Monday, May 12, 2008

Re: Reading the Postmodern; The Canadian Literature Symposium, May 9-11, 2008, University of Ottawa

Over this past weekend I was in Ottawa at the Re: Reading the Postmodern Conference at the University of Ottawa, organized by Professor Robert Stacey. How does one continue to talk about postmodernism, especially Canadian postmodernism? The conference included a heavyweight list of names including Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy, Andy Weaver, Christian Bök, Gregory Betts, Stephen Cain, Christine Stewart, Jason Wiens, Dennis Cooley, Lindy Ledohowski (who has just moved to Ottawa for a 2 year post-doc at U of O), Louis Cabri, Karis Shearer and Russell Morton Brown. How do we continue to talk about postmodernism, and whatever it is that might come after? What even is it we should call what might come after, or perhaps already has? A number of the papers walked around it, talked around it, talked all the way through it, and even directly responded to the question around such; how do we still talk about a thing that isn’t the same as what it was twenty years ago?

A number of ideas and suggestions were brought forth, including "digital native," "outpost literature," "neo-postmodernism," that "fractals are the dna of form," and the idea of "imagining the better story," as well as the fact that publishing in Canada is far more corporate than it was twenty years ago, so how does the experimental writing in this country have any chance at all? Still, there was simply too much to take in and have already processed by this early a time; here are some notes on at least a few of the papers:

Thursday, May 8; The Mercury Lounge

The first night was a reading of Ottawa poets at The Mercury Lounge organized by Max Middle, with readings by many of the usual suspects, including myself, Pearl Pirie, Sandra Ridley, Amanda Earl, Marcus McCann, Roland Prevost, Monty Reid, Gregory Betts (the one non-local on the list) and jwcurry. There are a couple of people who have suggested that the readings, whether this one or the one on the Saturday night (Monty's strange and rambling pre-amble that became his whole performance was a particular Friday night high...), were the best parts of the conference, and I think I agree. There's something wonderful about having a whole slew of quality readers and writers come into the city and be able to hear what the locals have been up to over the past few years. Check out bywords or ottawater if you want to know more about what these and others have been doing in Ottawa.

Friday, May 9; the conference, & the Avant-Garde Bar

I have to say, I was very taken by American MA student Erica Fischer from the University of West Florida; she had the "fortunate" luck of being the very first speaker at the conference, talking on "The Fallacy of Canadian Postmodernism: The Absence of National identity in the Works of Douglas Coupland" which was very interesting. How can you not love a paper on a Canadian (so called, for the accident of birth, I suppose) writer by an American critic? How can you not love a paper by someone so obviously taken by Coupland and his work? (She referred to him at one point as "Mr. Coupland.") And no matter how well someone might do, there is always that extra something, I think, for whoever it is who has to go first. One of my favourite papers of the conference had to be by Calgary's Jason Wiens, writing on George Bowering's A Short Sad Book (1977), which even managed to be referenced a couple of times over the weekend, despite the fact, as Wiens discussed, the book was almost completely ignored when it came out, and almost completely since. There's no way you can do such a work justice without being smart, wickedly clever and even outright funny, and Wiens managed to do all of that, as well as be one of the few who actually kept to the limits of the twenty minute time-frame. I know that Talonbooks, the original publisher of the novel, is reissuing Bowering's Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1986) this fall; is it worth reissuing this book as well?

Given that many of the papers were dealing with Linda Hutcheon's work The Canadian Postmodern (1989), which even Russell Morton Brown later argued in a question-and-answer session wasn’t originally meant to be a be-all, end-all study but was instead a collection of disparate pieces collected into a single body, it was entirely appropriate that she came through to give the keynote address on Friday. Her talk "The Glories of Hindsight" included conversation about how there were certain things, as she wrote in the 1980s, that simply didn’t exist that are now essential to the postmodern lexicon and consideration, including interactive video games, graphic novels and the internet. How, she argued, could she have known? Still, it was great that she mentioned Chester Brown's Louis Riel (2003) and even Maus and Maus II, but if you're going to talk about the mainstream "adult" graphic novel and it's beginning in North America, how can you not talk about Alan Moore's The Watchmen (1987) and still expect to be taken seriously?

During his reading/visual presentation, Fred Wah talked about how his new book of collaborations with visual artists, Sentenced to Light (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008), is "a book that works off the sentence." I thought it interesting that, through two different collaborations in the same collection (including one I was able to watch him perform a few years back, when it was originally produced as part of the Powell Street Festival in Vancouver), Wah referenced Zocalo (1977), both as place (where one of the poems was written) and as the title of a Daphne Marlatt "travel narrative" he had recently become reacquainted with (Dennis Cooley had quite an interesting paper on same). How is it a text can stick in the mind? Sometimes, how can one not? One poem he read that wasn’t part of the collaboration was from his book Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987):
Music at the Heart of Thinking 6

SENTENCE THE TRUE MORPHOLOGY OR SHAPE OF THE mind including a complete thought forever little ridges little rhythms scoping out the total picture as a kind of automatic designing device or checklist anyone I've found in true thought goes for all solution to the end concatenates every component within the lines within the picture as a cry to represent going to it with the definite fascination of a game where the number of possibilities increases progressively with each additional bump Plato thought
Saturday, May 10; the conference, & The Atomic Rooster

How do I boil down an entire day of papers into a few short paragraphs? Christian Bök gave a paper that gave hell to various of those that came before him, including Linda Hutcheon, Frank Davey and Robert Kroetsch, arguing that Hutcheon's real failure in her text was talking about the fringe elements of a literature, and then refusing to talk about the best examples, the actual writers and writing that existed furthest on that fringe.

