Tuesday, March 13, 2007

a brief note on "political" (what's that?) poetry

After working on an essay on the poetry of Toronto writer Phil Hall the past few months and going through the Vancouver "work poetry" of the 1980s such as Tom Wayman and others, and more recently reviewing the first trade collection by Kootenay School poet Roger Farr [see my review of his Surplus here], I've been thinking about what is sometimes called "political poetry" in Canada. It really hit home yesterday afternoon when I opened up the new issue of The Walrus (April 2007) and saw this magnificent poem by Toronto poet Ken Babstock on the conflict in Caledonia, Ontario, when residents tried to open up a golf course on disputed aboriginal territory. It's good to see a smart and interesting poem by a contemporary even talk about this kind of material, working the twists of the lines and words, turning them in on themselves until you can barely tell the difference between the two sides.

by Ken Babstock

Then we came out in numbers.
As Canadians we came out in numbers with flags.

With flags aloft and hooting we stepped out in anger and in numbers.
In numbers as Canadians we came out drunk and threw rocks.

We threw rocks and golf balls as our patience had come to its natural end.
As Canadians we threw rocks past our flags aloft at them.

Having been finally angered enough we came out at night with rocks.
We'd been as Canadians infringed upon we thought with flags.

So we threw rocks. Rocks and a few choice epithets and golf balls hooting.
You don’t live here we're proud Canadians in anger with rocks

and without patience we appeared in numbers around barrel fires and spoke.
Into megaphones at the OPP drunk and them we'd had enough as Canadians.

Citizens with flags and megaphones and our rights and some of our children
threw rocks at the very end of their young patience with flags and placards

hooting. Our kids came out in numbers to stand in solidarity with us as Canadians
into megaphones demanding we throw rocks and a few choice Canadians

without access to that road as our only route through anger with flags
aloft alongside placards and our kids angry to be blocked by them with

special treatment to be angered by rocks thrown in Canadian solidarity
with megaphones and our kids in numbers aloft in a wind over patience

our only route you don’t have to live near them as Canadians drunk with rocks.
We came out in numbers at night as Canadians singing around barrel fires and marching.

When I was first starting to pay attention to writing in the late 1980s and the early 1990s (and other things that weren’t directly related to me; I was in my late teens in the late 80s, after all), I heard repeatedly that there really was no tradition of "political poetry" in Canada, since we're one of the few western countries that hasn’t lived through a civil war (but what about the FLQ and October Crisis?), hasn’t started any wars (but what about us being the only country, supposedly, to successfully fight off not one, but multiple American invasions?) and didn’t expand its boundaries by taking land away from anyone else (but what about the myriad of Native populations?). One of the few poems that anyone even bothered to bring up for the longest time is one by Gary Geddes, a poem that he even read us when I was in grade eleven, taking a day-long poetry workshop with him at my high school. Originally appearing in his collection Changes of State (Regina SK: Coteau Books, 1986) and was later reprinted in Light of Burning Towers: Poems New and Selected (Montreal QC: Véhicule Press, 1990).

(Killed at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard)

You might have met her on a Saturday night
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step

between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.

She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.

In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could, no doubt, more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.

While the armouries burned she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.

And while they milled and shouted on the commons
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That's it, SSSSSSSS,

tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?

As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,

was going down on one knee as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,

severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech?

And who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?

It was one that most of us weren’t terribly impressed with; I remember hearing the same from Clare Latremouille at the end of the workshop day, and the next year, he read the same poem to a whole new group (I was the only overlap) that included Franco-Ontarien playwrite Patrick Leroux. I remember thinking at the time, is this all he has? And I wondered for a few years after that, do we not have any more of a strain of political "verse" in this country than that? I later realized that, like everything else going on here, compared to our neighbours down south, our "political poetry" is far more subtle, and seemingly not even discussed when it does happen, whether the works of various of the Kootenay School of Writing poets such as Roger Farr, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jeff Derksen, donato mancini, Aaron Vidaver, or even poets such as Elias Letelier-Ruz and George Elliott Clarke; a group of extremely political "Ottawa" poems of Clarke's that ended up in his most recent Black (2006) also appeared in the second issue of ottawater. That doesn’t even get into pieces I've found by Judith Fitzgerald on the 1966 attempted bombing of Parliament [see my note on her poem here], or on the 1970 October Crisis by a whole slew of writers, including Eli Mandel, or the two and a half decades Dennis Tourbin spent on creating innumerable pieces of writing and visual art about the event. Not to mention poems throughout the 1980s on South America by Stuart Ross and others; I'm sure there are piles of pieces I haven’t even begun to think about (white-boy centric me, for example, why can't I think of folk like Dionne Brand or Marie Annharte Baker or Armand Ruffo until last minute? When will I ever learn?).

