Tuesday, January 30, 2007

a note on Canadian poetry anthologies

This piece was originally commissioned by Manuel Brito for an issue of the Spanish magazine Nerter (Canary Islands, 2006), and was published in translation in Nerter #10.

At the pivot, I say continuance, an artistic optimism as simple as it is powerful; for the next years I will have something to do, as many poems to write as I have just (is it really almost twenty years worth?) written. No emptiness—do I fear emptiness? Is this why the project was begun? At least. And death? Well, now you've got a secret that everyone shares. So at the pivot, I say I will not stop. Yet I have stopped; I have stopped to note this moment. For it is a terrible moment, a fearsome moment in which poetry must question itself […].
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
The original question Manuel Brito posed was simple enough: how have avant-garde poetry anthologies helped to understand a whole range of interests intersecting various disciplines, and allowed for a more fine-grained analysis of the transition from challenge to acceptance of new forms? A simple question, but one that becomes extremely difficult to answer. Canadian literature, historically and currently, has always been small enough, that almost anyone inside of it can, with some effort, easily be aware of most if not all of the main players. The lines between genre by those playing competitive games quickly drawn, as various anthologies and reviews of the same quickly attest. The acceptance of new forms has been a difficult one in many respects, with more formal writing considerations still prevalent in Canadian mainstream, and heavy-handed reviewing tactics by various formalist-friendly writers of non-formal works. Obviously the more any particular new or fringe idea exists in the world, the more it moves through into the centre, whether more formally-innovative poetic strains in issues of The Fiddlehead, or urban culture into the lives of suburban white kids.

Some have over-simplified the history of the so-called postmodern avant in Canada from origins in the early 1960s; the story is told that very little happened north of the 49th parallel before two separate but related events: the arrival of Donald Allan’s The New American Poetry anthology, and the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, including readings, talks and workshops by Allan Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and other American poets who, suddenly, were getting more appreciation and notoriety north of the border than they usually did at home. Not only did these events directly or indirectly influence the work of many west coast locals at the beginning or near-beginning of their careers, such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, Frank Davey, Phyllis Webb, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Red Lane (Patrick’s older brother), Judith Copithorne, John Newlove, Jamie Reid, Gladys Hindmarch, Roy Kiyooka, but two boys from Ottawa, Roy MacSkimming and William Hawkins, even drove out to B.C. to participate. Out of these events came a flurry of activity, including small and smaller publications such as the west coast poetry newsletter TISH, bill bissett's blewointment, talon magazine (later becoming Talonbooks), and, eventually, various of bpNichol's publications, gronk and ganglia, among so many others. Through The New American Poetry, they tell us, among other large and small beginnings, a poetry of change, language and whatever else called "avant" began to evolve. By the end of the 1960s, centres of such work were focused around houses such as Vancouver's Talonbooks and Toronto's Coach House Press, as well as around individuals such as Barry McKinnon in Prince George, British Columbia and William Hawkins in Ottawa, and, by the 1970s, Ken Norris and the Vehicule Poets in Montreal, and Dennis Cooley and Turnstone Press in Winnipeg.

From these beginnings, the anthologies of the same came and went, with varying degrees of success and awareness, highlighting the shifts occurring in this "new writing," in the 60s small press explosion. One of the earlier presses that gravitated toward some of these authors, much to his credit, was Raymond Souster's Contact Press (a publishing house owned by Souster, Louis Dudek and Irving Layton), a house that published important early collections by Frank Davey, Al Purdy, John Newlove, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering and Gwendolyn MacEwen, as well as the anthology edited by Souster himself (with editorial help by Victor Coleman, who would be one of the first editors of the newly formed Coach House Press), New Wave Canada (1966). An important anthology, it published the work of a number of the younger poets across Canada, and for many of them, it was their first appearance in book form: Daphne Buckle (later known as Daphne Marlatt) (b. 1942), Victor Coleman (b. 1944), David Cull (b. 1942), Scott Davis (b. 1938), David Dawson (b. 1942), Gerry Gilbert (b. 1936), E. Lakshmi Gill (b. 1943), William Hawkins (b. 1940), Robert Hogg (b. 1942), George Jonas (b. 1935), Barry Lord (b. 1939), Roy MacSkimming (b. 1944), David McFadden (b. 1940), bp Nichol (b. 1944), Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943), Jamie Reid (b. 1941) and Fred Wah (b. 1939).

