VEHICULE POETS AND SECOND GENERATION POSTMODERNISM:
following text began as a short essay written by Ken Norris about
the place of The Vehicule Poets in literary history, and developed
into a hybrid critical form, an essay embedded within an essay-specific
interview. The text of Norris's original essay appears
in bold. The questions posed
by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift, and Norris's responses—in effect,
elaborations upon the arguments he asserts in his original essay—are
identified in the traditional interview format.
A print version of the original essay appears as part of a
collective essay by the Vehicule poets in Language
Acts: Anglo-Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century,
Véhicule Press, 2007), a collection of critical essays co-edited
by Camlot and Swift.
The Vehicule Poets of Montreal were part of a second generation of postmodernists to emerge in Canada by the mid-1970s. In other parts of the country there were other poets of a similar situation and orientation: Paul Dutton, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Steve McCaffery, Bruce Whiteman, Chris Dewdney and Judith Fitzgerald in Ontario; Monty Reid , Erin Moure, and Dennis Cooley on the Prairies; Sharon Thesen, Barry McKinnon and John Pass in British Columbia.
Todd Swift: Many of the poets named (see above) seem far more associated with sound and performance poetries— how did these strategies of oral presentation of alphabetix texts relate to your own Vehicule movement?
Ken Norris: For most of the Vehicule poets doing sound poetry, listen to the vinyl album Sounds Like (Vehicule Press, 1980). For most of the Vehicule poets doing performance poetry read Tom Konyves’ Poetry In Performance (The Muses’ Company, 1982). For Farkas’s, Konyves’s and Norris’s further comments on sound and performance poetry read their excerpts in Impure: Reinventing The Word (Conundrum Press, 2001).
That stated, I would point out that the last nine poets in the list above are pretty much “on the page” poets. The work of the Vehicule poets was a mix of sound, concrete, performance, and on-the-page poetry.
The Vehicules were all interested in sound, concrete and performance poetry, some more than others. Farkas and Konyves, in particular, went off in the direction of performance poetry.
Unlike the poets of the sixties— the first generation of Canadian postmodernists— these poets were very slow in becoming aware of one another’s existence. This was a result of several different situational factors.
During the 1960s, Canadian nationalism was running very high, and the desire for a national literature to celebrate in time for Canada’s Centennial was palpable. By the 1970s, that high spirit of nationalism had given way to a burgeoning regionalism; in many ways, all of the second generation postmodernist poets became regional writers to some varying degree.
TS: Was this also due to publication opportunities, funding and so on— or because there were so many new poets and not enough critical attention to bring you all to each other’s attention?
KN: In the 1960s, Canadian poetry was, admittedly, a very small scene. Between ten and fifteen books were published per year, and it took no time at all for the poets of the sixties to meet one another, publish one another, et cetera.
By the seventies, there were more poets and more books being published. And a lot of work was being handled by new regional presses. In my view, critical attention doesn’t bring poets to one another’s attention. Social interaction, publishing interaction, appearing in magazines together, makes poets aware of one another.
In the sixties there was only one scene, the national scene. People in Montreal knew about Tish in a very short space of time. Just because there was so little going on. Sure, there were centres of local activity, but Canadian literature was a national pursuit.
Although there were some strong regional elements in the work of first generation postmodernist poets like Cohen, Atwood, Newlove and Bowering, there was also a very strong nationalist tendency in their work. One thinks of poems like Cohen’s “The Only Canadian Tourist In Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward,” Atwood’s “The Animals In That Country” and “At The Tourist Centre In Boston,” Newlove’s “Samuel Hearne In Wintertime,” and Bowering’s ubiquitous “Grandfather.” All of these poems, in their own ways, are statements of nationalism. For the second generation postmodernists, locale proved to be more interesting, and less problematic, than nation.
Jason Camlot: This is an interesting distinction. Can you cite one or two examples from your list of poets, further illustrating the manifestation of this particular kind of Canadian (as opposed to local) nationalism in the poetry itself? Can you explain further your concept of locale? Again, how would you say it comes through in the poetry itself (at the level of content, form, mode of address, et cetera)?
KN: Atwood’s The Journals Of Susanna Moodie is certainly a book that comes to mind as a work expressive of sixties Canadian nationalism. Newlove’s “The Pride” is rooted on the prairies, but I think it sounds larger national themes.
I think the poets of the sixties felt a certain pressure, and also experienced a certain incentive, to be national voices, voices of a nation. As a country, Canada, at the time, was desperate to assert its identity, and poetry became a quick venue for national pride. Which doesn’t take anything away from these poets or their poems. These works were timely.
But more often, I think, poetry tends to be tied to specific site locations, locales. Certainly, this is a big part of the Black Mountain doctrine that Olson preached. The Tish poets spent a lot of time writing about Vancouver. The Vehicule poets certainly spent a lot of time writing about Montreal. Sharon Thesen has written extensively about living in Vancouver, just as Barry McKinnon has written extensively about living in Prince George. And locale can work its effect on content, form, mode of address. Read, say, a few poems by Thesen, McKinnon, and Artie Gold, and you will notice how their different locales (Vancouver, Prince George, Montreal) are having their impact upon form, content, mode of address. Subject matter, speed of line, world view, are all influenced, to some varying degree, by site location.
These poets’ status as second generation postmodernists also created certain terms of isolation. At a time when any number of Canadian poets were primarily interested in “putting the subject back into poetry” (a phrase taken from Stephen Spender’s The Thirties And After), these poets were primarily interested in extending an avant-garde tradition that had begun with the early Modernists. All of these poets were the spiritual grandchildren of Pound and H.D. and Tzara, and the younger brothers and sisters of Atwood, Nichol and bissett.
Being in the second generation of anything always creates certain complications. If the first generation are the pioneers or the innovators, then what are the second generation? Viewed unkindly, they are imitators; viewed with generosity and a sense of history, they can be seen as inheritors and extenders, the ones who further advance the possibilities of a new aesthetic.
TS: What determined this sense of history— if it was not a shared ideological vision? Was it marxist?
