Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011, edited by Priscila Uppal

In other words, if I have a critical bias, which I suppose everyone does as much as we try to remain as objective as possible, I admire poetry that surprises and challenges, that offers a new perspective or piece of wisdom I haven’t previously considered, that interrogates and innovates poetic conventions and genres and reverses the expected, either in terms of subject matter or language or form, or provokes unconventional emotions, that welcomes other fields of knowledge and art forms and methodologies, that reminds me of something important I seem to have forgotten or puts an entirely new thought in my head, that stuns me with exquisite beauty or sadness or profundity or ecstasy, poetry with a vision—whether pessimistic or idealistic—with something at stake, something to prove, something to lose, something to gain.

If I came to this project with any kind of agenda, it was this: to represent the vast range of styles, traditions, approaches, lexicons, genres, forms, influences, voices, and poetic subjects of the contemporary Canadian poetry scene, a diverse and vibrant community full of surprises. Sure, as any Canadian Literature will tell you, we write landscape poems, and love poems, and elegies, and odes, and family poems, and historical poems, fixed form poems, and identity poems (geographic and ethnic and cultural), but lots of poets are writing them in exciting, unconventional ways. We write poems that challenge the definitions of the “literary” poetic canons or centres; we are home to an accomplished visual poetry, conceptual poetry, spoken word and sound poetry scene. We write found poems, prose poems, academic poems, and collaborative works. We are meditative and intellectual, brash and angry, elegant and graceful, nostalgic and reverent, unsentimental and irreverent, serious and politically engaged, locally focused and globally aware. And we’re also funny. Funny, and clever, and playful, and ironic. (Why so few anthologies and literary prizes celebrate the range of humour in Canadian poetry baffles me.) And we are also beginning to engage more in poetic translations. (Even though these are not eligible for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry for many critically sound reasons—permissions, different evaluative criteria—I would like to applaud those poets who produced many first-rate translations this year, including Di Brandt, Steven Heighton, Erín Moure, Eric Zboya for his algorithmic translations, and more, and the journals that published them.)
-- Priscila Uppal, “Connected Dots: An Introduction to Best Canadian Poetry 2011”
Even years before series editor Molly Peacock founded The Best Canadian Poetry in English through Toronto publisher Tightrope Books, I’d been complaining about it; complaining that if there were a Canadian version, it would ignore most writing across the country that wasn’t held to the mainstream verse of lyric metaphor. I was impressed with the first volume edited by Stephanie Bolster a few years ago, but the further two that appeared (edited by A.F. Moritz and Lorna Crozier, respectively) didn’t exactly prove me wrong. How does holding to a small handful of forms over the large range of what is being published equate to a “Canadian,” let alone a “best”? More of the same, as I’d rightly feared. This new volume, The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Toronto ON: Tightrope Books, 2011), edited by Toronto writer and editor Priscila Uppal amazes, in part, because she doesn’t hold to the expected fears, instead including experimental, lyric, visual/concrete and other poetries side by side in a “best of” that doesn’t fall into dismissiveness, into the usual “best of Canadian lyric metaphor.” Uppal’s is a damned impressive list, including fifty poems by such as Ken Babstock, Jonathan Ball, derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, Dionne Brand, Don Coles, Marita Dachsel, Andrew Faulkner, Dorothy Field, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Julie Cameron Gray, Steven Heighton, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst, Susan Holbrook, Dennis Lee, David McGimpsey, Shane Rhodes, David Seymour, Karen Solie, Daniel Scott Tysdal, Tom Wayman and Christine Wiesenthal, among others. Anyone who pays attention to Canadian writing already knows the wide range that exists here, and simply can’t help but exist, and this is a glorious thing.
My Life as a Canadian Writer.

My first short story, “The Provincial Far,”
was rejected twenty-five times before
it found its home in The Muskoka Review.
From then on it’s all been pretty easy.

I learned the beauty of socialism
from writers so passionate they’d cry
when they didn’t get a grant. We’d go north
and laugh at the thought of Alden Nowlan.

Yes, I have been on the radio!
If you heard that segment of
Canada Reads
where a guy recommends the novel version
of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun, that was me.

Now I live and work in Montreal.
All we do is sit in cafés and talk through
the one remaining question of literature:
is it available for free on the internet? (David McGimpsey)
Uppal’s introduction is meaty, long and wide-ranging, and provides explanation and context to a variety of forms included in the collection, writing out sections on “Elegies,” “Memory & Family Poems,” “Intra-poetic Poems,” “Historical Poems,” “Concrete & Visual Poems,” “Scientifically Engaged Poems,” “Common Poetic Subjects,” “Love Poems,” “Poems that Engage with Other Art Forms” and “Political & War Poems,” with each section citing examples from the collection.
E. Coli

You never hear us laughing in produce
aisles, too baffled by your cartful of kids,
your cells and Blackberries. When the oyster
mushrooms send signals by satellite dish,
you’re oblivious. Don’t note the genius
of cauliflower, broccoli, brains cut
the stem, still working. Later, children
laid to rest, you shut down your antennae,
one by one. The TV stays on. Midnight’s
fridge light as the vacuum’s sucked open, and
your faces loom above the crisper glass,
anti-freeze blue, common as moons. Absent
astronauts, pupils in deep orbit, light-
weight targets. Purely, we assure you,

incidental prey. (Christine Wiesenthal)
The structure of the anthology comes from the editor scouring journals from a calendar year, and selecting fifty poems from print and online journals for the anthology, with a further fifty (“Longlist of Fifty Poems”) listed at the back of the collection. Part of the further list of fifty poems include pieces by Ottawa poets Pearl Pirie and Christine McNair, both here for the first time, which is pretty exciting. Another feature of the series are the “Notes and Commentaries,” composed by the author of each respective piece, providing a background of sorts on their pieces. McGimpsey, for example, writes: “I wrote this poem in Los Angelos a few Februaries ago. Some lyric sass, using contemporary Canadian culture marks, about the ways in which the life of a writer is imagined so easy and how beneath that veneer of ex nihilo grace is something not easy at all.” On her “Transcribing the Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson,” Windsor, Ontario poet and editor Susan Holbrook writes:
Gertrude Stein’s handwriting is notoriously unreadable. Taking on the task of editing her correspondence with Thomson meant a long apprenticeship to her scrawl. My co-editor, Tom Dilworth, and I greatly enjoyed ridiculing each other’s attempts at transcription. Many unlikely scenarios were born of our errant readings, the challenge all the more daunting because Stein’s letters accurately transcribed were, in fact, full of everything unlikely, playful, absurd. The most ridiculous mistake had to be mine, when I read that Georges Hugnet was getting “soooo famous” when he was actually getting “50 000 francs.” (Rest assured we spent ten years getting it right, so you can trust the edition!) This poem celebrates the fun of being confounded in the archive.
Seconded only by what Bolster worked in her first volume, this is the closest I’ve seen to a book in this series come to just how interesting this series could be, existing as not only a range of style, form and substance “best of,” but a worthy introduction to contemporary Canadian poetry for the wary, less-informed reader. These are books your timid high schooler should be reading, or your eager twenty-something, wanting to get out into that large world, and see exactly what the hell is going on.

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