Other anthologies came in their own succession, from those that bridged stylistic gaps, to those who made no pretense as to their own specific interests and biases. From the argued and arbitrary beginnings of New Wave Canada came Eli Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1971), Al Purdy's Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets (1971) and Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets (1976), George Bowering's The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology (1984), Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (1979) and Sharon Thesen's follow-ups, The New Long Poem Anthology (1992) and The New Long Poem Anthology, 2nd Edition (2001), and Dennis Lee's follow-up to Mandel's anthology, The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985 (1985), with more recent anthologies including Michael Holmes' The Last Word Anthology (1985), Jill Battson and Ken Norris' Word Up: Spoken Word Poetry in Print (1995), Jon Paul Fiorentino and Robert Kroetsch's Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry (2005), not to mention my own editorial work with YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (co-edited with Andy Brown, 2001) or side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (2002). More radical works of Canadian visual and concrete have appeared in anthologies such as bpNichol's own anthology The Concrete Chef (1970), jwcurry and Michael Dean's HEADS & H&Z (1985) that reprinted years of curry's own small publications, or even derek beaulieu's COURIER (1999). On the other side, were the anthologies publishing more formal considerations (some of which made claims of being more open to stylistic gestures, ultimately tainting whatever strength of overall content contradicting this claim each book held), including Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier's Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets (1996) and Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets (2004), and Starnino's unfortunately-titled The New Canon (2005). Fiorentino and Jay MillAr even published a chapbook response to the rumours around who had been accepted and turned down for Breathing Fire 2, publishing more innovative work in their chapbook anthology Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets (2004). As editor George Bowering wrote in this introduction to The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology:
The poets of contemporary Canada are many & varied. Some are stubborn, & some are even stupid. Some join large groups not on the basis of what they believe about poetry but because they have published some. Some even think that language is a tool used by a poet to get a job done. But the poets in this anthology are agreed that the poet must not fancy himself so much as to abrogate a power over language, language their elder & better. Like children again, they know enough to be seen & not heard, to let language, which knows so much more than they do, speak. Language, in this case English, is not spoken. It speaks.
Some of the concerns and considerations Bowering brought up were echoed by Ondaatje, as he wrote in the introduction to The Long Poem Anthology:

There are numerous ways to select poems for an anthology. One approach might have been chronological or historical. In the end, though, I decided to be governed by curiosity. Any long project for me has to be generated by a sense of discovery, of learning about something I'm not sure of, don't fully understand. The same motive lies behind this book. I wanted to explore the poets who surprise me with their step, their process. That is what draws these nine together. These poems are not parading down main street. Some leer anonymously from the stands, some are written in such frail faint pencil that one can barely hold them, they shift like mercury off the hand. The stories within the poems don’t matter, the grand themes don’t matter. The movement of the mind and language is what's important […].
In his review of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry in a recent issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino brought up a number of interesting points, as well as his own particular slant favouring more formalist works, "the well-wrought poem," to more open forms. His slants and dismissive stances may be forefront in his lengthy review, but still he asked the essential question of the collection: what is the purpose of this specific anthology, and therefore, what is the responsibility of the avant-garde? As he suggests, to work along a particular path and frame such a path in something as an anthology, the editors, if not the writers themselves, have to be able to explain themselves. To support and justify the framing. Why are these books built? Referencing the three introductions to the book by each of the editors, he writes in his lengthy review:

After letting Beaulieu whet our appetite, Christie quits the kitchen. Thus he insists in his introduction that "We offer no apologies because we are not attempting to suggest our anthology establishes boundaries, exhausts possibilities or captures an entire future literature in the gestational state of its potential." The claim is preposterous, as anybody who has edited an anthology knows. Anthologies arbitrate. The genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection."
Knowing the prevalence of more formally conservative works in Canadian poetry, beaulieu's introduction makes one of the most important arguments at all, arguing for a dialogue of multitudes, as opposed to a series of single voices. "An alternative must be offered."

So many of the writers published in these anthologies are considered mainstream Canadian poets now, whether Ondaatje, Thesen, Bowering or Nichol; how avant are these anthologies still? How is the movement of new forms and the relationships between these and older forms managed? Is it still possible, arguably, to be particularly "avant" in Canadian literature? And what kind of relationship can anyone working in non-traditional forms expect to have with those who exist in the mainstream? I'm reminded of the review in The Globe and Mail (called "Canada's National Newspaper") that their resident poetry reviewer, Fraser Sutherland, obviously didn’t want to do of the three poetry collections by Erin Mouré, Sylvia Legris and Phil Hall that made up the Canadian shortlist of the $50,000 annual Griffin Poetry Prize. Through his struggling praise he made his feelings known: Sutherland considered these works too strange to be in such an important shortlist. In Michael Barnholden's lengthy and comprehensive introduction to Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999), he writes:

