Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory: “Spirit, Experimental Poetry & 21st Century” (final issue)

The tradition of avant-avant was historically & culturally predisposed towards many theological predilections, we agree and admit. Okay, so hello to a logic of ‘of course-ness.’ Even if the every-act of allusion was denial and subversion and impulse. But the roundness is a lineage and the veins thin and ebb, but never sever: … Four Horsemen, bill bissett, D.A. Levy, Gary Snyder, … Susan Howe, And now we can consider Darren Wershler’s the tapeworm foundry as confessional liturgy and Jonathan Ball’s Ex Machina as souled text robot-god. History persists in our mystical ever-present. (kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, “Editorial Invocation: Hearts are Words Living Inside Everyone’s Language-Spirit!”)

It’s sad to see the final issue of Frank Davey’s Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory hit the stands after some five decades of publication [see the profile I did on Davey and Open Letter over at Open Book: Ontario this past spring, here]. Through its lengthy run, overseen by editor, publisher and founder Frank Davey, Open Letter has critically explored and encouraged the Canadian and international avant-garde through essays, interviews, manifestos, festshrifts, conference proceedings and the publication of works that would be difficult to find otherwise, and the loss of the journal, despite the possibilities of the internet (online journals such as Jacket2 and Lemonhound have since picked up some of what was, for years, a mandate nearly exclusively seen in Open Letter), will be felt for some time. The fall 2013 issue of Open Letter (15th Series, No. 4) is “Spirit, Experimental Poetry, & 21st Century,” guest-edited by frequent collaborators kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy. The collection of pieces, set into sections “Meditations,” “Mediums,” “Epistolaries” and “Rites,” is quite magnificent, including essays, interviews and creative work by, with and about Marie Annharte, bpNichol, Andrew McEwan, Robert Majzels, Jordan Scott, M. NourbeSe Philip, Jeremy Stewart, Mat Laporte, Fenn Stewart, Sina Queyras, Tim Lilburn, Ken Belford, Kathleen Brown, Jonathan Ball, Robert Fitterman and Mark Goldstein. The mixture is lively, energetic and even confusing, managing a fantastic energy that make me wish that perhaps these two could have even taken over the journal.

Poetry as a Spiritual Endeavour

In the small mostly white Albertan city where I grew up, most kids went to Sunday school even if their parents didn’t attend church. I rejected that God a long time ago. I couldn’t reconcile my Chinese grandma going to hell, and there was already a lot of hell on earth in my childhood and I didn’t have time to worry about the one that would come later. So, although I’m not religious, I do see poetry as a spiritual endeavor.
            For me poetry functions as a cathartic and catalyzing force. Whether to make space to mourn, to learn, to think through, this is the affective strategy and spiritual intent of my poetry. It is imbued with the same sense of hope I derive from seeing the eagles soaring over the Women’s Memorial March every year. The march, which began in 1991 in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, honours the lives of missing and murdered women, and reminds the public that poor and racialized women continue to be disappeared and murdered. I don’t know what to believe in when I see so much injustice. But when I bear witness to the eagles guiding us at the march year after year, that they know, then I believe all is possible. (Mercedes Eng)

There is an interview-conversation between Toronto writers Mat Laporte and Fenn Stewart that is quite striking, some thoughts on Walter Benjamin by Mark Goldstein, and some very cool visual works by Robert Fitterman, Billy Mavreas and Kathleen Brown. One the real highlights of the issue has to be Jordan Scott’s interview with M. NourbeSe Philip, “Witch is Which?: Sycorax and Setaey within Zong!” in which the interviewer renders himself (on the surface, at least) invisible, allowing the author to speak without interference:

Prospero calls her out of her name – the “blue ey’d hag,” “the damn’d witch” who lay with the “devil himself.” She is Sycorax, Caliban’s mother – the cipher, named yet unseen, who stands in for all that is subterranean and subaqueous. Sycorax’s genealogy stretches back and forwards to include those like her who carry a certain kind of knowing; within that genealogy I place Setaey Adamu Boateng (she is identified as the voice of the Ancestors on the cover of Zong!) – she who recounds the story that can only be told by not being told; the story that can never, yet must, be told. Perhaps, it is she who is the story that is always told yet never told.

Another highlight has to be the magnificent “Alternative Approaches to Indigenous Literary Criticism and Resistance Writing Practice” by Marie Annharte:

What if there was no longer need to refer wistfully to a “renaissance” because of the great frequency that Indigenous authored works now enter the North American literary canon or bookstore? What to read and study might equally confound any novice or advanced academic scholar. Because many published Indigenous authors are university instructors or educators, the continuance of their literary careers would certainly help multiply publications. They could buddy up with other Canadian writers to enjoy the fruits of labour rewarded by a government-subsidized publishing industry and writing awards or grants. Personal resources like a higher and regular income would no doubt further ensure latent abilities to voice one’s own story or even that of others. This elite corps would provide leadership and inspiration to attain more representation of diversities within the ranks of both aspiring and established Indigenous writers. Moving right along to join the ranks of political leadership, the Indigenous writer or “word warrior” would be an impressive force for change. It is all to the good except for the nagging question: would they necessarily be engaged in a resistance writing practice? Would understanding the diversity of Indigenous literatures alone be enough momentum to increase the participation of Indigenous writers? Would engaging in literary criticism increase more of a readership base within Indian Country itself? What if the continuous nature of Indigenous everyday reality was to intrude into a developing phenomena of more Indigenous writers and more writing?

Perhaps the only frustration over the years with Open Letter over the past number of years has been in terms of relative availability, given the possibilities of the internet, and the limitations of print (and Canada Post). We will both celebrate and mourn you, Open Letter; and we will strive to do better at what you managed to do so very well for so very long.

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