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The Trouble with Normal: Breathing Fire II, Pissing Ice and the State of Canadian Poetry

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With the publication of the first volume of Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane’s Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets (1996), the complaints and the compliments came in almost immediately. One of three poetry anthologies to appear around the same time (the other two being Michael Holmes’ The Last Word Anthology and Jill Battson and Ken Norris’ Word Up!), Breathing Fire was the one that claimed definition of a generation, looking at over two thousand poetry submissions from across Canada from poets under the age of thirty, only to pick what appeared to be generous sections predominantly made up of former students, all writing similar kinds of lyric narrative poems. On deeper inspection, unfortunately, the complaint came also from within, of various contributors that have since suggested that their sections reflected stylistically on the editors far more than on the individual authors.

For those who have lost track, the first collection included work by: Marisa Alps, Stephanie Bolster, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Thea Bowering, Tim Bowling, Sioux Browning, Suzanne Buffam, Alison Calder, Mark Cochrane, Karen Connelly, Michael Crummey, Carla Funk, Susan Goyette, Joelle Hahn, Sally Ito, Joy Kirstin, Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Barbara Klar, Evelyn Lau, Michael Londry, Judy MacInnes Jr., Heather MacLeod, Barbara Nickel, Kevin Paul, Michael Redhill, Jay Ruzesky, Gregory Scofield, Nadine Shelly, Karen Solie, Carmine Starnino and Shannon Stewart.

Even the introduction co-authored by the two editors gives an indication of their slant, starting "During the sixties in Canada, a whole new generation of poets came of age. Born within a few years of one another, Margaret Atwood, John Newlove, Dennis Lee and Gwendolyn MacEwen, to name a few . . . ." It’s a very deliberate list, and one that would be stylistically different had it included George Bowering, Fred Wah, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Nicole Brossard, Phyllis Webb or Daphne Marlatt. By polarizing the "Canada’s new poets," the book made everyone notice, from all sides, and became a lightning rod. How many poetry anthologies these days, or books of poetry at all, get reviews in The Globe and Mail?

For years, I’ve been hearing that there is a battle being waged between two sides of poetry being written in Canada, between the more conservative and the nebulous "other." Part of the lack of coherence of this formless other side is that the fight seems only one-sided, with many of the more conservative (or neoconservative) writers writing reviews and essays taking potshots at the other, which seem quite content in, for the most part, simply ignoring the whole business.

In David Solway’s collection of essays, Director’s Cut (2003), he spends a great deal of time telling us just who is doing it wrong, as in his infamous essay on Anne Carson ("The Trouble with Annie") or while taking shots at the idea of the Parliamentary Poet Laureate, with jabs at George Bowering and others ("Reflections on the Laureateship"). Unfortunately in Director’s Cut, Solway not only revelled in the large target, but, at least in the Carson essay, made many a reader wonder if the piece was really about the lack of attention his own work was getting. Reviewing the collection, The Montreal Gazette basically called it a book of whining by a minor poet. Ouch. For all the intelligence he has, it seems unfortunate that he would waste it on such attacks.

In an issue of Arc magazine (Arc 49, Winter 2002), reviewer Shane Neilson moves in much the same direction, from backhanded compliments to outright dismissal of Toronto poet Stephen Cain’s second poetry collection, Torontology (2001), writing:

This is a book enjoyable for its obtuse virtuosity. Torontology’s rich wordplay sacrifices meaning on a garish altar, and is consequently fearsome for its eviscerated coherence but beautiful for its martial acoustics. The poetry is uncompromising: there are no narratives, only verse soundscapes where words have utmost importance. As Cain puts it in the first verse of his first poem, he’s "fishing for virtue in syntax lexiconical clusters of suckers & octaves." The poetry is therefore L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-driven, a meshwork of fragments and phrases constituting paragraph soup. Thus it’s useless to describe how Cain registers on an emotional level, because his chosen format (at least in Torontology) precludes great themes or subjects, although his punning does suggest a sense of humour. Much more productive is a discussion of the book’s intellectual pleasures – and they are manifest. Cain is able to take a changing cadence and shape it into a nimble progression of puns, rhymes and clichés: "Error to err to heir to hair to there to here to fear to say it clear to lucky man to sealing fan to peerless plan to FM band to collective clan to poetic pan to a flawless tan to virgin steel to ardent zeal loathsome meal to frequent deal to selfsame eel to a capacity to feel to somber rite to healing light to a tempestuous night." The chief difficulty with this quite difficult book is obscurity: Cain’s careening poetics, using words as a springboard for other words, often hint at meaning before ricocheting elsewhere, resulting in a paradox: the poet’s chops are strong and inviting, but he has no message to impart. It’s like listening to a charismatic speaker who makes good eye contact, employs complimentary body language, but who speaks in a word salad for an hour. In themselves, the words are interesting. As a whole, they are inventive examples of how the poetic tradition can be expanded, and I’m sure this was the purpose of the enterprise. But without the gimmickery of rhyme, as used in the earlier quotation, or a dominant metaphor to hang the verbal pyrotechnics upon, Cain creates a lot of poems that are linguistically explosive, propelling word-shrapnel everywhere, and perhaps hitting a target, though it’s difficult to be sure: can a reader reconstruct a target after it’s been blown to smithereens, in addition to numerous other collateral targets that happened to be nearby and within easy reach of the poet’s hopscotch wordplay? Cain blasts soundscapes into wastelands of meaning; the fireworks are cataclysmic, but like most acts of violence, the purpose served is little more than an assertion of power, and in this case, it’s a declaration of craft. With his next book, I trust that this talent – and it is a forceful, brilliant one – will ally himself to meaning, creating a hybrid that borrows from the canon and distances itself from the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E polemic somewhat. The result would maintain the lexical freshness of Torontology while improving upon its emotional emptiness.

I find it staggering that Neilson goes out of his way to sound like he is trying to understand the work on its own terms, but always comes back to judging the work as wanting, based on his own models for poetry. Neilson even goes so far as to suggest that Cain return to meaning and away from the supposed "empty polemic" of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E models, which Neilson doesn’t seem to really understand, looking for, and not finding, the "message." The problem with this kind of reviewing style is that it is essentially pointless, working not to understand Cain’s writing for what it is doing and has come out of, but, instead, to further the stylistic models favoured by the reviewer. Otherwise, why would it be any concern of Neilson’s that Cain’s poetry (in Neilson’s view) exists without any narratives?

At the same time, Montreal’s Carmine Starnino, barely into his 30s, has made a career of regularly attacking various writing and writers that aren’t part of his accepted oeuvre, telling us how awful the work of Al Purdy and Susan Musgrave is, and how we are but fools to pay attention to it, writing on the pointlessness of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001) and Oulipo poetry,[1] or eviscerating Louis Dudek’s career in a review of Dudek’s last collection in the Montreal Review of Books. But, even though I might not often agree with Starnino’s aesthetic, I’m still looking forward to seeing his long-forthcoming collection of literary essays, A Lover’s Quarrel (2004), because he is capable of insight, and I want to be able to read where he holds as a champion to a cause, and not merely a pugnacious negative critic.

For a number of the 1960s poets on the west coast, their points of origin came twofold, from the publication in 1960 of Donald Allan’s The New American Poetry anthology and from the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963. Not only did these directly or indirectly influence the work of many west coast locals at the beginnings or near-beginnings of their careers, such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, Frank Davey, Phyllis Webb, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Red Lane (Patrick’s older brother), Judith Copithorne, John Newlove, Jamie Reid, Gladys Hindmarch and Roy Kiyooka, but two boys from Ottawa, Roy MacSkimming and William Hawkins, even drove out to British Columbia to participate.