KN: This question is eluding me a bit because I’m not sure whether you’re referring to the “avant-garde tradition” I mention in the first paragraph, or the “sense of history” I mention in the second. So I’ll address both of them.
I think all of the poets in the second generation of postmodernism were interested in extending an avant-garde tradition that had begun with the early Modernists, but I am sure that many of them read that lineage differently. Poets like McCaffery and Konyves might gravitate towards Dadaists like Ball and Tzara, whereas poets like Thesen and Morrissey might be more interested in Pound and Williams. But let me also quote Frank O’Hara, in interview, on his sense of the avant garde: “The avant garde has been made up, I think, completely, and all through history, with people who are bored with other peoples’ ideas.” I think that’s a very astute observation.
In the second paragraph, when I refer to a sense of history, I am probably doing so as someone who teaches students who have no sense of history. If I mention “ancient history,” they think I must be referring to the 1970s and The Jackson Five. I’m just talking here about the ability to hold fifty years or one hundred years of time, of things happening, in your head and possibly sense the interconnections.
I don’t have the sense of Marxism conditioning much here, in either case.
In popular music, we have the example of The Beatles, who were second generation rock and rollers. Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins were the breakthrough artists who invented a new kind of music. The Beatles advanced, amplified, extended, and improved that style of music. But early detractors could always view them as foreign guys with bad haircuts who were wildly derivative of their predecessors.
JC: Can you provide a few specific examples, via the poetry itself, that illustrate the Vehicule poets’ status as extenders as opposed to mere replicators?
KN: I can’t help but feel that, here, you are asking me to do your work for you. As a contemporary critic, isn’t it your job to figure out whether these poets are extenders or replicators? At this point, I’m willing to make this assertion, and then send the reader off to read the work, to see if I am right.
But I don’t mind giving you a brief reading list. Read Gold’s cityflowers and The Beautiful Chemical Waltz; Farkas’s Murders in the Welcome Cafe and Surviving Words; Konyves’s No Parking and Poetry in Performance, Lapp’s Cloud Gate; McAuley’s Mattress Testing and What Henry Hudson Found; Morrissey’s Divisions and Family Album; Norris’s Report on the Second Half of the Twentieth Century and Hotel Montreal. I would suggest to you that all of those works advance, amplify, extend, and improve upon the postmodern project.
If there’s ever a second generation of anything, it’s because someone feels that all of the possibilities haven’t been explored, that there are other approaches, different ways of delving into it. I think a literary period is exhausted when there is no longer anything else to be said about the central concerns, and when what you are winding up with is either empty aesthetics or a car that no longer has a meaningful engine.
Now that we have seen at least three generations of postmodern Canadian poetry, I think it becomes much easier to understand what constitutes a particularly radical literary tradition.
JC: Why radical? Postmodern does not automatically entail this other adjective, does it? Are you using the term “radical” in a strictly formal sense?
KN: I once read a study of American poetry in which Robert Penn Warren was referred to as “postmodern.” To me, that was surrealism. But the term postmodern there was being used so loosely. It was being used as a replacement for “post-war.”
I consider Modernist art to have been a radical art, an oppositional art. It told a middle-class audience schooled in the sentimentalism of the late nineteenth century to fuck off. It created an art for committed artists. It became art investigating its own criteria. It became an investigation of what makes art art. I think the postmodernism I’m talking about follows that agenda— and adds to it. Within a Canadian context. My postmodernism is aesthetically challenging and socially progressive. I think it was Frederic Jameson who defined postmodernism as “the aesthetic of consumer society.” There’s certainly nothing radical in that. So, of course, I don’t agree with him. Or maybe that’s why I’m saying “radical literary tradition” as opposed to “middle class consumer literary tradition.”
What all of these postmodern poets have shared is an appreciation of cutting edge Modernist art and an understanding of their status and responsibility as postmodernist writers.
JC: Your last few sentences make me think of Charles Bernstein’s description of Gertrude Stein as a writer who spoke not of being avant-garde, not of futurity, but of being contemporary. This idea leads Bernstein to say,“Stein’s writing is not postmodernism before its time, but radical modernism in its time." Again, in what sense(s) did the Vehicules understand their status as practitioners of modernism or postmodernism? Can you explain the responsibility of the postmodern writer as manifest in the work of one or two of these writers?
KN: First of all, I would totally agree with Bernstein about Stein. “Radical modernism in its time,” absolutely.
I think the Vehicule poets were totally dedicated to doing what had never been done before. In lesser moments, what hadn’t been done before by us. Since, on a certain level, and with the full arrogance of youth, poetry didn’t really exist until we came along anyway.
Because the Vehicules were a group of seven, a large group it seems to me, I always hesitate to make a statement that includes us all. So, all of the Vehicules understood their status as practitioners of postmodernism. Was that understanding the same in all seven cases? Definitely not. But each understood it in their own terms. And I can’t really speak for the others on this, but only for myself. And I would say that what I understood was the necessity to absolutely resist orthodoxy, inherited ideas, inherited forms. To insist that every creation be a new creation. To embrace the noble tradition of being opposed to tradition.
They understand their place in literary history; that is, that they come “after Modernism.”
TS: Speaking of their place is a geographic and social as well as a (literary) historical concept. How finally did the Vehicule poets come together to express their role and actual location in Quebec. What was their relation to their French avant-garde peers?
KN: Our relation to our French avant-garde peers was beyond cordial. We appeared in magazines with the les herbes rouges poets. I had a lot of Chinatown lunches with Michel Beaulieu. Our poems appeared on the Montreal buses with Miron, Langevin, Beausoleil,
Villemaire, Francoeur, Brossard, Giguere, Chamberland, and others. In the early to mid-eighties, Farkas, myself, Francoeur and Claudine Bertrand ran Montreal Now, which was a magazine and a reading series. I, for one, went to quite a few Québécois book launchings (they were much better parties than the English threw).
