Monday, December 19, 2011

Open Letter: Breakthrough Nostalgia: Reading Steve McCaffery Then and Now

Even if the work of Steve McCaffery did not so resolutely resist categorization and containment, this special issue of Open Letter could not hope to encompass his prodigious and heteroclite publications. Consider that McCaffery is the author of over 25 books of poetry, two volumes of criticism, a novel, three selected collections, three edited anthologies, and countless broadsides, posters, and uncollected ephemera. To this one must add his sound poetry and performances, including those that have been recorded or filmed, but also the numerous scores and pieces that have only been performed once and exist in the memories of audiences across North America and Europe. Nor can one overlook McCaffery’s collaborative work with bpNichol, the Toronto Research Group, the Four Horsemen, and other individual poets, critics, and composers including Karen Mac Cormack, Dick Higgins, Jed Rasula, Charles Bernstein, R. Murray Schafer, Bruce Andrews, Richard Truhlar, and Alan Halsey.

With so much material, and such a long history of production, questions of where, and how, to begin arise. (Stephen Cain, “Introduction: Clinamen/ Context/ Concrete/ Community/ Continuum”)
And so begins the special issue on Steve McCaffery of OpenLetter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (Fourteenth Series, Number 7, Fall 2011), “Breakthrough Nostalgia:Reading Steve McCaffery Then and Now,” edited by Toronto writer,editor and professor Stephen Cain. How does one begin? One could only imagine that an editor would attempt to be as broad and complete as possible, but that the actual process would perhaps liken closer to a collage than a strict trajectory of writings on complete works, and this collection certainly manages quite a range of pieces on quite a range of McCaffery’s ouvre. How else to begin?

There has been a considerable shift over the past twenty years in how Steve McCaffery, a British-born Canadian writer currently living and teaching in the United States, has been viewed by Canadian readers. No longer seen as an extension of or overshadowed by the personality and poetics of the late bpNichol, his work is seen for its own merit and in much broader terms, part of which, I would suggest, came with the publication of the impressive two-volume selected, SevenPages Missing, through Coach House Books in 2000, as well as his move to teach at SUNY-Buffalo in 2004. Cain’s introduction adds that McCaffery’s critical consideration vastly improved through writings on his work by important American poet-critics Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff. For this issue, it is the younger generation of critics/poet-critics who are engaging with McCaffery’s work, and the issue includes assessments by Gregory Betts, Lori Emerson, Tim Conley, Andy Weaver, Christian Bök, derek beaulieu, Alan Halsey and Peter Jaeger. A particularly engaging piece is by Christian Bök on McCaffery’s visual piece, “William Tell: A Novel,” entitled “from ‘Two Dots Over a Vowel’” (if you know the piece, you will understand the reference).
While McCaffery has written a work that might, at first, seem too cryptic for any extended, literary analysis, such a “novel” does at least refer to the famed story of Tell, the medieval marksman from the village of Altdorf. Tell (in the apocryphal recounting) flouts the edicts of his Austrian overlord, Gessler – a Vogt who, in 1307, orders that all locals must bow before his hat, which sits atop a pole in the square of the hamlet. When Tell defies this decree, he gets arrested, and as a punishment for his insolence, he must prove his marksmanship by firing a crossbow at an apple, set up as a target, upon the head of his son, Walter – or else both the man and the boy must suffer immediate execution. Tell passes this awful trial, but nevertheless earns his incarceration after acknowledging that he has come to the test with two shots in his quiver, reserving one for the Vogt in case the child dies after the first salvo. Tell (bound and forced to board a ferry) gets taken to the keep of Gessler in Küssnacht – but during a tempest in transit on Lake Lucerne, Tell escapes from the hold of the ship and thus travels by land to the keep, where, with one shot from his crossbow, he obtains his revenge, murdering the Vogt, thereby fomenting a rebellion that leads to the confederation of the Swiss state.
Part of the appeal of the issue is that this is the second Open Letter issue on McCaffery’s work, after one edited by bpNichol (Sixth Series, No. 9: Fall 1987), which means that Cain doesn’t have to focus on the expected works, allowing the issue the luxury of far more freedom, as well as the benefits that such a distance of time often allows. As editor Nichol began his introduction to the earlier issue:
When I approached Frank about the idea of an issue like the one you now hold in your hands, my idea was simple. Bring together a number of articles by writers and critics who’ve read and appreciated the work of Steve McCaffery. I’ve read lots of negative criticism of his work in Canada, but very little that dealt seriously with his attempt, right or wrong, to come to terms with some of the problems in contemporary writing. That’s what I was looking for and I made that clear to Frank. I didn’t want to edit a festschrift but I did want to edit a collection of mostly pro-McCaffery pieces. My attempt is to balance the lack of same with this issue.
Then and Now,” as Cain writes, and the collected papers move through the years as easily as they do through pages. Another feature of this issue is that it includes new work by McCaffery, as well as the essay “Parapoetics: A Soft Manifesto for the Nomad Cortex,” which begins:
Let me argue for a poetics on the move and formulated from my own thinking in transit, without finality and without the suffocating safeguard of certainty; a sort of broad experiment in negative capability projected along a hypothetical trajectory: from the end of poetics to a beginning from poetics.
After such responses that experimental writing has had over the years in Canada, it becomes hard to really formulate an argument that there hasn’t been a long-standing resistance here to experimental work, in favour of more conservative forms, and Open Letter remains one of the stronger critical forums arguing for more experimental and avant-garde works. It’s interesting, in such a context, to consider the opening lines of Alessandra Capperdoni’s “Theorizing the Letter: Steve McCaffery’s Writing as Analytic Discourse,” that begin:
The line from McCaffery’s Seven Pages Missing, “provide the context and the content will follow” (224), is a helpful opener for a discussion that follows two invitations at rethinking the legacy of McCaffery’s work and the different impacts it has produced since the early critical reception in the 1980s. Both Clint Burnham’s panel organized for ACCUTE 2010 and the current issue of Open Letter are long due calls to attend to a tactical poetics that scarcely fits any definition and, until recently, has been excluded from institutional reception both in Canada and the U.S. As McCaffery himself notes in an interview with Antoine Cazé, his poetry “has never appeared in major anthologies of Canadian poetry” (30) and has been excluded “in the construction of the Canadian Long Poem canon” (30). If, in Canada, cultural nationalism’s suspicion toward ‘theory’ and ‘intellectualism’ is in part to blame, in the U.S. McCaffery’s poetry has undergone a sort of “ostracization” (30) for different but also related reasons – the construction of an ‘American’ lineage of LANGUAGE/oppositional writing.

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