Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Arc poetry magazine: 13 dead poets you should know but don't

For their summer 2007 issue, Ottawa's Arc poetry magazine has featured "13 dead poets you should know but don’t," subtitled "Resurrecting Canada's Forgotten and Neglected." The premise for this issue is very interesting, bringing back a series of poets from the past that deserve the attention. As Arc editors Anita Lahey and Matthew Holmes write in their introduction:
In the spring of 2005, three members of Arc ― the two of us from Ottawa and Sackville, New Brunswick respectively, and our webmistress Stacey Munro from Vancouver Island ― converged at the Associated Writers and Publishers conference and book fair in downtown Vancouver. Amid an intoxicating few days of seeing such poets as W.S. Merwin and Anne Carson give readings to jam-packed ballrooms at the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel, we also attended a session called Forgotten and Neglected Poets, and were curious to see which Canadians would appear on the roster (the panel giving the presentation was American). To our amusement and dismay, Gwendolyn MacEwen was the sole Canadian deemed in need of resurrection. As MacEwen's been neither F'd nor N'd in this country, we began to wonder who might truly fit the category. By the time we'd returned to our table at the book fair, this special issue of Arc was already unofficially underway.
The idea itself is a particularly interesting one, and even the notion that MacEwen, for an American audience is forgotten, presumes she might have even been known; sure, she had a novel published in the United States at one point, but they managed to spell her name wrong in the first edition, calling her "Gwendolyn MacEven." Does that count as being known in the United States? But that might not have been the point. The essays in this issue of Arc introduce us to thirteen poets we might not have otherwise known (with poems by each for example thrown in for good measure), as Asa Boxer writes about his late father, Avi Boxer, Aislinn Hunter writes about Louise Morey Bowman, Christopher Doda writes about George Faludy, George Elliott Clarke writes about Cheng Sait Chia, Ronald Caplan writes about Paul Potts, Anita Lahey writes about Dorothy Roberts, G. Kim Blank writes about Audrey Alexandra Brown, John Barton writes about Douglas LePan, Chris Jennings writes about Philip Child, Carmine Starnino writes about James Denoon, Matthew Holmes writes about Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Joseph Howe, and Zachariah Wells writes about Kenneth Leslie.

For Ezra Pound

I have waited to ask you this
I could not ask you in prison
I waited until you were free.

But why, why did you let them use
Your name and your greatness
As so many pennies to put
Into the meters of their gas-machines?
You know what they did with their gas
Your gas, Ezra Pound.
The crime was too big;
There are no extenuating circumstances;
You should have known better.

In Jerusalem I asked
The ancient Hebrew poets to forgive you;
And what would Walt Whitman have said
And Thomas Jefferson. (Paul Potts)

The issue itself is beautifully produced, with artwork by Jon Claytor, and a hefty size for their $9.95 price tag, worthy of such a fee if not worth more, but there's something about a magazine that is predominantly a journal of new poetry (with a good amount of reviews and review essays in the back of locals and otherwise) devoting an entire issue to poets that, even according to many of the writers, weren’t really doing anything terribly memorable. Instead, a number of the pieces in the issue are far more interesting for the sake of academic exercise, for biography, and for other-placement of how a literature is considered, lost and gained than in bringing to light a particular writer who needs to be seen for the writing they did. It's as though the argument isn’t for the importance of their individual writings, but for their placement in history. Is that how a literature works? Do young readers go through the poetry of John Thompson because of the times he lived in, or because the work was so kick-ass that it absolutely has to be experienced to believed?

(To Seow Kay Wan)

In tears of remembrance
I walk in the snow
the snows of your dreams

Had you but seen once
how the snows of one night
change the whole world

Had you but seen once
how soft the flakes
cover the pines

I would walk in the snow
in smiles of solace
the snows of your eternal dreams (Cheng Sait Chia)

