotes from Baudrillard’s text scattered throughout (further editions are said to include further clips). A beautifully designed chapbook, it’s also the first in Budde’s new wink books series. Another part of the same work-in-progress has appeared since, Americausal, as an issue of STANZAS, number #37 (Ottawa: above/ground press, 2004).

It’s said that one hundred years ago, the best way to affect culture was through the poem; fifty years ago the novel, and currently the film. Budde's clips understand this, and work as a series of western cultural standards, which some claim, are as much American standards (which George Bowering would call "USAmerican."), writing: "thrumming in alternating neon colours to the rhythm of britney while subjects / gyrate to the soundtrack unaware of the price in terms of narrative agency... a lunar / american with no gravity no conscience" (scene 1), to "taste the richness of north american life as its / incandescent fullest that bratwurst kind of satisfaction of knowing the pop song / will not stray from pop culture storehouse of pop pleasure" (scene 5).

In my american movie, Budde is highly aware of popular culture, and how low it can go, with hints of violence and the appeal of the lowest common denominator. As he writes "drive-through, drive-by, drive-in // and with such standard features as this the interior rich with textures the mirrors / adjusted to read the world in retrospect" (scene 4).

Another poet immersed in the long poem / sequence for many years and books, including Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1985), and a longtime Calgary resident recently returned to Vancouver, Fred Wah writes of the execution of thirty-eight Sioux Indians at Mantendo, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, known as the Minnesota Massacre. A two-sided publication produced in 2002 in an edition of 125 by Calgary's housepress, All Americans tells various sides of a narrative in both very straight and peripheral ways, starting: "We are all americans. / We met on the prairie. We hunt. / The point is, we must send a clear and unambiguous message to the world." (n.p.). Another series focusing on differences, it begins with a powerful quote from Nicole Brossard’s "Poetic Politics": "Anyone who encounters insult and hatred because of her or his / differences from a powerful group is bound, sooner or later, to echo a we / through the use of I and to draw the line between us and them, we and / they."

As Fred Wah writes in his acknowledgment for the sequence of seven poems: "All Americans is a text that was serialized for an installation called ‘Storybook Story’ curated by Luanne Martineau for the Art Gallery of Calgary 14 September - 11 November 2001. The text is meant to resonate with the weekly installments of three other writers involved in the same project (Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, and Rosemary Nixon). All of our texts were written in response to two panorama renderings of the Minnesota Massacre of 1862 from the Glenbow Museum's permanent collection. The first installment of our texts was due on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I've used parts of their texts in my own, as well as some text from Snow Crash by Neal Stephanson."

Written with various contradictory movements, from events around the massacre itself to airplanes and airports, with not-so-subtle references to the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City: "They flew themselves and if they can do that successfully they can do whatever they want perhaps / they’re playing hide and seek had they behaved themselves and remained in possession of this / immense tract of land, they would have been worth twice as much per capita ‘How do you know / they are maintenance workers and not Rife soldiers in costume? Did you check their ID’s?’ they / chanted ‘God is Great’ and handed out candy they said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack / but they did not specify to destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains..." (n.p.).

Wah has written on cultural collisions before, from his own mixed heritage, in books such as Waiting for Saskatchewan (1986), and his collection of essays, Faking It: Poetics & Hybridity (2000), called a long poem in itself. As well, in his ongoing series of "Artknots," Wah has been writing pieces reacting to various visual art pieces, included as an extension of his "music at the heart of thinking," included in its second segment, Alley Alley Home Free (Red Deer College Press, 1992). It is interesting to see so deliberate an overlap of Wah’s own concerns, and an excuse for him to do so.

In "A History of Canada," dedicated to Bill Hutton and George Bowering, Toronto writer Stephen Cain writes a brilliant and funny sequence in his standard working of ten, prose sections referencing various Canadian history touchstones such as "Wolfe & Montcalm," "The 1837-38 Rebellion," "The Last Spike," "Louis Riel," "The King-Byng Affair," "The October Crisis," and "Tom Thomson." After two solo trade collections and the recent completion of a collaborative third, with Jay MillAr, from his forthcoming American Standard / Canada Dry collection (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2005), this is easily one of the strongest of Cain’s works, weaving in references of all kind, merging various literary and historical notes and commentary into compact spaces, regularly mixing absolutes and competing ideas. As he writes in "The King-Byng Affair": "Nobody has confidence in the system anymore. M. T. Kelly is better than Ondaatje?" (p 39).

2. THE WAR OF 1812

It’s one we won. It’s cows versus cowboys and the Flames want to merely march
across the border. Speaking of arson, we got to burn Buffalo and the fires haven’t
stopped since. Every night it’s a five alarm at SUNY and Bernstein can’t absorb
Tecumseh’s techne. Creeley, Duncan, and Spicer move onto the Western Front, but
Bromige and Blaser are already talking with Tallman. Now it’s up to TISH to tamper
with Olson and lead the charge to Kootenay. The project is blackened before it can
be mounted, but no matter what Mathews mitigates it’s a stalemate. Still, it was
important – without it, we’d have no army, no autonomy, no chocolate.

Much like Budde’s text, Cain’s "A History of Canada" works as a series of prose scenes, boiling numerous elements down into singular lines. Even in the piece "THE WAR OF 1812" (a war that arguably started the notion of being "Canadian" as being "not American"), referencing, among other things, The Western Front (a gallery in Vancouver infamous for hosting performances over the years by numerous Canadian and American writers), the early 1960's newsletter TISH (which was lambasted by some for being too influenced by American writing), SUNY-Buffalo (the State University of New York, where Steve McCaffery recently replaced outgoing professor Charles Bernstein, a strong centre in the United States for language writing, with strong ties with various Vancouver and Toronto writers, including those once known as TISH, and The Kootenay School), The Kootenay School of Writing (a loose child of the newsletter TISH), and Robin Mathews, who led the charge that TISH was too influenced by American poetry, and therefore anti-Canadian.

Matthew’s argument came out again when George Bowering won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1969. There was even a group of poets and others who founded the Peoples Poetry Prize at that time, just to award it to Milton Acorn, who many thought should have won the GG instead for his I’ve Tasted My Blood, and not a book of poetry by a "false" American poet.

Leave it to the Canadians to be indirect, and reference as much history as anything else, to make whatever current points. Simply writing as they are writing.

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