The Vehicule poets couldn’t have happened anywhere but Quebec. Let me be more specific. The Vehicule poets couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Montreal. Five of us, at different times in our lives, emigrated to Montreal. Only Morrissey and McAuley were native Montrealers. The rest of us came from other places. Speaking for myself, I came to Montreal because I was specifically interested in the hybrid culture of Montreal. A French city, with a large English population, and immigrants from a hundred different countries. There isn’t another city like it on earth.
I think of the work of the Vehicules as being totally Québécois. Anglo-Québécois, to be sure. But Québécois. The nicest thing Michel Beaulieu ever said to me was that he found my poetry to be very Québécois.
At the same time, coming “after Modernism” also creates the circumstances whereby their writing is different from Modernist writing. Although postmodern writing extends the advances of Modernist writing, it derives from a different set of social and aesthetic conditions. It is post-Modern, post-war, post-holocaust, post-atomic and, for more than a decade now, post-cold war. While embracing the Modern, these writers understand the necessity of being expressive of a post-Modern reality.
JC: Can you identify a geographical/cultural specificity to the manner in which this much theorized distinction between Modern/Postmodern was understood by the Montreal Vehicule poets?
KN: Again, I can hazard a guess as to the “collective” understanding of the Vehicule poets, but all the while knowing that I’m going to get some irate e-mail from the others when this article gets published, accusing me of misrepresenting them. When you’re dealing with seven people there is always at least one dissenting voice. That is one of the primary characteristics of the Vehicule poets.
I think we experienced the distinction between the Modern and the Postmodern much more in terms of time than in terms of anything else. I was something like twelve years old when Williams and Eliot died. As a young man, it seemed to me that the last Modernist left standing was Pound, who died in the early seventies. But his work, for some time, had been “drafts and fragments.” Pictures From Brueghel was probably the last Modernist work of any significance to appear, and it appeared in the early sixties, I believe.
So by the time I was a young man, Modernism was over, the great Modernists were dead, and it was so very clearly a new world, a new set of circumstances, a new set of possibilities. I don’t think I can begin to suggest to you how suddenly free those of us who passed through the sixties felt. The Modernists were our aesthetic grandfathers and grandmothers, and they had passed over to the other side. A great artistic period had ended, and we felt, at least in part, like we’d been left in charge of the business. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the way we felt.
This was certainly true of the Vehicule Poets of Montreal, who were all interested in the radical advances of Modernist art and who were all committed to furthering those advances. In contrast to the earlier Tish poets (who, at least initially, all shared a common teacher, Robert Duncan, and a common textbook, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry), the Vehicule Poets were, by no means, monolithic in their early influences.
TS: Was there a particular anthology that became your movement’s textbook. Considering the implicit (or explicit) canonizing motives of the anthology as a genre of book, can you say something about how an anthology (the assertion of a new canon in book form) can inspire or shape a new group’s emergence? Was there a desire or need to create your own version of an anthology like Allen’s, published in 1960. How did your movement feel about the tendency of such anthologists to exclude the work of Canadians— that is, defining American in the narrow national sense?
KN: It always seemed to me like the Allen anthology was the initial textbook for the Tish poets. The Vehicules didn’t have a textbook. That’s why there’s a certain eclecticism of the hip going on with those poets. We very clearly weren’t reading Richard Wilbur or even Ted Hughes. In separate volumes, we were probably reading many of the poets in the Allen anthology. But we weren’t reading the Allen anthology.
On the other hand, some might describe the defining moment of the Vehicule poets as when we decided to do an anthology called The Vehicule Poets, which came out with Maker Press in 1979. And there was a lot of discussion about that, precisely because of what you call “the canonizing motives of the anthology as a genre of book.” We were all over at Artie’s house, having a conversation about whether we were or weren’t a verifiable group. What I remember most is my saying that we were and Artie saying that we weren’t. But there was a lot of arguing going on. We finally cut the deal where Artie and Claudia edited the anthology, and Artie wrote the introduction, which is a pretty interesting introduction. It sort of says, “Here we are, and here we aren’t.”
Back in the seventies, I don’t remember ever being perturbed about Canadians not appearing in American anthologies. I think that became more of an issue later on, more specifically in relation to Canadians using American textbooks that excluded Canadians.
Even when they do it now, scatter six Canadians around The Norton Anthology Of Poetry, for instance, it smacks of tokenism. Those national lines are hard to break down, and Canadian poetry, in England and America anyway, still gets treated like it’s in the same camp with New Zealand and Australian poetry.
This has lead some to debate whether these poets actually had anything in common (with this debate sometimes taking placing among the Vehicule Poets themselves). It has certainly been argued more than once that they shared a moment more than they shared an aesthetic.
TS: When exactly was this shared moment? Was it also mapped geographically, in terms of a city/country split? Was there a key set of venues or locations identified with your moment?
KN: Read Gold’s Introduction to The Vehicule Poets to see how he wants to tell that story. He says something to the effect that we appear “not as one, but AT ONCE.” He also has a sentence in which he talks about our “shared perplexities” in relation to the Montreal English lifestyle. I think his “Introduction” captures it much better than I ever could.
But, I think there was a very specific moment when the Vehicule poets came together. And I can’t remember how many of us were there at that moment. I know it wasn’t all seven. But four or five or six of us were present at a New Delta book launching in, I believe, January of 1977, at the Vehicule gallery, and we all hated the work that was being presented by the four people reading that night. In essence, we all coalesced around what we felt absolutely opposed to, revulsed by. We all agreed that the poetry being presented that night violated our sense of what poetry is.
The Vehicules were most definitely city, not country. Very urban poets. And the central geographical site, of course, was the Vehicule Art Gallery, on Ste. Catherine St. Ouest. That was our “turf,” if you like. In the early days, Vehicule Press was still in the back room.
Looking at their influences, one can certainly see them as various. For example, Norris’s great Modernist poetic influence was William Carlos Williams, whereas Konyves’s was Tristan Tzara. Similarly, they were all astute readers of postmodern American poetry, from which they chose to be influenced by different poets (Snyder and Corso for Farkas; Spicer and O’Hara for Gold; Ginsberg for Konyves; Waldman for Lapp; Whalen for McAuley; Eshleman for Morrissey; Creeley for Norris). When turning to their immediate predecessors in Canada, we can again see them choosing to be influenced by different poets (Farkas by McFadden; Gold by Bowering and Lee; Konyves by Cohen; Lapp by Kiyooka; McAuley by Nichol; Morrissey by Dudek; Norris by Cohen).