Given such an ambiguous identity, the Kootenay School of Writing seems hardly the best place to orient oneself with respect to Canadian writing. Located in Vancouver in the extreme south-west corner of British Columbia, some six hundred kilometers from the actual Kootenays, KSW continues to find itself "misplaced" as far as mainstream Canadian literature is concerned. If one wants to learn special arts administration skills or leverage their cultural power and influence, the School would not be a wise choice for an apprenticeship. Its offices have always been small, the furniture used and in constant need of repair. Every address it has held has been low-rent and at a considerable distance from the city's better neighbourhoods, the last ten years on the 100 block of West Hastings, a street known across Canada for prostitution, pawn shops and drug use. In short, as an educational institution, KSW continues to be somewhat deficient in the day to day management of its operations. Yet for most of the writers and readers passing through its doors, it is precisely the school's deliberate failure as an institution that constitutes its unique cultural and literary value.

Throughout its existence, KSW's relationship with other writing institutions, especially those of high cultural repute and academic authority, has been one of mutual suspicion. Many of KSW's founding members, including Jeff Derksen, Gary Whitehead, Calvin Wharton and Colin Browne, sought not to establish a new professional elite, but instead denounced the very practice of canonising or somehow collecting certain writings or art pieces to form an exemplary aesthetic. KSW believed that cultural institutions that took pride in offering as well-organized administration centre usually forfeited concerns about art for an interest in management.
Part of what has happened increasingly over the past decade or so is that the Canadian avant-garde has made essential links with international communities, linking with writers in the United States, England, Australia, South America and other countries, moving into a far-flung and further conversation of what it means to be writing, and writing with open considerations of working to push the language further. Far more than the TISH poets corresponding with Creeley and Olson in the early 1960s, or Ontario poet/publisher Nelson Ball publishing books in the late 1960s and early 70s by American poets Anselm Hollo and Clayton Eshleman alongside Canadian contemporaries such as bill bissett, Nichol, David UU, Coleman and John Newlove, the notion of arbitrary lines across borders is something that exists still for books (borders don’t seem to care for them), but not for writers, and certainly not for writing. Take, for example, the fact that Lisa Robertson, a Vancouver poet currently living in France, was featured in a 2006 issue of The Chicago Review, when a Canadian journal has yet to do such a thing, or that Canadian poets Christian Bök, Darren Wershler-Henry and Nicole Brossard all have author home pages at the SUNY-Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center website.

She might not be Canadian, but American poet Jessica Smith cites Canadian examples in the essay included in her first trade poetry collection Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 - 2004 (2006), writing the essay that explores her own reasons for the art she makes, writing Nichol and Steve McCaffery alongside Charles Bernstein, the combined works of Japanese architect Arakawa and poet Madeline Gins among others. As she writes in her preface:
To understand what a "virtual" reading space is we must further analyze my proposed analogy between the plastic arts and plastic poetry. Avant-garde works of plastic art call attention to the way we use space every day. We see and remember our physical surroundings in order to recall them for future occupation. Arakawa's and Gins' projects remind us of this diurnal activity by disrupting it. Plastic poetry works in a similar, albeit more complex, way, by reinforcing elementary conditions of reading. When we read any text, the interplay of words, letters, fonts, ink, and paper already requires work: real physical and mental effort to make meaning. Furthermore, this process of making meaning is already virtual, in the sense that meaning is never actual but requires memory and expectation in order to be formed in the first place. The gears of memory and expectation are already at work in syntax and thus operate quietly beneath our understanding of "meaning." For example, we read the newspaper without thinking about the process of gathering sense from printed language. In contrast, the plastic poetry of Organic Furniture Cellar calls attention to this process in two ways. First, since plastic poetry usually has a fragmentary visual component, it calls attention to the physicality of reading. This forces the reader to recognize that there is more than one level at work in reading. Reading is not an immediate or transparent process, but a physical effort. Second, plastic poetry interferes with syntactical continuity by disrupting what the reader expects to find, or by suspending her memory of a word by breaking the word into unrecognizable fragments. By thus disrupting the reading process, plastic poetry calls attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize fragments of language into meaning. Like experimental architecture, the poetry I designate as "plastic" calls attention to the syntactical organization of space and time (in terms of the physicality of the page and the virtuality of the reader's memory) that already underlies every moment of action and thought.
In his own trade collection of visuals, beaulieu himself includes his essay "an afterward after words: notes toward a concrete poetic," a piece that also appeared (slightly altered) on Brian Kim Stefans' ubuweb, allowing the casual or less informed reader a context to enter into the work. As interesting and informative as this piece is, why couldn’t he provide the same detail of framework for his Shift & Switch? How did such a question get evaded, and even overlooked?

