Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century, edited by Birk Sproxton & Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift

Part of my thinking on geography lately led me to the book the late Birk Sproxton [see my note on him here] did through Prairie Fire Magazine out of Winnipeg, the collection The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century (Winnipeg MB: Prairie Fire Press, Inc., 2006). What is it about all this geography lately? Why do I feel, almost, that once you look for something, it's just about everywhere? As well as a recent poetry anthology for Chicago [see my review of it here] or what I've been doing recently for Ottawa poetry and fiction through Chaudiere Books, apparently there's even a new anthology of Saskatchewan poets I have yet to get my hands on. So much history, if it doesn’t get collected or talked about, somehow manages to completely fall by the wayside, as so many of these histories do. For Winnipeg and Montreal, like any centre, they might be the centre of essential activity, but they are the ones that have to keep presenting that argument out into the world (a joke from the 1980s suggests that if it weren’t for Winnipeg, Toronto would have no arts scene…). If not for Lawrence Ferlinghetti as publisher and Allen Ginsberg as promoter, would any of us have heard of the Beat writers? Without Ken Norris spending much of the 1980s doing the same for the Vehicule Poets of the 1970s, would they still even be close to any sort of equal conversation? Any community needs its promoters and cheerleaders as much as it needs those directly active in the production of new writing; without the next logical step, audience a few years down the road could easily suffer the same kinds of forgetfulness. Editor Sproxton begins his introduction to The Winnipeg Connection by telling us:
The Winnipeg Connection began in the afterglow of the special issue of Prairie Fire published in 1999 to coincide with the Pan-American Summer Games. We called the issue "Winnipeg in Fiction," a collection designed to celebrate Winnipeg's history as a place of writing. That summer Winnipeg was alive and bristling with good feeling about herself as she welcomed visitors from across the Americas. The special issue sold out quickly, and we realized we had tapped into a widely shared interest in the city's writing life as it emerges in English-language fiction. With fifty contributors in all, including striking art work and an intriguing batch of archival images selected by Louise Jonasson, the book-size magazine offered a visual as well as verbal feast. For visitors and Winnipeggers alike, "Winnipeg in Fiction" served as a healthy introduction to Winnipeg's literary and artistic life.

Some time later, the idea for The Winnipeg Connection began to brew. Then I approached the Prairie Fire people with a proposal to focus on Winnipeg at mid-century, especially the 1940s and 1950s. These were crucial years, I argued, for the emergence of an internationally acclaimed contingent of writers—Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman, Patricia Blondal, Jack Ludwig and John Marlyn among them, a group aided and abetted by Malcolm Ross, James Reaney and many other. This was a time when Winnipeg once more remade herself as a vital hub of the literary arts. She had reached pre-eminent status through her many newspapers and the early-twentieth-century writing of Ralph Connor and Nellie McClung. In the World War II era Winnipeg's output and influence reached new heights, as the list
above suggests.
A celebration of any sort along these lines is worth noting, and worth paying attention to. I just hope that someone continues the thread that Sproxton started, pushing further into the second half of the twentieth century and beyond with, perhaps, a further volume or two? It becomes interesting to see the community that developed that would end up inventing such writers as Dennis Cooley, Rob Budde, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Di Brandt and Meeka Walsh, and so many others. The collection also includes a previously unpublished Margaret Laurence poem, "North Main Car" written in Winnipeg in 1948, that begins:

morning, and the city's steel hulk
heaves, stirs itself, who has been
a lovely giant held by enticing night,
ungilding daylight, exploring now
her savagery and blemishes.

out of the north the streetcar crawls,
an outsize wood-and-iron worm.
people clamber aboard, still yawning,
an uneasiness in their faces
that the harsh day has not yet
pulled into tensions.

people have come from far off to this town,
from europe's handkerchief-sized farms,
from the winding streets of the world,
exchanging the known devil, the overseer's whip,
for another, sight unseen.

