The League of Canadian Poets: Ottawa agm
Recently, The League of Canadian Poets had their annual general meeting in Ottawa, with readings, book launches, panel discussions, meetings and a wonderfully entertaining lecture by Ottawa-born Margaret Atwood (the annual lectures, named after the late Manitoba poet and editor Anne Szumigalski, have resulted in previous pieces by Anne Carson and George Elliott Clarke, all of which subsequently appear in an issue of Prairie Fire).
It was recently pointed out to me that I've been attending these meetings (with the exception of two, I think -- Saskatoon and Toronto) for a decade now, after Joe Blades invited me along to crash the Ottawa AGM in 1996, before I was a member. A year later, I crashed another Ottawa AGM, but this time after I had been invited to join the organization, been turned down, and then invited to participate by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner in a panel discussion (moderated by Brebner and John Barton, the panelists included myself, Stephanie Bolster and Helen Humphreys, and resulted in the small publication sexual disorientations: sexual identity and gender expression in the writing life, edited by Patience Wheatley, and produced by the Living Archive of the Feminist Caucus, The League of Canadian Poets in May 1998). The concern at the time, I recall, was that an extremely nervous staff was fully expecting me to be "disruptive" at the meetings because I had recently been rejected for membership. But that feels like another story.
One thing I've noticed over the years: what happened to turn the AGM from a series of conversations between working poets across Canada into a version of an extended book launch? When the organization was founded some forty years ago in a backyard conversation that included Raymond Souster, A.J.M. Smith and a handful of other poets across the country, I don’t think it was specifically what they had in mind (what could they have been thinking?). Too many of the current membership of the League are only appearing with new book in hand, and then are rarely seen until the next one comes along. Where do they go, and how do they expect any sort of continued dialogue with such a spotty attendance record? Is conversation even a desired goal? I mean, I can understand money, time, work, living and whatever else getting in the way of regular attendance; I can understand a lack of desire. I also see the amount of members attending regularly to be getting smaller, even in the time I've been paying attention: Cathy Ford, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Eric Folsom, Anne Burke, Dina Cox, Alan Briesmaster and a few others. I missed the "glory days" when all members received funding from the Canada Council to help them with travel to and from the AGM as it moved annually across Canada (I was told a few years ago, when I was on national council as Ontario rep, that Ottawa has consistently been the cheapest AGMs for the League, which would explain why there have been four of them here since 1996…).
I recently read an article on Toronto poet/editor/publisher Jay MillAr's BookThug and Apollinaire's Bookshop where he said that he joined The League of Canadian Poets to shake them up from the inside. It made me wonder: what exactly is he doing to do that (not to put too much pressure on Jay…)? I only ask because I remember saying exactly the same thing myself nearly ten years ago with a group of others (becoming Ontario rep was something that I tried to do to increase the shaking, as Montreal poet Carmine Starnino, another young buck beside me, became Quebec rep…), and I was the only one of that group to even attended this years' Ottawa annual (beside the fact that MillAr didn’t attend this year either). How exactly did we ever shake anything up? How is Jay working toward it? Is he focusing perhaps more on the fringe than the core? Is there a part of his activity that I'm missing?
At the same time, MillAr, for example, is actually doing a lot when it comes to shaking things up. But how does his shaking relate at all to the League?
I have also wondered why so much of the material read at the League AGMs, usually at the marathon book launches (anyone who has a new book to launch at the meetings gets to read for three minutes each, and can often go on for an eternity) all seem to be working variations on the straightforward lyric narrative line. Why is that? How is an organization that can boast such members as Rachel Zolf, Stuart Ross, Erin Mouré, Jay MillAr and bill bissett not manage to hold events that make it more appealing for those writers (and others like them; I use them only as examples) to participate? This year at least had a couple of highlights, such as Catherine Owen and Suzanne Buffam, who won the Gerald Lampart Memorial Award for best first collection of poetry (although she isn't actually a current member of the League).
I am tired of celebrating the small moment and the narrative line. Why can't it be about sound as much as subject? Why do I have to be moved? Why can't I simply be taken?
Why do the spoken word members not appear to launch their CDs? Why don’t such community-minded and active younger poets across Canada such as derek beaulieu or Jon Paul Fiorentino feel the need to belong to such an organization (is the joining itself they respond to? the lack of their heroes or significant peers in attendance? both worthy reasons, to be sure…). The larger question becomes one of the League itself; what is it about the organization that these people don't feel the need to make attending such things a priority? And why is it so many poets don’t return once their book has been launched the last time? ( I haven’t launched a book at a League of Canadian Poets AGM, for whatever reason, for at least five years…) I saw some at this years' event I haven’t seen in years, since the last time they launched. Why not simply appear to engage in the conversation? What is it about the conversation that is lacking?
I have wondered for some time the purpose of such an organization as The League of Canadian Poets, and can remember asking around ten years ago what the whole deal was, why I should care about it, what they were on about, getting versions of stories out of Robert Hogg, Gary Geddes, George Bowering and (former president) Henry Beissel. I know about the exodus that occurred in the early 1970s; I know of the smaller exodus that occurred at the founding of the feminist caucus; I know of the meeting that happened the same weekend as Pat Lowther was brutally murdered by her husband. The purposes of such an organization aren’t necessarily what they can do as a unit, but what they can do as a series of individual conversations/interactions between members. Writers being promoted and books getting written and people finding out about other people are completely separate concerns that can and often do overlap, but more often than not simply don't.
I participate for the individual conversations; I participate for what it is I can learn and continue to learn from a series of accidental encounters. Do you know of the idea of not reading only what you agree with?
For other mentions and reports of League activity, check out a brief AGM blog reports by League members Rhona McAdam, and apologies from member Joe Blades.