Of the pieces included in the issue, one of the more interesting ones was by the poet Asa Boxer (with his own first poetry collection out this fall with Vehicule/Signal), writing on his late father, the poet Avi Boxer, under the wing of Irving Layton and contemporary of Henry Moscovitch (he had the second book in the McGill Poetry Series after Leonard Cohen; does anybody remember that?) and Seymour Mayne; how does a poet so young in his career write about his father, working the same rough terrain? Exploring the small handful of pieces known and some unknown by his father, Boxer writes the elder poet, finally, as one of great promise explored and begun, but in the end, unfulfilled.
My late father, Avi Boxer (1932-1987), was part of the 1950s literary foment in Montreal. He was a student of Irving Layton's and consulted on occasion with A.M. Klein. Besides my father and his two mentors, the Montreal school at the time, consisted, most notably, of Louis Dudek, Leonard Cohen, and Henry Moscovitch. Often, they would meet at Layton's house in Cote-Saint-Luc with other local artists, including Morton Rosengarten, to discuss poetry and, no doubt, to bolster one another's efforts through workshopping and some erudite chat on literature and the arts. Layton, as we know, persisted; he became a Canadian literary icon, and was eventually nominated (twice!) for the Nobel Prize. Dudek became one of Canada's leading literary thinkers. And Cohen, well, everybody knows. Moscovitch succumbed to mental illness and dropped out of sight. Rosengarten earned an esteemed reputation for his sculpture. And Boxer—though the promising "youngest published poet in Canada" at the tender age of 14, and later (at 33) winner of Sir George Williams University's Board of Governors Gold Medal for Creative Expression (1965)—gradually left off writing poems during his twenties (while working in advertising as a copywriter and negotiating his first marriage). He reappeared briefly in 1971, when he was 39, with the publication of his book, No Address—it contained mostly reworked poems written in his youth—and then vanished from the Can-lit scene entirely. My father referred to himself not as a poet but as a craftsman, meaning he felt that he had not written anything resembling a master-work, was not a persistent enough practitioner, and thus had not explored his voice and potential.
As Toronto writer George Elliott Clarke writes of Cheng Sait Chia (1940-1981), the author of Turned Clay (Fredericton NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982), he explores an interesting history of not only the author and her work, but of other-ness, being a Chinese-and-anything-else poet in Canada, writing:
Two primary anthologies of Chinese-Canadian literature, Many-Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians (1991), edited by Bennett Lee and Jim Wong-Chu, and Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (1999), edited by Andy Quan and (again) Wong-Chu, overlook any Chinese-Canadian writer living east of Montreal. In both works, the category Chinese-Canadian implies a Westerner, especially a West Coaster, with a few stray add-ons from Toronto and Montreal, but none from further east. Both anthologies avoid the East Coast, as if the Chinese communities on the Atlantic were simply positioned on the wrong ocean, East Coast Chinese Canada is the "Orient" disappeared from the anthologies. Yet, as elsewhere across Canada, in the previous century, practically every town in Atlantic Canada boasted a Chinese-operated restaurant, and many still do. If it was possible for the celebrated poet and scholar Fred Wah (1939-) to emerge from small-town Saskatchewan and assume a commanding position within English-Canadian letters, why was it not possible for the Maritimes and Newfoundland to produce a similar Chinese-Canadian writer?
And Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino's piece "A Scotchman & a soldier: The occasional poems of James Denoon" is far more interesting as an investigation of the shifts in purposes and social impact of poetry, and less about Denoon's actual writing or even poetry itself. During the launch of the issue over this past weekend, I thought: why didn’t I offer to write on David UU, the late west coast visual poet? Most of the poets I've thought about as lost and needing discovery over the past decade or so are ones that, until recently, were all still very much alive, but somehow lost in the ether, including the late Artie Gold [see my note on him here], Judith Copithorne, Andrew Suknaski [see my essay on him here] and David Phillips (I really need to write something on him someday). Others, such as Montreal's Peter Van Toorn [see my piece on him here] and Vancouver's Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here] and Maxine Gadd [see my note on her here] were long and lost, but have over the past few years been either brought back into publishing, or slowly crept back on their own (it's not for me to decide which). Even Ken Belford, BC poet, had a couple of decades were he didn’t publish at all, until a few years ago (see the recent feature on him in It's Still Winter).

For Arc poetry magazine, what is the purpose of working through such a list? Is it an acknowledgment of lives lived, of poetry written and promise fulfilled, failed or simply just forgotten, fallen out of favour? What is the purpose here? To keep to their rule of the authors being no longer alive certainly kept the writers historical, but it also kept out any sense of real risk by talking about a particular writer who may still be in the world, but for some reason, hasn’t published in it in a very long time. I am hoping somewhere, someone is working on that issue.

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