Somewhat closer to home (both geographically and temporally) is the critical collection Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2007), collecting new essays dealing with various aspects of Montreal poetry over the past few decades alongside a few older pieces by the late poet/teacher Louis Dudek, Peter Van Toorn and Geoff Hancock. The collection includes newer essays on works by Robert Allen, David McGimpsey, Van Toorn, Erin Mouré, Robyn Sarah and Anne Carson. One of the finest of the collection has to be Dean Irvine's piece "Fugitive Places: Anne Carson and the Unlost," that writes:
Carson's rise to literary celebrity coincided with her tenure as a professor of Classics at McGill University from 1988 to 2003. Although an English-language author living in Quebec, she had little reason to be concerned with Montreal's limited Anglophone audience. If she ever shared David Solway's anxieties about being a "double exile"—at once exiled from Francophone Quebec, and exiled from the rest of Anglophone Canada—her early critical success in the United States and concomitant penetration of international markets must have helped to assuage any concerns by enabling her to transcend limitations imposed by locality and nationality. After the London, Ontario small press Brick Books brought out her first poetry collection Short Talks in 1992, she rapidly secured an international following through publication by major American presses (New Directions and Alfred A. Knopf). To say that Carson has achieved a kind of literary celebrity unbounded by civic, provincial, or national boundaries is to state the obvious. As accruals of symbolic capital, neither her celebrity nor the status of her work derives from local or national recognition; this is the cultural logic of literary values transacted in an era of late capitalism. Carson trades her capital on a transnational English-language market, where the materiality of civic and national markets is liquidated under the pressure of late capitalism's push toward globalization.
Working to represent some of the threads of English-language poetry over the past few decades, alongside a bibliography of poetry magazines throughout the period, English-language (or, "Anglo") poetry publishers, poetry prize winners and Concordia University M.A. Poetry Theses, I have to admit I was disappointed to not even see a single reference to the Montreal anthology that Andy Brown and I put together a few years ago for the same publisher; was it simply because YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001) wasn’t a poetry anthology, and instead an anthology of poetry and fiction? As Andre (later, Endre) Farkas and Ken Norris wrote at the beginning of their introduction to Montreal: English Poetry of the Seventies (1978):
English poetry in Montreal has always been written under the most unique conditions. Being a member of a minority culture within the bounds of a dominant Francophone community has made the English poet in Montreal intensely aware of his own language as well as informing him of the problem inherent in the use of language as an agent of communication. When he writes, the Montreal poet knows that the vast majority of people living in his city have no interest whatsoever in what he has to say because what he is saying is in a language that has no relevance to their cultural life. He also recognizes that, because he is Québécois, he is isolated from English Canada. The third disadvantage he experiences is that the isolated Anglophone community, unlike the Francophone, does not consider its arts as necessary for survival; rather, the modus operandi has been economic dominance. Yet, despite these somewhat sobering facts, or perhaps because of them, Montreal has been one of the important centers of English poetry in Canada for most of this century and is now, once again, after the lull of the sixties, beginning to assert itself.
An interesting product of the collection is seeing how Ottawa poet Karen Massey [see my note on her here] finished her M.A. Poetry Thesis, "Soundings / 74 leaves" in 1992 (the only one that year, according to this book), making her a contemporary of 1990-1 students April Bulmer, David McGimpsey, Mark Cochrane, Richard Harrison and Ruth Taylor [see my note on her here]; is it any wonder I think she should have a book out? With a book working to encompass a space this large, it could only, in the end, be as large as the submissions will allow, showing but a fraction of the activity that has occurred in the city of Montreal over the past few decades (two essays that didn’t fit in the collection were actually included in a recent issue of Montreal is a complex town, and its poetry could never be encapsulated in a single bound collection of anything; perhaps the editors, or someone else, will see fit to continue the work they've started, perhaps as a subsequent volume, or through some other medium to continue the conversation?

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