Concrete poetry has expanded beyond the tightly modernist "clean concrete" poems of the 1950s—typified by Eugen Gomringer and Mary Ellen Solt. Gomringer and Solt sought simplicity and clarity in their materialist use of semantic particles (Gomringer's "Silencio" and Solt's "Flowers in Concrete" are examples). Gomringer argues that concrete poetry is an essentially modernist gesture that "realize[s] the idea of a universal poetry" and can "unite the view of the world expressed in the mother tongue with physical reality" ("Concrete Poetry" np). Created by a dictatorial author-function, the modernist concrete poem limits and sanctions the role of the reader according to strict formulations; the reading space is "ordered by the poet … [h]e determines the play-area, the field or force and suggests its possibilities" (Gomringer, "From Line to Constellation" np).
Writing of the need for acknowledging new poetics in old geographies, editor Jon Paul Fiorentino includes an interview between himself and co-editor Robert Kroetsch as the introduction to their Post-Prairie anthology, prefacing with:

Robert Kroetsch and I wanted to document and celebrate the poetry of the prairie as it is being written now, in the new century. We soon discovered that the prairie was missing, or perhaps the prairie had become in many ways unrecognizably present in this new work. The poets we have gathered here (both poets of the prairie and poets of the prairie diaspora) are speaking in new voices, and their "home place" of the prairie has become less unified, more urban, technologically adept, and theoretically informed. To put it another way, the "home place" is where it's not: there are elements of a vernacular inclusion project in this anthology. The inability of many readers and literary scholars to see an emerging poetics of a new prairie, the post-prairie, should not be surprising—there is a reason the prairie is thought of as the domain of the rural, the wheat field and the grain elevator. This most obviously had something to do with cultural capital—that is, there is a marketplace-based reason many people continue to think of the prairie as a fixed notion of "traditional" landscape. Perhaps it's easier to sell the prairie as such a simple place, located in some past golden page of a "simpler" life. In order to desimplify this notion, to figure out what we were getting at by gathering the elements of this anthology, where we were getting to, we, the editors, needed to dialogue.
In the end, what anthologies do provide is that dialogue, through a multitude of voices speaking in a shape presented to us through the work of concrete editorial visions and decisions. It becomes the job of the editor to understand the voices, and therefore conduct them in a way that their presentation compliments, and makes sense, as opposed to mere cacophony. The best way to invigorate any kind of art form is to bring in aspects of something else, whether bringing the language of the weather to writing, or postmodernism to architecture; what these anthologies provide is not only that pre-existing dialogue, but opens up further, to the reader and subsequent anthologies. As Robert Kroetsch has suggested, literature is a conversation, and it is important for the art to have as many conversations as possible.

Works Cited:
Allan, Donald M. Ed. The New American Poetry. New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960; London UK: Evergreen Books Ltd., 1960; Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1999.
Battson, Jill and Ken Norris. Eds. Word Up: Spoken Word Poetry in Print. Toronto ON: Key Porter Books Limited, 1995.
Barnholden, Michael and Andrew Klobucar, Eds. Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology. Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1999.
beaulieu, derek, Ed. COURIER. Calgary AB: housepress, 1999.
________. Fractal Economies. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006.
________, Jason Christie and a. rawlings, Eds. Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005.
Bowering, George, Ed. "Unexpected Objects," The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984.
Crozier, Lorna and Patrick Lane. Eds. Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1996.
________. Eds. Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.
Dean, Michael and jwcurry, Eds. HEADS & H&Z. Toronto ON: Underwhich Editions, 1985.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Inside the Middle of a Long Poem," Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa AB: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Fiorentino, Jon Paul and Robert Kroetsch, Eds. Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2005.
Holmes, Michael. Ed. The Last Word Anthology. Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1995.
Lee, Dennis. Ed. The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1985.
mclennan, rob, Ed. side/lines: a new Canadian poetics. Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002.
________ and Andy Brown, Eds. YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING. Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001.
MillAr, Jay and Jon Paul Fiorentino. Eds. Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2004.
Nicol, bp, Ed. The Concrete Chef. Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1970.
Ondaatje, Michael, Ed. The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979.
Purdy, Al. Ed. Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1971.
________. Ed. Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1976.
Smith, Jessica. Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 - 2004. Charlottesville VA: Outside Voices, 2006.
Souster, Raymond, Ed. New Wave Canada. Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966.
Starnino, Carmine. "Bait and Switch," Canadian Notes and Queries.
Thesen, Sharon, Ed. The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992.
________, Ed. The New Long Poem Anthology, 2nd Edition. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001.

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