JC: This is a fascinating and useful list. Can you describe how these differences played out at the level of readings, and joint publications? Was a presentation of such diversity a defining aspect of the identity of the Vehicules? What was the difference between an American influence and a Canadian one, and did one signal these different national influences in the poetry?
KN: Jason, this is really someone’s Master’s thesis, which you should definitely supervise. Poetic influence is a bottomless well. Allow me to restate the point I am trying to make here, that the Vehicule poets were not monolithic in their influences. I don’t think the Tish poets were either. What should be fun for literary critics and aspiring literary critics is to take my list as a list of clues and go on your own treasure hunt.
But again, a short reading list: for Farkas connected to Snyder, read “What You Should Know To Be A Poet,” which I believe is in Romantic At Heart And Other Faults. For McFadden’s influence on Farkas, read the “domestic” poems in the same book and How To. Read cityflowers for Gold’s connection to Spicer and O’Hara, particularly the poems about Spicer and O’Hara. To my ear, the Bowering and Lee influence on Gold is mostly tonal. Read Konyves’s first book, Love Poems, for Cohen’s influence. There are a lot of little Ginsbergian touches in No Parking. Read Lapp’s poem “The Cosmic Hooker” for Waldman influence, a lot of the off-handed poems in Honey for Kiyooka’s influence. nothing ever happens in pointe claire and especially Hazardous Renaissance illustrate a Nichol influence in McAuley. Read McAuley’s review of Whalen’s Decompressions in CrossCountry for what John had to say about Whalen. Morrissey’s Divisions, while being a powerful poem in its own right, demonstrates the dual influences of Eshleman and Dudek. Read any of Norris’s early love poems for Cohen influence, and his poem “Recurrence,” in The Way Life Should Be, for his comment on Creeley’s “influence” on his work.
To me, citing illustrations from the texts on the list isn’t as “fascinating and useful” as the list itself. Maybe because, to my mind, it is just a really long footnote. I think what matters here is that the Vehicules all gravitated towards the American and Canadian postmodern forebears for models, when they needed models. Which is always what’s going on early in a poet’s career. With time, influences become less apparent and, probably, less interesting and even less desirable. That is, when I was in my twenties and I wanted to write a Creeley-esque poem, everyone could read it and say, “There’s Ken doing Creeley.” Now it probably just sounds like part of my own voice.
I think that a diversity of influences is a distinguishing characteristic of the Vehicules. I think there were, however, poets who affected us all, even if they weren’t our individual central influences. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Creeley, Spicer, O’Hara, Snyder. Cohen, Bowering, McFadden, Marlatt, Nichol, bissett.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there was much of a difference between an American influence and a Canadian influence. If we wanted to be influenced, we wanted to be influenced by good poets. So we were reading Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara and Mayakovsky too. What we didn’t want to read was the insular Canadian, the pseudo British or, for that matter, much of the contemporary English or the Irish.
It seems to me that there are three centralizing pillars for the Vehicule poets: the Vehicule Art Gallery, Vehicule Press, and The Vehicule Poets anthology. We all worked out of the same gallery space for a period of around eight to ten years. We all published books with Vehicule Press between 1973 and 1980. And we appeared together in the pages of the anthology, The Vehicule Poets, in 1979. To me, that demonstrates a desire to be influenced by one another, and, of course, to share space. In his “Introduction” to the anthology, Artie considers “Vehicule” to be a tag “none of us really wants to wear to the bitter end.” And that’s true. After a period of collective activity, we all became interested in representing ourselves as individual authors, separate and apart from the others. The group breaks up, and each goes off to his or her individual career. But the energy field of the collective persists to this day.
Nevertheless, despite this diversity of specific influences, what the Vehicule Poets shared was a similar orientation: towards experimentalism and radical aesthetic innovation. This at a time when there was something of a conservative cultural swing-back starting to take place in Canada (and mostly certainly in Montreal).
JC: Why did this cultural swing-back occur? What form did it take in Montreal, specifically?
KN: I think the cultural swing-back occurred because of a conservative sense that a number of things had gone too far. Feminism had gone too far. Affirmative action had gone too far. Liberal education had gone too far. The sexual revolution had gone too far. Sexual gender-bending had gone too far. The drug culture had gone too far. So there was something of a general call to put everything back “in order.” In its extreme forms, it was advocated that women go back to the kitchen, that affirmative action end, that education go back to a teaching of the fundamentals, that chastity be reinstated as a sexual value of paramount importance, that God had a very righteous reason for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and that, to drugs, one should “just say no.” Reagan in the States, and Mulroney in Canada, didn’t come to power for no good reason. Thatcher in England as well. There was a significant cultural pull to the right, with a nostalgia for “the good old days”— America, Canada, Britain of the fifties— being a big part of the rationale for why we were headed in that direction. A number of people wanted to overturn the previous twenty years of social history.
Artistically, this led to the advent of a whole raft of “new formalisms.” Which was, basically, the old “traditionalist” approach to art under a new head of social steam.
Later, politically, we got to things like AIDS being a “gay disease,” thus, the initial reluctance to search for a cure with any enthusiasm. And later, in Canada, the coming into being of the Reform Party, rooted in certain conservative political philosophies and cultural nostalgias.
Anglo culture in Montreal, pre-P.Q. and even post-P.Q., seemed very conservative to me. Westmount really used to hold sway over Montreal Anglo-culture. I know that the Vehicule Poets never felt very much “wanted” by Anglo-culture, except in the sense of those “Wanted Dead Or Alive” posters in the old American west. With many of us coming from various immigrant backgrounds, I think we all felt like “outsiders” when it came to the indigenous Anglo-culture. I think a number of us felt more comfortable with the French. And their “modernité” felt like our postmodernism.