A few years later, after a number of the Vancouver kids had made their noise with the publication of their poetry newsletter, TISH, folk such as Robin Mathews fought back, saying that, because this group’s work was influenced by American models, it made the writing non-Canadian, and, even, anti-Canadian. Now, back in those days, up to the early 1960s, Canadian poetry was pretty much a thing run out of Montreal, Toronto and Fredericton (the Confederation Poets’ heyday of Ottawa was long over). Vancouver is far closer to San Francisco than it is to Toronto. Unless Robin Mathews was willing to send books and writers on a regular basis over the Rocky Mountains, there really didn’t seem a point to be made by his complaining. But those were the days of "national identity," and whether or not we had one; if we were merely Canadian because we were not American.

If you want to completely over-generalize, the difference between Canada and the United States is that the U.S. gravitates toward the new (leaving England behind), and we embrace the old. Another difference could move along the East-West divide: the further west you go, the less conservative the poetry (with the obvious exception of Victoria, B.C., which includes not only The Malahat Review, but Victorian gardens and afternoon tea). As Bowering once said of their TISH days, they had to make their own history.

Ken Norris likes to say every so often that in the 1970s, it was entirely possible to know about and read every poetry collection that came out in Canada during the space of a year. Now, I can’t even keep up with the publishers, let alone what books are coming out. And bookstores, if they have no reason to order a book published by a small press from another region, won’t. So, even though all books theoretically have equal distribution, it doesn’t mean anything unless a bookstore orders it. Through all of this, Canadian poetry, and writing in general, is becoming increasingly regional. There are more voices than the binary "conservative" and "innovative," which, to me, makes the whole argument of right and wrong completely foolish. Does anyone writing in Saskatchewan give two figs for Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine? I might think that the late Queen Street Quarterly was the best little magazine in Canada, but it still held a small audience, even within the poetry crowd. But, it’s been said that any artistic group large enough to have divisions and factions is a healthy one.

All of this as a long preface before talking about the Canada’s New Poets: Breathing Fire 2 anthology, edited by Crozier and Lane and newly published by Harbour Publishing. Larger than the first volume, this edition included thirty-three poets. As much as there are a few interesting choices, including Shane Book, Chandra Mayer and Shane Rhodes, as well as Montreal writer Nathalie Stephens (which seems the strangest choice in the book, given the evidence of Lane and Crozier’s considerations), there still resides in the collection a stylistic sameness, with too much of the writing in the collection bleeding into the work before. It becomes hard, side by side, to tell many of the poets apart. As Lane and Crozier write in their introduction:

All we wanted was to give poets from across Canada an opportunity to present their writing. Our concern was not for the bias of a particular genre, but for the good poem finely wrought. The voices presented in this anthology confirm what we have always believed: that there is room for every kind of poetry regardless of taste, attitude or concern.

I won’t bother going into any lists of whom I would have included, or anything such as that; doing so would make me part of the same problem I accuse Neilson of being part of in his review of Stephen Cain’s work. But, what are the point and purpose of Breathing Fire 2? Even the phrase "the good poem finely wrought" suggests where the book is headed: no pages filled with concrete or visual poetry, or anything else nonlinear, for example. It’s an obvious shift of Lane’s over the years, considering he was one of the founders/editors of the 1960s publishing house Very Stone House, with bill bissett and Seymour Mayne, publishing, among other things, visual and concrete works. Does it matter that, compared to either of the Breathing Fire anthologies, Very Stone House had more range?

Ken Norris has long claimed that the creative writing programs in the U.S. have killed American poetry. Others in the U.S. have railed on against the impressive writing program and faculty at SUNY Buffalo that has, for some reason, not yet produced a writer worth all of the trouble. Unfortunately, too much of Canadian writing has suffered the same: creative writing programs that produce echoes of the kinds of writing done by faculty. Why is this, I wonder? And could this be said of any creative writing class? Do we need more writers learning on their own and fewer classes?

