Thursday, May 10, 2007

Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets, eds. John Barton and Billeh Nickerson

One of the books launched at this spring's ottawa international writers festival was Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets, eds. John Barton and Billeh Nickerson (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007). Featuring the work of fifty-seven Canadian poets, the list of contributors moves from Frank Oliver Call, Émile Nelligan, Douglas LePan and Edward A. Lacey [see the piece on him in the new issue of here] to Ian Stephens, Clint Burnham, bill bissett, Michael V. Smith, Sky Gilbert and Todd Bruce. Going through the list of contributors, predominantly in English but a few in translation from French, there does seem something strange in realizing that this is the first poetry anthology of its kind (which makes one wonder why there weren’t any attempts to do so previously), as Barton writes in the introduction:
This first anthology of Canadian gay male poetry takes its place in a line of similar anthologies published elsewhere in the English-speaking world, including Edward Carpenter's Ioläus (1902), Patrick Anderson and Alistair Sutherland's Eros: An Anthology of Friendship (1961), Ian Young's The Male Muse (1973) and The Son of the Male Muse (1983), and Stephen Coote's The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1983). Carpenter, Anderson and Sutherland, and Coote all start with ancient times and work their way up. In the case of the first two, they do not focus on poetry exclusively while, in the third instance, Coote also includes work by women. Only living poets appear in Young's anthologies, with mutually exclusive sets of contributors published in each. In 1995, Michael Holmes and Lynne [sic] Crosbie, two straight Toronto writers, published the much smaller Plush, Canada's first contemporary anthology of gay male poetry, featuring three Canadian and two American poets. Five years later, Timothy Liu published Word of Mouth, collecting into a single volume fifty-eight American poets born in the twentieth century (he did not have to deal with Whitman or Crane, as a consequence), an anthology he affirms in the introduction was conceived in light of the many gay male poetry anthologies that had already been published in the United States; Liu's efforts to map American gay male verse have served as a model for Seminal.
There are those, writers and readers both, who find any sort of labelling before the word "writer" somewhat suspect, whether it be gay, black or woman (I know of at least one author who wasn’t comfortable reading as a "gay writer," instead preferring to read as a "writer," since their work wasn’t specifically "gay"); isn't it about "writing" first and everything else second? Being that I'm white, straight and male, it's an argument others would argue I know absolutely nothing about, and they'd be right. Too many times to call one "writer" is to presume the white, straight and maleness of the art, and more often than not they might be right, but increasingly not.

Part of what I like about this anthology is the sheer range of authors, moving in and out of all sorts of groupings, whether stylistic, geographic or temporal, and through various cliques and otherwise, with, supposedly, nothing these authors have in common but for they are gay Canadian men who write poetry; how arbitrary, one could say, is that? Part of what makes this book interesting is the fact that this could easily be read simply as an anthology of interesting work, moving across all sorts of boundaries between groups and cities, from the poems of Vancouver poet (formerly from Prince George) George Stanley to Toronto writer and filmmaker R.M. Vaughan to Ottawa poet (formerly from Alberta) Shane Rhodes [see my review of his most recent book here] to Toronto/Vancouver poet and performer bill bissett to Winnipeg author Todd Bruce (who, after years of silence, really needs to have a new book out).

Prince Rupert Blues

O Eros, have you finally escaped
me, so that neither in the streets
or the pubs will your prowling, animalistic power,
manifesting itself through the slow smiles,

graceful-awkward demeanor & straightforward talk
of the young guys who are your embodiments,
locate me gladly, on this earth
as if at home, as in a place

where my nature is permitted,
not divided from my behaviour
by abstract precepts & propositions?

Return to me in the night, be
purest sensation, a one night
stand, i won't try to understand.

after Paul Goodman (George Stanley)

Part of what I have noticed about Canadian poetry in general, is the discomfort that CanLit seems to have with any sort of humour in poems at all, as though there is something and somehow less when a poem is funny than when it is so very serious, weighty and oh so cleverly witty. It's something that writers such as Montrealers David McGimpsey and Jon Paul Fiorentino have talked about, as has Toronto writer Stuart Ross. Alternately, the humour in gay male poetry is not only there, but sometimes flamboyantly and over-the-top there, and wonderfully accepted, such as in this piece by co-editor Billeh Nickerson:

Why I Love Wayne Gretzky—An Erotic Fantasy

Because he knows what to do with pucks,
slapshots, wristshots, all that intricate stickwork
as he slips through defencemen,
shoots between the legs
& scores.

Because he likes to pretend
I'm the zamboni & he
the filthy ice.

Because even if he's tired
he'll perk up
whenever I sing O Canada.

Because sometimes my dyslexia makes me see
a giant 69 on his back.

Because he's always ready for overtime—
because he never shoots then snores.

Because he understands the importance of
a good organ player.

Because he calls me his stick boy.

Because he likes to be tied up
with the laces from his skates.

Because behind every great man
it feels good.

In range and feel, in a way, this book reminds me of Wayde Compton's own anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001); and make me wonder if a particular part of the vision/construction of such a project came directly from Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press, in moving from the beginnings of such writings to some of the most recent (with contributors born well into the 1970s). In Compton's anthology, the range of contributors is a bit wider, moving from Sir James Douglas (1803-1877) to Sara Singh Parker-Toulson (b. 1977), collecting quite a range of contributions, and giving quite a large amount of weight to the history of black settlers in the province of British Columbia. Slightly smaller, the range of Seminal moves from Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) to young Sean Horlor, born in 1981; providing, still, its own serious weight of contributors and years, and easily far more than most readers would have been aware of. Books such as these are important and even essential for tracking a particular thread that might not otherwise have been seen, or seen for being so prevalent throughout Canadian writing over the years, no longer hidden through lack of attention or delegated to the sidelines. Apparently there is an anthology edited by Nicole Brossard doing the same in French but for French-Canadian (or French-Quebec, I can't remember) gay and lesbian poets out sometime this year; hopefully someone is capable of speaking both languages (unlike myself) and could possibly write about both in a review, somewhere?


A boy is waiting for me tonight in Santiago.
He does not know he has seen me for the last time.

At nine, under the university clock, I told him:
I'll take you to dinner, and then we'll find a hotel room.

He walks back and forth under the clock, smokes a cigarette,
Stares after the passing buttocks, wonders where the maricón is.

But maricónes are always late, like women,
And, anyhow, where else could I find a man like him?

He has brown eyes, brown skin. He's—let's say—a mechanic.
He was passionate in bed. I think I liked him.

At nine-thirty he decides he'll give me fifteen minutes.
At ten he definitely decides to go, but yet…

I gave him food, I gave him money, I gave him my body.
I even gave—I guess—affection. But I could not give him my time.

He's tired. It's getting cold. He's out fifty pesos.
But he should have known. A maricón is a maricón.

He stands under the clock in Santiago.
He knows now he will never see me again. (Edward A. Lacey)

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