I think it’s important to remember that the poetic advances of the sixties never played well in Montreal. Montreal resisted that. Poetically, Anglo-Montreal clung to the conservative fifties until it was the mid seventies. And I think, in many ways, the more conservative elements in Montreal are still clinging to the fifties.
What it is perhaps difficult to understand in the early 2000s is that, by the mid 1970s, the social revolutions of the 1960s and the advances of postmodernism in art were in the process of being rejected. By many, both were proclaimed as failed revolutions, and a return to former social and artistic orders was being advocated. In the social sphere, various fundamentalisms began to emerge by the late seventies. In art and poetry too, for a time, a new conservatism began to emerge.
JC: Would it be possible for you to explain further what you mean by conservative cultural “swing-back,” giving some examples illustrating the nature of this shift back you are describing?
KN: A political swing to the right, and an artistic swing to the right. The desire to dismiss the sixties as an aberration, rather than as the starting ground for anything. Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism were both going concerns by the early eighties; hence, Atwood’s writing of The Handmaid’s Tale. And all this retrograde poetry in tired inherited forms began making the rounds again.
I seem to have a mistrust of people promoting “traditional literary values” as much as I do of people promoting “traditional family values.” In both instances, my first reponse is, “Okay, what’s the hidden agenda?” With traditional family values it isn’t too long before you start hearing about Old Testament justice for gays, how the only sexual union sanctioned by God is one between a man and a woman, and how a woman’s place is two steps behind her husband. Any departure from the sense of “traditional” is seen as aberrational.
I think that, often, those promoting “traditional literary values” tend to see Modernism and Postmodernism as aberrational as well. A break in the supposed two thousand year “continuity” of literature. Which is a complete fraud, because there is no continuity. The literary tradition is just a series of anomalous works. Occasionally they dialogue with one another. I think T.S. Eliot and Northrop Frye are somewhat to blame for this traditionalist wrongheadedness. Eliot for his sense of what constitutes a literary canon, and how literary works get into that (mostly) men’s club, and Frye for his idea that literature is made out of other literature. What you have being promoted, in both the traditional family and tradtional literary values, is a totally arbitrary sense of orthodoxy from which, really, there can be very little permissible deviation.
Louis Dudek put a lot of time in on criticizing Frye, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve really come to understand why. For Frye, literature was a closed system. Contemporary literary works were interesting only to the degree that they reprised previous literary works. If they followed the literary dress code he would let them get past the front door. If not, then he wouldn’t.
Twenty-something years later this may be difficult to perceive, exactly because the social and artistic revolutions were ultimately won. The fact that we have now seen a third generation of postmodernist Canadian poets means that the postmodern tendency in art in Canada was not successfully nullified.
JC: Can you cite and discuss a few examples of this third generation postmodernist poetry, as a means of supporting your claim that the social and artistic revolutions were ultimately won?
KN: Well, take a look at the Michael Holmes anthology, The Last Word, published by Insomniac Press back in 1995. That documents pretty well the “new generation” of third generation postmodernists. There are something like fifty-two poets in that book, from coast to coast, and many of them are the poets I am thinking about when I am thinking third generation postmodernism. There are others: Adeena Karasick, Michael Holmes himself, rob mclennan. So let’s start with those fifty-five, and add to them all of the performance poets who have come along in Montreal and in other places in the past seven years.
Similarly, in society, we have moved on to a greater social and ethnic diversity, rather than back to traditional sexist, racist and homophobic formulations of society that were certainly being called for by various odd camps and their spokespersons in the late ’70s and early ’80s in both Canada and the United States.
TS: In what ways did the Vehicules address these traditional sexist, racist and homophobic formulations of society? How many of your group were women, writers of colour, or gay? What is the relation between social activism/radicalism and its aesthetic expression in your texts? As you know, many avant-garde writers have been right wing.
KN: Politically, I would say that most of the Vehicule poets (not all) were fairly left of centre. For me, there is a very direct relation between social radicalism and aesthetic radicalism. But I can’t speak for everyone here.
In A Real Good Goosin’, Louis Dudek says to the Vehicules that “you are spoilers anarchists, outsiders.” I don’t know about anarchists, but I would certainly agree with outsiders. A number of us were immigrants to Canada, and we were anything but cultural insiders. I think that made us naturally predisposed to anyone else coming from an outsider or diasporic situation.
A lot of the American poets we were reading and admiring were clearly gay: Whitman, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Spicer. I don’t think we were reading them because they were gay, but because they were good poets. And, to varying degrees, like all North Americans, we were influenced by African-American culture. Langston Hughes, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Amiri Baraka, Motown, Marvin Gaye, you name it. In English Canada in the seventies there weren’t too many visible gays or, for that matter, writers of colour. By the early nineties that had completely changed. When our association with Vehicule Press ended, and Endre Farkas started up The Muses’ Company, immigrants, exiles, writers of colour, and gays were a central part of his publishing project.
Were the Vehicules non-sexist? Probably not initially. We probably participated in some of the sexism of the times. But the times were changing, and I would suggest that a lot of sexist attitudes started to evaporate from our work in pretty short order. A number of us married committed feminists.
As far as our demographic is concerned, we were all Caucasian, one of us was a woman, and the sexual orientation of our seven was decidedly heterosexual.
What also needs to be understood is that, by the mid 70s, Canadian nationalism, in the form that it had taken had become something of an unacceptable straitjacket.
JC: Can you describe in greater detail this “form” of Canadian nationalism, give an example of its constraining aesthetic, and the institutional frameworks by which it imposed itself upon the literary landscape?