Back when Al Purdy was working on his anthologies (the first edition of Breathing Fire is dedicated to him), Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets (1971) and Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets (1976), his job was probably far easier than the one that Crozier and Lane have taken on for themselves. There were fewer poets in Canada in those days, and even fewer who were doing great things. Even so, almost all of the contributors to his first anthology went on to do great things, while considerably fewer from his second anthology were even heard from again. Have Lane and Crozier simply set themselves an impossible task?

A complete list of the contributors to Breathing Fire 2 is: Tammy Armstrong, Sheri Benning, Amy Bespflug, Shane Book, Mark Callanan, Brad Cran, Joe Denham, Adam Dickinson, Triny Finlay, Adam Getty, Warren Heiti, Jason Heroux, Ray Hsu, Chris Hutchinson, Gilliam Jerome, Anita Lahey, Amanda Lamarche, Chandra Mayor, Steve McOrmond, Alayna Munce, George Murray, Jada-Gabrielle Pape, Alison Pick, Steven Price, Matt Rader, Shane Rhodes, Matt Robinson, Laisha Rosnau, David Seymour, Sue Sinclair, Nathalie Stephens, Sheryda Warrener and Zöe Whittall – and, I find, a bit heavy on the Nightwood Editions authors (Nightwood is a division of Harbour Publishing, which produced both Breathing Fire collections).

Even if the introduction doesn’t, the subtitle alone, "Canada’s new poets," suggest that it is a collection filled with representation of all sorts, which it isn’t. Geography alone isn’t representation, and neither is gender. For all their claims of including writing that they find interesting, the book as a whole reeks of the same kind of writing throughout, of the lyric, narrative confessional (with only one or two notable exceptions).

Will the same be said of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Mercury Press, forthcoming) edited by derek beaulieu, a. rawlings and Jason Christie? Considering that their anthology was in the works well before the second Breathing Fire call for submission and selection process, probably not. And even Lane himself has said that he hopes for response anthologies to Breathing Fire. Does that make the stylistic bias in their choices deliberate? To see what will come next?

Canadian poetry has become far too big to get a handle on, with huge amounts of writing that have nothing to do with each other, all working from their own individual traditions, which, as they continue, extend further and further apart. (Is it any wonder that no one has taken on the mess that would be Canadian Poets 1985—2000, the next logical step from the series of McClelland & Stewart anthologies that ended with Dennis Lee’s sprawling The New Canadian Poets 1970—1985.) As far as "tradition" goes, the whole idea of influence comes from reading, which allows for as many varieties of tradition as there are readers, let alone writers, giving less and less cohesion to what it means to have any singular "Canadian tradition." Vancouver’s Ryan Knighton works from influences that include George Bowering and Sharon Thesen; Hamilton’s Adam Getty works from A.F. Moritz; Calgary poet and publisher derek beaulieu works from, among others, Steve McCaffery, bpNichol and jwcurry; Alberta poet Shane Rhodes came out of the prairie of Robert Kroetsch; and Okanagan poet Jason Dewinetz out of Robert Kroetsch and Patrick Lane (these, I admit, are hugely simplistic overviews). Is it any wonder we don’t get along? I wonder if part of the problem is that, when Patrick Lane was starting out, the new Canadian poetry of the 1960s did look small enough that one could think they had a handle on it, simply by naming names.

The problem with any book of Breathing Fire 2’s sort has nothing, in the end, to do with who is or isn’t included, but with the suggestion that the book is representative – and therein lies the trap. Perhaps there is no such thing. Had they written an introduction that said, "here are a bunch of younger folk whose work we think is really interesting," then perhaps there wouldn’t even be an issue.