Referring to the recent Poets Talk book [see my review of it here], the politics in poetry is something that Vancouver poet and critic Roger Farr himself brought up in the new issue of The Capilano Review, in an interview he did with Vancouver poet Fred Wah; I'll let the last words be theirs.
Roger Farr: When writers read linguistics, they often start to adapt various linguistic strategies, such as defamiliarization. But defamiliarization is used specifically to extend perception, to extend consciousness, to reconfigure objects in the mind. It seems that when people talk about how poetry has political agency, it's always in terms of consciousness, or cognition. Moure talks literally about brain synapses and various effects that linguistic devices have on consciousness (Butling and Rudy 59-60) It's really fascinating stuff, but it struck me that perhaps we had no way of talking about the political possibilities of poetry outside of a certain model of consciousness. Does poetry have any political role to play other than causing "effects" "on" readers, other than changing perception? Sorry, it's a very abstract

Fred Wah: I sense that it is. I'm just trying to get my head around it. Let me just change the term a little bit. I've always been rather uncomfortable with the term "the political." In poetry, it seems a little loose. So maybe social effects? Or as Louis Cabri articulated to me, "the social poem." Once I realize that the poem can be a social event, or has that possibility, and I start asking myself how can it do that, or what are the best ways for it to be that, to be social, then of course that's consciousness ― that's once again a kind of attention that starts to occupy the poem. So I don’t know that it can be done. I guess if it's unconscious, or if consciousness is not part of that positioning of yourself in relation to the political or the social, then it becomes [long pause] …almost surreptitious.

One of the most fascinating debates I ever heard was at the David Thompson University Centre around 1981 or '82. We set up a conference there called "Writing and Revolution," and invited a whole bunch of people, and we had a panel with Margaret Randall, Nicole Brossard, Stan Persky, and maybe Brian Fawcett. But the two most interesting people were Margaret Randall and Nicole Brossard. Randall had just been working in Guatemala and had collected all these stories by Guatemalan women and was publishing them. Her point was that these women needed to be empowered to tell their stories, and we needed to hear their stories,
which is true. But in the other sense the stories were all very simplistic, and predictable, both in their content and in the writing itself.

Farr: The narrative frames existed prior to the writing of the stories.

Wah: Yes. And for Margaret Randall, understandably, that was the only way she could see of translating or getting their stories out there, making them accessible. Then Brossard comes in. Well, she disagreed with that approach as a feminist, and her point was "For me, I have to change the language before I can enter. I have to change the language to make it more mine." So there were two kinds of ― not necessarily oppositional but two very divergent points of view about how to "get in," you might say. I don’t know if using the word "consciousness" is right, but how do you get your consciousness up front? How do you make it apparent? How do you make it there? Aesthetically, I sympathize more with Brossard's approach than with the idea that if it's political, then it has to be "a political poem." Somebody talked once about Gary Geddes being the most political poet in Canada because he had written some "political poems," because he had written a book about some political topic or subject, so he was therefore "a political poet." In a sense that's fair enough. If you're writing poems about politics, about the world in that way, then I guess they are political poems. But for me a political or a social poem is a poem that tries to engage those sensibilities with a language, and with some possibility of generating more ― I was going to say "awareness," but maybe the word consciousness really ruffles me ― I guess I've never known what it is…I had morphine in the hospital yesterday and I felt pretty light-headed! (Laughter)

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