KN: What most springs to mind is someone like Robin Mathews denouncing Raymond Souster and myself in the pages of CVII for having sold Canadian poetry down the river to the Americans with little magazines like Contact and CrossCountry. I don’t remember him, at some later stage, denouncing Mulroney and the Conservatives for selling the entire country down the river to the Americans, but perhaps he did. Let’s hope he did. There was also that dreadful book, Tish: Poetry And The Colonized Mind, which accused the Tish poets of doing the same thing. There was too much of what John Metcalf spent quite a bit of time railing against: academics trying to cobble together a totally phoney sense of a Canadian tradition, linking contemporary writers with writers from previous generations who they had, in fact, never read. I can remember a couple of Canadian artists and poets from Ontario and the Maritimes refusing to speak to me because I had been born in the United States. In one of his poems of that time, David McFadden had a line that basically said, in Canada we’re so stupid that we accept Colonel Sanders and reject Frank O’Hara. Which is the dark, sad side of what happened to Canada in the late seventies on into the eighties. There was a ridiculous and naive attempt at cultural purity, in some cases driven by xenophobia, and at exactly the same time the country was being economically and culturally sold out by its politicians.
As much as we like Margaret Atwood, it’s impossible to read Survival now without cringing, isn’t it? And that was really the guidebook for the teaching of Canadian literature until at least the early eighties. The fact that such a tenuous thematic theory of what is “Canadian” could be taken so seriously for so long reveals, at least to me, the dire cultural straits we were in.
What had started out as a national pride in the sixties was, in some quarters, rapidly degenerating into cultural xenophobia. Poets like the Vehicule Poets found themselves being derided for having literary influences that were not “Canadian” (this was true, as well, of the earlier Tish poets). Seen from our current globalized perspective, that form of criticism seems ludicrous. Nevertheless, at the time, it was offered in all seriousness. Similarly, within a regional context, the Vehicule Poets were criticized for being interested in poets who were not from Montreal, thus, somehow, betraying “the Montreal tradition.”
JC: Can you be more specific in your account of these criticisms, and maybe explain what was at stake at the time for those who challenged the cosmopolitan interests of the Vehicules? Again, this is an interesting aspect of the history you are providing, given that “the Montreal tradition” is itself such a problematic concept. i.e. Whose Montreal? Francophone Montreal, Anglo-Saxon Montreal, Anglo-Jewish Montreal, etc.
KN: Well, yes, if there is “a Montreal tradition,” what is it? Is it the Jewish tradition of Klein, Layton and Cohen? Is it the Anglo tradition of Smith and Scott? Is it the followers of Dudek? That’s if we’re thinking of a tradition in English. If we start thinking about Francophone Montreal, the possibilities multiply significantly. It seems to me now, as then, that Montreal poetry has been, aesthetically and socially speaking, all over the map.
I believe the complaint, at the time, was that we weren’t content (as the poets of the sixties had been, and a number of our contemporaries were) to follow in the line of other Montreal poets, that we were reading “outside” Montreal, out into Canada, and certainly beyond Canada. In essence, the criticism was that we weren’t being insular enough.
Then again, because we were a perceived group, we were being too insular. There was no way that we could have pleased anybody but ourselves. Because the real complaint behind the criticism was that we were running the reading series at Vehicule, we were running Vehicule Press, we were putting poems on the buses, we had taken control of the means of production and of the public megaphone.
At the time, these criticisms made no more sense to any of the Vehicule Poets than they do to a contemporary reader of this essay. Simply put, the people offering these criticisms were on the wrong side of history. They didn’t understand art, and they didn’t understand society. Wherever they were trying to drag art and society back to, art and society had no interest in going.
JC: Can you be more specific here? Otherwise your claims (especially bold ones like they “were on the wrong side of history,” “they didn’t understand art,” “they didn’t understand society”) come off as rather abstract.
KN: Every now and then I state something, somewhat succinctly, that I consider to be completely obvious, only to discover that, for other people, it is not completely obvious.
This seems to be one of those cases, so I will now write you a longer answer.
Robin Blaser has just been on campus here (the University of Maine) for a couple of days, doing a reading and a series of talks. Blaser is certainly someone who sees Postmodernism as a “correction” of Modernism, certainly as regards the tendencies towards fascism and anti-Semitism that are evidenced in the work of some of the more prominent Modernist poets (Yeats, Pound, Eliot, for instance). I certainly agree with this sense of a postmodernist correction. To me, for me, a liberal political orientation is at the heart of a postmodern aesthetic. And at the heart of a liberal political orientation is an inclusionary approach to human diversity.
Some of the Modernists were wildly hierarchical in separating the perceived sheep from the goats and in promoting various hatreds. Within their own terms (which were sometimes not so far from their society’s terms), they created their own versions of the Jews and the gypsies, the gays and the other undesirables. For this, I don’t believe, we can ever forgive them. We admire their desire for a new world, and a new world of art, while at the same time feeling a revulsion for “the new world order” they created. For myself, it is much easier to embrace Williams or H.D. as a forebearer than, say, Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. Ultimately, I have to reject Pound and Eliot in order to stay true to my own sense of being human.
So I think there are some Modernist artists one can embrace without too much anxiety, and there are others who are really quite problematic.
As I see it, Postmodernism attempts to address the “flaws” of Modernism by offering a better aesthetic and a better approach in terms of how to get there. By honoring human diversity, we honor the best of us as a species, not the worst. To cling to any of the old artistic and/or social prejudices is, to my mind, to be on the wrong side of history.
As I sometimes tell my American students, I grew up in “old America,” a country in which there was still segregation in the South, in which women had the right to vote but few other rights, in which one’s response to meeting a gay man was to beat him up. I remember that as the accepted social norm, and I also remember all of that beginning to change. Slowly, not quickly. The Civil Rights Act was finally passed when I was thirteen; feminism was on the rise when I was in my early twenties; gay rights started to emerge at around the same time but had a slower progress. And these were all social changes that were taking place in what we now refer to as the Postmodern period.
At the age of twenty-three I moved to Canada, where Trudeau was still promoting the idea of a bilingual Canada. To me, that was a very beautiful vision of what Canada could be. And I think that vision of the country came to an end with the rise to power of the P.Q. in Quebec.
While Canada entered a long-standing debate about the hostilities and resentments existing between its two founding nations, in the meantime it became a country of newly-arrived immigrants, which, in a certain way, rendered the dominant political debate irrelevant. The country was changing and diversifying even as the French and English were arguing about who did what to whose great-grandfather.
