Sunday, March 22, 2009

Open Letter 13:5 + 13:8: Reappraising Reappraising bpNichol

There is a more recent element of the critical journal Open Letter, now some four decades old, that has concerned me, worried that the past few years have been treading the same ground, reworking the same authors, instead of looking further ahead. Why not issues on Erin Moure, for example, or Lisa Robertson or Christian Bök, for example? There were the two Fred Wah issues a couple of years ago [see my review of such here], and a new Bowering issue forthcoming, and now two (with a third on the way) on the late Toronto poet bpNichol. What makes these two issues interesting (and the Bowering as well, if the submission call is any indication), edited by Canadian expat critic and poet Lori Emerson, is how they move into working to reappraise the work of bpNichol, and fill some essential critical holes, published as “bpNichol + 20” (Thirteenth Series, Number 5, Spring 2008) and “bpNichol + 21” (Thirteenth Series, Number 8, Spring 2009). As editor Emerson writes in her introduction to the second volume:

I introduced the previous special Open Letter issue on bpNichol (13:5), in “’a writing of your seeing’: An Introduction,” by noting that “this special issue of Open Letter is the first of two issues which follow-up on the 1998 issue of Open Letter ‘bpNichol + 10’ in the hopes of re-enlivening and, especially, broadening the critical landscape of Nichol’s works.” With a range of young and experienced, Canadian and American, cutting-edge critics and poets, this second issue completes, I believe, the fulfillment of that promise.
Emerson has put a lot of her time and effort into Nichol, following in the footsteps of so many who have gone before, including Roy Miki and jwcurry, and is not only editor-in-chief of the recently launched, but co-editor (with Darren Wershler-Henry) of The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol reader (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007) [see my review of such here]. These volumes serve as a wonderful extension of that previous work, with each issue working as their strength to talk about Nichol’s ephemera, concrete/visual and sound works as well as his works in different contexts. There has been a lot of criticism on Nichol, and somehow, much of it has focused on the same few works (predominantly The Martyrology), and the same few ideas, and for the sheer amount of Nichol criticism, it has actually been troubling to note just how uniform (and often incorrect, with misquotings abound) that criticism has been. The piece by Stephen Cain, “Hopelessly Devoted: The Sacred and the Sloppy in bpNichol Criticism,” for example, writes what had been said out loud for years by many on the problems with bpNichol Comics (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001), edited by Carl Peters, and is breathtaking in its range, research and sheer force, calling the editor on poor choices, bad editing and careless criticism.

Well-known artists and authors are frequently misspelled: Laurence Sterne as “Laurence Stern” (26), Claes Oldenburg as “Claus Oldenburg” (19), for example, and complete sentences repeated verbatim on a single page (17). One could, charitably, attribute these errors to a copy editor’s negligence, but surely a proofreader could not introduce such errors in reference to a Stein text entitled The Geographical History of American and/or The Making of Americans (26). Here it appears that Peters has confused two separate Stein collections as a single one: The Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1936) and The Making of Americans (1925). Is this mere nitpicking? Perhaps, but how can readers trust Peters’s claims about Stein’s influence on Nichol, or his insistent representation of Nichol as a devotional poet, if Peters cannot keep simple titles correct – especially regarding authors that he professes to know well?

The answer is: we can’t. In his review of bpNichol Comics, Paul Dutton characterizes Peters’s criticism as “commentary rife with solecisms, solipsisms, and unwarranted conclusions” (21), a list of problems which, I would add, also includes pointless assertions based on illogical reasonings and scant textual evidence.
Other works in the two volumes include critical and creative works by Peter Jaeger, Kit Dobson, Rob Winger, Jim Andrews, Geof Huth, Dan Waber, Stephen Scobie, Jonathan Ball, derek beaulieu, kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Carl Peters, Natalie Zina Walschots and Debby Florence, among others. It’s good to see some new critical work by Clint Burnham. I’ve appreciated his essays over the years, going back to his early 1990s work in Vancouver’s Boo magazine. Is it worth finally collecting what he’s written over the years? How do we see more? And as good as a critic and bpNichol bibliographer is, jwcurry is referenced in the issue, but in a context of past tense, working his essay on the beepliography from an essay from 1986, with nothing more current (I can only presume that his lack of contribution to these two Nichol issues is, unfortunately, by his own choice), almost negating whatever work he has worked since, but at least referenced by Kit Dobson in the piece “Openings: bpNichol’s Ephemera,” writing:

jwcurry has spent many years assembling what he calls A Beepliographic Cyclopedia, an early portion of which was included in the Open Letter festschrift for Nichol in 1986. This project has become a massive, eight-volume planned work that includes entries on every Nichol work – as well as every work on Nichol. It is a monumental task that resists completion, of course, since work on Nichol is ongoing, but it marks a fascinating attempt to understand the output of one of Canada’s most prolific, eclectic, and provocative poets.
bpNichol’s influence over the years has been wide and far-ranging, and it’s good that these thoughtful two volumes work to capture some of that range. There is even a further volume forthcoming that sounds pretty interesting, “The Martyrology: Survivors’ Retrospective,” guest-edited by David Rosenberg (Fourteenth Series, Number 1, Fall 2009), as “American poet-critics read a volume of The Martyrology for the first time and look back on their own work of the period. Canadian poet-critics re-read a volume and look back at the ‘first time’ of reading.”


your cumulous crushes granite
stomps thunderhead galoshes
chews tinfoil

my cirrus bums a light,
coughs smoke rings and spaghettios
grins licorice

your stratus sprays ozone
clatters through a tapedance
never keeps it down

my nimbus shoots and ricochets
holepunches constellations (Natalie Zina Walschots, “vol a vent.”)


colin martin said...

the new stuff is coming, it's happening. but, as you point out, bp remains a major ontological point of departure for poets and critics and, as such, will continue to perambulate the poetic debate. can we now focus on not-dead people? mebbe not, they still talk back.

Jonathan Ball said...

rob, i completely agree that it's time to start focusing on newer writers, or even older neglected writers, and stop beating the same dead horses. that's why my essay in the open letter issue is essentially thoughts on derek beaulieu with a cursory look at his connection with Nichol. i haven't seen the issue yet, but one of the things i liked about the call is that it was supposed to be focused on the younger writers influenced by Nichol, more than on Nichol himself.