Saturday, February 10, 2007

Roger Farr's Surplus

One of the first season of poetry collections from the newly formed LINEbooks (out of West Coast Line magazine) is Vancouver poet and critic Roger Farr's Surplus (Burnaby BC: LINEbooks, 2006)[see my review of their previous title, companions & horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry edited by Stephen Collis, here]. There have been a number of new publishers in Canada appearing lately, what with Wayde Compton's own Commodore Books (also distributed by West Coast Line) or Jon Paul Fiorentino and the late Robert Allen who formed Snare Books out of Montreal's Matrix magazine, or even our own little Chaudiere Books project in Ottawa. Managing editor Michael Barnholden, writer and editor both, has had his hands in a number of projects over the years, including work with Talonbooks, New Star Books and The Kootenay School of Writing, as well as his own poetry title a few years back with Coach House Books, and his work as editor/publisher of legendary west coast publisher Tsunami Editions (a number of which have been re-released online through Brian Kim Stefans' ubuweb, and others threaten to re-release on the KSW website; the backlist of titles still in print, apparently, will finally be available through this new LINEbooks project).

Roger Farr's first trade poetry collection Surplus works a sequence of three extended pieces, the first piece being, "35 Sonnets," that exist almost oppositionally to the construction of a Barry McKinnon long poem; as Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry once suggested of McKinnon's work, half works toward a central line, and the other half moves away from the same point. Instead, Farr's "35 Sonnets" works directly yet indirectly from an accumulation between the first line of the first piece, to the last line of the final poem, writing from

An unsatisfied need pervades most human beings. (p 9)


Never to end, but continuously, to pause. (p 43)

Writing "Surplus" and "accumulation," obviously, the ends of the means aren’t the two lines, but the ways in which the poems travel between them, working their endless dialogues throughout nearly three dozen sonnets. Here is the first poem in full:


An unsatisfied need pervades most human beings.
Each day the machines accumulate
Like the tires in these photographs by Burtynsky —
A petro-chemical Tower of Rubble set
Against a backdrop of shipwreckers
(They're in Bangladesh, don’t worry).
You can count the rings to tell how old
Their boys were. I downloaded that picture
Now it hangs above the entrance to this Franchise.
Each day the late-capitalist cache accumulates more
Data with less hardware, more shoes with fewer
Factories, more condos with less down, more
Windows but less air, more leaping but
Less and less to leap for, or to.

Part of a group of critics and poets in Vancouver for a number of years, Farr has been involved with West Coast Line magazine and The Kootenay School of Writing and the social and language considerations that both have (in part) come to be known for. Working regular speech, writing theory, working class values and social action, there is something rich and rare in the considerations of west coast Canadian poetry that exist nowhere else, from the mid-1980s and beyond mix of Kootenay School of Writing poets such as Jeff Derksen, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Peter Culley and Gerald Creede, to the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union poets that included Phil Hall, Tom Wayman, Kate Braid and even Erin Mouré. As editors Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar write in their introduction to Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999):
Hammer," an early poem by Tom Wayman, who was also a Wobbly, illustrates the lose relationship KSW maintained with labour movements. In it, Wayman symbolically abstracts the common tool of a carpenter ― the hammer ― into an emblem of social unit among the impoverished working classes. The image is hardly new, having signified basic labour in everything from Masonic badges to the flag of the Soviet Union. What is fresh in Wayman's poem is his descriptive prose, detailing the various working situations the hammer must transcend. In the final stanza,

Nothing can stop it. The hammer has risen for centuries
high as the eaves, over the town. In this age
it has climbed to the moon
but it does not cease rising everywhere each hour.
And no one can say what it will drive
if at last it comes down.

Wayman's interest in class struggle is evident throughout the poem. All workers, regardless of their individual working situations, share an important social bond derived from their common oppression by capitalism. Class oppression and the need for social change it subsequently provokes unites, for Wayman, the restaurant cook with the carpenter, and both of them, oddly enough, with the astronaut. Labour does not ever cease in this poem; but neither does the need among labourers for emancipation and their social right to own the relations of production.

Only one year after KSW opened an office on West Broadway near Oak Street, the school co-sponsored, with the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, a colloquium on what Wayman and others were calling "work writing." Among the issues discussed there was labour's unclear future within a Socred-administered province. Such political uncertainty generated a specific confusion regarding KSW's own relationship to conventional labour groups.

Called the first North American symposium of contemporary work literature, the participants of the Split Shift Colloquium of August 1986 included Canadians and Americans both, such as Phil Hall, Tom Wayman, Erin Mouré, Antler, Kate Braid, Sandy Shreve, Howard White, Clemens Starck, Susan Eisenberg, Robert Carson, Jim McLean, Kirsten Emmott, Eugene McNamara and Glen Downie. As Wayman himself wrote of work writing in his essay, "Split Shift and After: Some Issues of the New Work Writing":
Work writing, on the other hand, states that every job has importance in society and that whoever does that work is an expert concerning the value of this work and how this work affects individual and community existence. Therefore each of us has the right to speak out and be listened to, irrespective of financial status. The present educational and critical apparatus is not likely to devote a sustained effort to promoting this message.

Farr's own Surplus, working a more contemporary strain of political writings, writes the dividing line of lack and excess, in those things that cannot exist but by being extant. In his three sections, moving from tight sonnets to a sequence of poems written in couplets to a poem pulled completely apart on the page, the formal concerns from one to another fit oddly together, as though either completely incongruous, or existing from one side of formal constraint to its eventual breaking apart, the pieces in Surplus layer in amazement even as they layer in cultural and political allusion and anger.


Do I have to spell everything out for you
Do I have to say everything twice

Don't let yourself get disconnected
Even small magnets can erase credit cards

What have we gotten your self into
Art as Technique

Her husband ran off with a tangent
He tickled her pink with his remarks

She touched him with an expensive gift
Hume wrote of "a necessary connection"

A taste of their own application process
Wipe that face of your façade

We're about half-way through now
Let's get our thinking back on (Sorry To Be Late)

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