It has always seemed to me that the solution to the racial problem that exists in the United States is inter-marriage. Certainly, it is a possible solution. You can honor diversity, but you should also feel free to love it. And it has always seemed to me that one of the reasons why Trudeau was pushing the idea of bilingualism in Canada was so that, eventually, enough guys from B.C. and Alberta would marry enough girls from Quebec and New Brunswick (or vice versa), so that, eventually, no one would be able to remember if their wronged great-grandfather was French or English, and we would be one people.
But, in a different way, that is happening anyway. And perhaps in a better way. One only has to go out in the evening, in Toronto or Montreal or Calgary or Vancouver, to notice how inter-racial the couples who are out for the evening are. So, simply by the dating practices of the young, the country is being moved beyond questions of ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation. And we are in the process of becoming a very different country than the country we have been.
On the negative side, our “Liberal” politicians have really become conservatives. I look at the Liberal Party in Canada, and I don’t recognize it as the party of Trudeau. It has definitely moved to the right, in order to rule. And that is certainly the one step back, as a society, we are taking as we take our two steps forward.
Regarding political conservatives, I don’t want to consign them to the outer darkness. I just don’t think they should be taken seriously. They are completely counter-productive in a socially progressive country like Canada (I think a case could possibly be made for conservatives having quite a bit to contribute to the American political dynamic, which is pretty twisted anyway). Regarding artistic conservatives or traditionalists, I feel pretty much the same way about them. I don’t think they should be taken seriously, and I don’t understand why they are sometimes taken seriously. I find their poetry . . . quaint.
I fought enough fights with other Montreal poets in the past so as not to be interested in getting involved in yet another rumble. I leave it to the astute reader to figure out who, in my opinion, the “misguided” poets and critics were, and if they are still around. And where they have fallen in relation to the progress of art and the progress of history. All you have to do is read your way back into the fossil record or, if you want a short cut, read Vehicule Days.
In A Real Good Goosin’ I wrote, “The Vehicule poets are something new in Montreal because they bring an experimental bias into as essentially conservative town in terms of poetry.” There are still a number of Anglo old-timers who I consider to be too conservative for their own good, or anybody else’s for that matter. It is pleasing to me that there is now a very strong performance poetry scene in Montreal. I greatly enjoyed reading Impure: Reinventing The Word and finding out about everything that happened after us.
Here again we encounter a specific characteristic of a second generation of an artistic movement: to stick to the principles of the movement or aesthetic, knowing them to be right. The initial dismissal that any innovation in the arts faces manifests again later as a call for “a return to sanity,” which then needs to be resisted and opposed by the second generation. By the time of the third generation the revolution has usually been won, and the victory is apparent. It is now an incontrovertible fact in Canada, as well as in most of the Western world, that an artistic period of Modernism was followed by an artistic period of Postmodernism.
JC: What does this account of literary history suggest about the cultural changes that have occurred in Quebec/Canada during the period in question?
KN: As much as there was an “old America” there was an “old Canada,” which, to my mind, no longer exists. Pre-P.Q. Quebec was very different from post-P.Q. Quebec. The Anglo culture that existed in Montreal in 1962 is worlds away from the Anglo culture that exists in Quebec now. We have “moved through” the Postmodern and are probably now on our way to something else. The mass Anglo migrations to Toronto probably have had both a positive and a negative effect on both Canada and Quebec.
It seems to me that the third generation postmodernists I alluded to may find themselves in a curious predicament in another ten years or so. For myself and the other Vehicules, assuming that we have good luck healthwise and manage to live well into our seventies, half of our writing lives will have occurred in the twentieth century and half in the twenty-first. I think, for us, the pull of the twentieth century, our roots in that century, will prove to be pretty strong. For poets who began publishing around 1995, instead of 1975, I’m not sure how that is going to play out. Just as I have been indicating that there is a certain predicament that comes with being in the second generation of something, there is an entirely different predicament that comes with arriving on the scene in the latter stages of a movement or period.
In the mid 1970s, there were many arguing that that simply would not prove to be the case (interestingly, I just recently saw conservative columnist George Will declare on an American Sunday morning political show that September 11th had, rightfully and finally, brought an end “to what you could call postmodernism”).
With hindsight, one can now look back and see that there was an entire generation of second generation postmodernist poets spread out across Canada who constituted a formidable front. At the time, these writers had a very limited awareness of one another (it needs to be remembered that this was all taking place in a time before the proliferation of all of our contemporary micro-technology). Perhaps the Vehicule Poets and The Horsemen were most fortunate in having organized themselves into some forms of a collective.
JC: Why did the Vehicules organize in this way, given the great diversity of their respective influences that you mention above?
KN: I think the best answer or answers to this question appear in the collaborative essay the Vehicule Poets have written, the one published in this same issue of poetics.ca.
But I think, for us, the collective was very logical. At one time, Endre and Tom and myself were thinking about becoming a performance poetry group called ETC., and that would have existed more along the lines of The Horsemen. We would have been collectivizing to perform. But I think the Vehicules certainly collectivized to publish, to have a club house which was Vehicule Art, to experience a feeling of shared presence. I think there were multiple reasons for the collective. And, as I’ve tried to suggest, there was no real antagonism in our seeming poetic diversity. The pieces of the puzzle that we all brought together fit together quite nicely. Yesterday, I saw Robin Blaser and Robert Creeley give a talk. Blaser, with Spicer and Duncan, was part of the Berkeley Renaissance, and Creeley, with Olson and Duncan and Levertov, was part of the Black Mountain School. I can’t begin to tell you how many times in the course of an hour and a half, responding to what the other had said, their first response was “I agree completely with Robin,” or “I agree completely with Bob.” As postmodern poets of that generation, they agree on most things. They are two parts of one gesture. The Vehicule poets have always fundamentally agreed upon a lot of things, most things. We all feel like we are members of the same tribe. And that feeling is neither something you can manufacture nor buy. It is, somehow, organically created.
Otherwise, the maintaining of postmodernist principles in what was proving to be a rather anti-postmodernist time could get to be a lonely business. Certainly the Vehicule Poets initially banded together out of a sense of shared orientation, but also out of a need for mutual support.