One small response project was the chapbook produced by Jay MillAr’s BookThug out of Toronto and edited by MillAr and Jon Paul Fiorentino, the anthology Pissing Ice: An Anthology of "New" Canadian Poets. Their list includes a few pieces each by: Elizabeth Bachinsky, derek beaulieu, Daniel f. Bradley, Alice Burdick, Stephen Cain, Jason Christie, Jason Dickson, Paul Hegedus, Jesse Huisken, Jake Kennedy, Jeremy McLeod, Gustave Morin, Alessandro Porco, Angela Rawlings, Rob Read, Jenny Ryan, Nathalie Stephens, Mark Truscott, Andy Weaver and Mike Woods. What makes this small anthology frustrating is that it focuses so heavily on Toronto and parts of Montreal, with little bits of the outside thrown in for good measure, including Weaver in Edmonton and Morin from Windsor, but completely excludes equally interesting writers doing strange work further west, further east, or even closer to home, in Ottawa, Kingston or Winnipeg. But, honestly, such a small book can’t be expected to do everything, and MillAr and Fiorentino have produced a graceful little collection of strange texts and even a few visuals that are far more interesting than Breathing Fire 2.

Perhaps it’s the benefit of hindsight, but the second collection of Breathing Fire seems far less interesting than the first, putting it on par with Purdy’s pair of Storm Warning anthologies. Who can deny the work that has since been achieved by Cochrane or Londry, MacInnis Jr., Bolster or Solie? And then there is the long-awaited first collection from CBC Literary Contest (poetry) winner Suzanne Buffam, out in spring 2005 with House of Anansi. But that certainly isn’t the only work happening. What of Aaron Peck, Suzanne Zelazo, Rob Winger or Matthew Holmes? Or other writers, such as Michael Holmes, David McGimpsey, Ryan Knighton, Sylvia Legris, Rachel Zolf or Margaret Christakos? Meredith Quartermain, Joe Blades or Lissa Wolsak? But, with any anthology, there are, again, as many different ideas of the contributors that should have been as there are readers.

All of this wondering why Canadian mainstream seems so intent on ignoring the fringe; why Lisa Robertson, Robin Blaser or Steve McCaffery don’t get any attention. Almost completely ignored in Canada, McCaffery can still get a poem in the 2004 edition of Best American Poetry, alongside Anne Carson and Erin Mouré. If we had a Canadian version, those writers probably wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it.

As Bruce Cockburn sang, "the trouble with normal is it only gets worse."


Footnote

  1. A counter to this is the brilliant essay by Marjorie Perloff on Christian BškŐs Eunoia in AustraliaŐs Jacket magazine, "The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bšk and Caroline Bergvall," at www.jacketmagazine.com/23/perlof-oulip.html


Works Cited:

Allan, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry. Grove Press, Inc. New York, 1960; Evergreen Books Ltd. London, 1960; and University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999.

Battson, Jill and Ken Norris, eds. Word Up: Spoken Word Poetry in Print. Key Porter Books Limited. Toronto, 1995.

Bök, Christian. Eunoia. Coach House Books. Toronto, 2001.

Cain, Stephen. Torontology. ECW Press. Toronto, 2001.

Crozier, Lorna and Patrick Lane, eds. Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets. Harbour Publishing. Madeira Park, 1996.

________, eds. Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets. Harbour Publishing. Madeira Park, 2004.

Hejinian, Lyn, ed. The Best American Poetry 2004. Scribner Poetry. New York, 2004.

Holmes, Michael, ed. The Last Word Anthology. Insomniac Press. Toronto, 1995.

Lee, Dennis, ed. The New Canadian Poets 1970—1985. McClelland & Stewart. Toronto, 1985.

MillAr, Jay and Jon Paul Fiorentino, eds. Pissing Ice: An Anthology of "New" Canadian Poets. BookThug. Toronto, 2004.

Neilson, Shane. "Stephen Cain. Torontology. Toronto: ECW, 2001." Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine. Vol. 1, No. 49. Ottawa, winter 2002.

Purdy, Al, ed. Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets. Macmillan of Canada. Toronto, 1971.

________, ed. Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets. Macmillan of Canada. Toronto, 1976.

Solway, David. Director’s Cut. The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc. Erin, 2003.

Starnino, Carmine. A Lover’s Quarrel. The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc. Erin, 2004.



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