At the end of the conference, when Frank Davey complained that there wasn’t anyone, probably, who even thought of presenting papers on Steve McCaffery (he listed some others) at the conference, he managed to forget that Gregory Betts spoke for a while on McCaffery during his presentation of visual/concrete, including a neat little handout of bill bissett, bpNichol and Judith Copithorne works; is it worth having someone collect some kind of Judith Copithorne selected/collected in a trade volume? According to jwcurry later on, the only two people who have been publishing her work for years have been himself and Daniel f. Bradley. What about the rest of publishing?

Andy Weaver was another who gave one of the best papers of the entire weekend, talking about the sublime and Darren Wershler-Henry's the tapeworm foundry (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2000), and about how the only real poem is in the idea of what the piece could be, and the piece itself only the explanation of that original, nearly uncapturable, idea. And Christine Stewart, now at the University of Alberta, is simply brilliant; her piece was "Participatory Discrepancies: a Spinozist Reading of Catriona Strang's Low Fancy." You should see what she did in the recent anthology of Canadian Experimental Women's Writing published by Nate Dorward, or in the Lisa Robertson issue of The Chicago Review.

Susan Rudy and Pauline Butling, who were responsible for that recent book of interviews with Canadian poets, Poets Talk [see my review of such here], gave a collaborative keynote address on what/why postmodernism now. What I found interesting was that Butling was probably one of the only people to even reference such writers as Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, Rita Wong (talking very much on the new book, Forage) and Erin Moure. Still, they both talked about how much better the conference could have been if Moure and/or Robertson had been there to participate in the conversation. Why weren’t either of them invited?
What does Finland have
that I don’t have?

Soft power over borders
absorb boredom, the future

had domes -- we offer you drones.

what have you done
for me?

-- Jeff Derksen, "The Vestiges (Or, Creative Destruction)" (39). West Coast Line
40.3 (2006): 32-40.
The reading that night was massive, magnificent and one of the finest I've been to in a long time, with performances by Christian Bök, Gregory Betts, Wanda Campbell, Dennis Cooley, Christine Stewart, Frank Davey, Louis Cabri, Robert Kroetsch and The Max Middle Sound Project. Where else does an author like Kroetsch, reading from The Snowbird Poems [see my note on such here] get not only one standing ovation but two? And these readings, by the by, were recorded, so there is someone out there who has a copy of this somewhere. Would it be Max? Would it be Robert Stacey? And the more Max Middle performs (with his cohort, fiction writer John Lavery), the better he gets.

Sunday, May 11; the conference, & what came after

What happens at conference stays at conference. Is that entirely true? I am disappointed that Misao Dean (University of Victoria) wasn’t able to show up to present her "George Bowering and Peonies," but I wasn’t up for a 9am session anyway, so my guilt and disappointment simply turned into disappointment. Another highlight during the conference was Stephen Cain and his piece, "Feeling Ugly About the Postmodern Condition: Two Novels by Lynn Crosbie and Daniel Jones." In his paper, Cain argued for a post-1985 new wave of darker, Ontario-specific postmodern writing. It seems almost rare that either of these two writers are given any proper critical consideration, but it does happen every so often; he talked about how, after Paul's Case (1997), the overwhelmingly ugly response to her novel made Crosbie turn to more mainstream fiction. How does something like this happen? This is a novel that caused Crosbie to have a restraining order against a Toronto Star columnist, and, when she read at a PEN Canada benefit, a significant portion of the audience walked out. How does this happen in Canada? Why do we treat these small essential works so poorly, unless they're written by someone from an earlier generation? Cain talked about the ugly through the fact that both texts (Jones' novel Obsessions) were extremely dark, and Toronto of the 1980s/1990s was extremely darker than what had come before, both city and provincially for the City of Toronto, through the first Gulf War, and through works by the baby boomers overshadowing those of their younger equivalents. These were writers, he argued, that knew their work wasn’t going to get any attention, no matter what they were doing.

At the end, it was Davey and Kroetsch who gave their own "conclusions" (as it were) to the conference, with Kroetsch's "Boundary 2 and The Canadian Postmodern" and Davey's "Misreadings & Non-readings of The Canadian Postmodern." There were a number of questions he posed, including the cheeky suggestion that Canadian Postmodernism started in the year 2000 with Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry, or that there isn’t even such a thing as Canadian postmodernism. Or too, that the Canadian postmodernism came out of and is best exampled in poetry, but Linda Hutcheon's book dealt predominantly with fiction. How do we reconcile that, if at all?

And, as Kroetsch noted, citing the fact that his line was quoted and requited over the weekend, when he suggested that Canada went straight from Victorian to Postmodern, that Dennis Cooley had tried to convince him for hours that Canada had a modernist period, but in the end, he just couldn’t say it.

What comes after;

God knows. There will be a chapbook edited by Max Middle that I'm producing sometime before the end of the month with poetry (supposedly, I'm told) by all the writers who performed during the conference weekend in Ottawa. Send me a note if you want to be reminded of such when it appears.

One thing that Robert Stacey was extremely impressed by was the fact that there were over thirty people registered for the conference that weren’t presenting papers and weren’t academics but simply writers from the community, including myself, Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Sandra Ridley, Emily Falvey and numerous others. You should even see what some of these folk have been blogging about from said conference, including Amanda, Pearl, Charles Earl and John W. Macdonald. Isn't this part of what we seem to do best, in Ottawa?

1 comment:

Paul Vermeersch said...

Who gives a tish, really? Poets should be writing poetry. Let the critics and the academics of the future figure out what to call it later. When poets bend over forwards to accommodate academic fashions, their poetry becomes irrelevant as poetry; instead it becomes an empty illustration of even emptier theories. Humbug, I say.