Monday, September 19, 2005

Sina Queyras, ed., Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets
foreword by Molly Peacock
2005, Persea Books, $18.95 CAN / $26.50 US
250 pages, isbn 0-89255-314-6

The biggest reason for an anthology like this, is the fact that books have difficulty crossing borders, especially small press volumes of poetry (and we all know big presses don’t really publish poetry). For example, for reasons still unexplained, Penguin seems to publish poets from every country they have offices in, except Canada. Canadian poet Ken Norris, who teaches at the University of Maine in Orono, says he regularly has to drive up to Montreal bookstores to see what the Canadian poets are doing. On the other hand, if I want to see what the Americans are doing, it’s equally difficult. Unless I’m really into what faber & faber are publishing (which I’m really not), I have very little option in my local bookstores to see what the non-Canadians are doing. At least through the internet, there are thousands of pages of work being published by non-Canadians, with a multitude of online literary journals throughout the United States; Canadians are years behind in comparison, with almost no work online by some of our standards: John Newlove, Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, Margaret Atwood, Don McKay, Steve McCaffery and others, and online journals only popping up over the past few years, such as Michael Bryson’s The Danforth Review, Rob Budde’s stonestone, and my own ottawater and Poetics.ca. And now, of course, it seems that every young poet in Calgary and Toronto has started up their own blog. For years I’ve been wondering if this is a sort of self-perpetuating ideal, keeping our work inside our borders because of our lack of confidence. Or is there simply no need to exist on a world stage? Does government funding to authors and books keep us happy to our borders? Is there a safety in keeping to where we are?

Editor Sina Queyras has admirably built a collection of Canadian poetry for an outside market, deliberately targeting the Americans as audience for her anthology Open Field: 30 Contemporary Poets. Contributors include Jeanette Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, Ken Babstock, Christian Bök, George Bowering, Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Anne Carson, George Elliott Clarke, Lorna Crozier, Mary Dalton, Joe Denham, Christopher Dewdney, Susan Goyette, Lydia Kwa, Sonnet L’Abbé, Dennis Lee, Tim Lilburn, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Erin Mouré / Eirin Moure, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje, Lisa Robertson, Anne Simpson, Karen Solie, Todd Swift, Fred Wah and Jan Zwicky.

A Canadian poet herself, with two collections (and a third forthcoming from Coach House Books), if you know Canadian writing and look through Queyras’ selection of writers, it reads as though she is all over the map, moving all over stylistic range, geography and age; reading almost off-balance and wonky (there are writers here I would never have imagined side by side), she has obviously built the anthology as a beginning, an opening into further reading. If you know nothing at all of Canadian writing, you can at least get a taste of it, and then move further into specific names, picking up, for example, other anthologies such as Breathing Fire and Breathing Fire II (Harbour Publishing, 1996 and 2005) if you care for the work of Karen Solie, Ken Babstock and Lorna Crozier; picking up a copy of Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (New Star Books, 1999) if you care for the work of Lisa Robertson, or looking through the catalogues of Coach House Books and Talonbooks if you are more interested in the works of bp Nichol, Fred Wah, George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt and Christian Bök. As editor Queyras writes in her introduction:

Discussing literature (or art, or film, or music, or anything you love) with people whose influences, or preferences, you are familiar with, but who have little awareness of your own, can be disorienting. It’s fine if you are both equally unfamiliar, but for those of us living north of the one-way mirror that the US/Canada border can sometimes be, the experience is more like: we can see you, you don’t see us. Most poetic dialogues assume a certain amount of shared knowledge and this imbalance flamed my passion: You haven’t read? You haven’t heard? Fortunately, Gabe was open to my exuberance (as have found most Americans to be). After two years of meeting in various bars and cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Gabe usually walking away with one or two books of Canadian poetry under his arm (and I with his favorites, or those newly discovered) the idea for this anthology arose.

The foreword by Molly Peacock gives a good balance to Queyras’ introduction, about the joy of discovery of a body of work that she realized was more foreign than she had imagined. As she writes:

The disparate poets in this volume all partake of the very strong notion that Canadian literature defines the Canadian identity, and this idea is shared by broadcasters and government officials, who speak of how Canadian literature creates (both among Canadians and on the world stage) powerful images of what this country is and means. Canada is immensely proud of its poets. Legislators understand that the making of literature is the making of a national identity – they have put their money on it. Canadian poetry publishers have taken on the task of creating the national imagination, devoting themselves to promoting poets like vowel-obsessed Christian Bök, who stretches the poetry toward acrobatics of sheer language (and gets on the best seller list in doing so), and sense-obsessed Lorna Crozier, who roots poetry in the national tradition of horticulture that she versifies it for its citizens. On the surface these poets haven’t a shred in common, but they are the ears and eyes on the national face.

Not that it’s as bad as that, there are Canadian poets that have made headway into the United States, but only here and there. I’m thinking specifically of SUNY-Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center, that has author pages for Darren Wershler-Henry, Christian Bök and Steve McCaffery (who is now the poetry chair at SUNY), and their poetics e-mail list has piles of Canadian poets from Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Newfoundland and even Ottawa. But Buffalo is not the entire United States, not by a long shot. Still, I can only hope that, as has been suggested, there might be a second volume down the road of Sina Queyras’ Open Field. What is that informative spot they keep putting on NBC? The more you know...

This review originally appeared at Stride

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