TS: Mutual support— the creation of a school or new canon— can play out in many ways, and has been a recurrent, even ongoing, concern for Montreal (perhaps all) poets and generations. What were some of the material manifestations of this? How did you take control of or redefine the means of production with regards to the creation and dissemination of your work?
KN: This is quite a good question, or one that I am certainly interested in answering.
There are a lot of particulars here.
First of all, there was the reading series. I was the only one of the Vehicule Poets who never ran the series. First Claudia ran it in conjunction with Michael Harris. Then Artie and Endre ran it together, for one or two years. Then Ian Burgess, not a member of the Vehicules, ran it. Then John and Stephen and Robert Galvin ran it. Then Tom Konyves ran it for several years, until the Gallery closed its doors.
At Vehicule Press, starting in 1975, Endre, Artie and myself were the editors. We picked the vast majority of books that the press published between 1976 and 1981. I think the last book we selected for publication, by Steve McCaffery, came out in 1984 or 1985. Certainly a big part of our initial publishing program was getting into print books by the Vehicule Poets.
There were a lot of magazines. Stephen edited what is and The Montreal Journal Of Poetics; John edited Maker; Tom edited Hh; I edited CrossCountry and Every Man His Own Footbal; Endre, Artie and I collaborated on pulling issues of mouse eggs together. There was probably something else I’m forgetting.
When it was time to put poetry onto the buses of the MUCTC, I believe five of the Vehicules were among the twenty poets whose poems went up on the buses. When Tom was running Art Montreal, which was a showcase for Montreal art on cable TV, I believe there were a number of segments of poetry by the Vehicules.
Here I am focusing on the dissemination of the work. As I’ve alluded to before, there was a lot of collaborative composition and performance also taking place.
Artie was always very confident about his abilities, as he should have been. The rest of us had a lot of learn, and we emboldened one another. The publications and events are visible products. It is much harder to demonstrate how a large part of the best of you is largely the result of the love and support you received from six other people. But it’s certainly why there is so much fond feeling among the Vehicules that continues to this day.
They all felt that there was an aesthetic war still to be won, and intuitively knew that there was strength in collective action.
TS: How do the Vehicules feel now? Was the war won? Do they still see themselves as consituting a generation or school, or is it historic in the sense of being only in the past? What do you regard as the key texts or achievements of the Vehicules? How do you feel Canadian literary criticism, and the present infrastructure for poetry in Montreal have dealt with your legacy? Has it been preserved in ways that are valuable? Squandered?
KN: This is a somewhat complex set of questions, and maybe I should just take them one at a time.
For the answer to how the Vehicules feel now, I think I will let the collaborative essay answer that one. Just about everyone goes on record in that essay, telling us about how they see the past and how they feel about it all now. Was the war won? Yes. Sixty books that didn’t exist in 1975 are now in existence. In those terms alone, the war was won. But in that a third generation of postmodernist poets emerged circa 1985-1995, and have followed in our footsteps. The war was definitely won.
How the individual Vehicule Poets see the Vehicule Poets is probably the biggest source of disagreement between them. Just about all of us feel uncomfortable with the word “school.” Most feel uncomfortable with the word “movement” (I might be the only one who doesn’t). The word “group” seems to work pretty well for most of us. In that most of us have continued to publish books, I would say that we do not see our work as existing exclusively in the past. The “Vehicule days” were only a starting point. As Artie says in his “Introduction” to The Vehicule Poets, “It is only to approach the individual that groups should be braved at all.”
The achievements? First let me say this: I recently read an article by another Montreal poet in which he attempted to convince readers of Canadian literature of the greatness of himself and his friends. I thought that was tasteless and an embarrassment. So how about if I just tell you how I feel about certain work, as opposed to trying to sell you on it? You can read it for yourself and decide for yourself whether there is any merit in it. To my mind, most of this work has held up as long as a Volvo, which is, at least, a good start.
Personally, I think anyone who hasn’t read Artie Gold’s poetry is culturally impoverished, and I feel sorry for them. For me, encountering Artie’s poetry was a real turning point in my life. It transformed my life, and that is the nicest thing I can say about anyone’s poetry.
In my view, all of the other Vehicule Poets are really interesting poets. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have given them the time of day. If you are a writer, you can’t be friends with someone whose work you don’t respect. Books I especially like: Farkas’s Murders In The Welcome Cafe, How To, and Surviving Words; all of Konyves, except for Love Poems; Lapp’s Honey and Cloud Gate; McAuley’s Mattress Testing (which is one of my favorite poetry books of all time), Hazardous Renaissance, and What Henry Hudson Found; lots of Morrissey, including The Trees of Unknowing, the remarkable Divisions, and Family Album. As for Norris, I like his atypical stuff, Alphabet Of Desire and “Radar Interference.”
Is there an “infrastructure for poetry in Montreal”? If there is, what is it? I think poetry in Montreal suffers from a remarkable lack of infrastructure. And is there any Canadian literary criticism worth reading? An article here, an article there, but not much. I have been saying for twenty years that Canadian critics don’t deserve the work they have been given for consideration, and they certainly haven’t done much with it. It took us one hundred years to have a credible literature. It’s going to take another fifty years before we have a credible criticism. Every now and then one sees the glimmer of a possibility.
By and large, I would say that the Vehicule Poets have been much more appreciated in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Francophone Montreal than they have been in Anglophone Montreal. But that’s not surprising, really. Anglophone Montreal still has the ambience of a small town, and the Vehicules are big city poets. We have always wanted English Montreal to be more than it is, and we have always criticized it for being less than it could be.
Jason Camlot is a Montreal-born poet and critic. He is author of two collections of poetry, The Animal Library and Attention All Typewriters and his poems and critical essays have appeared widely in journals and anthologies including New American Writing, Postmodern Culture and English Literary History. He is also the co-editor, with Todd Swift, of Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century (Véhicule Press, 2007). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford and teaches literature at Concordia University.
Ken Norris was born in New York City and emigrated to Canada in the early seventies, where he quickly became one of Montreal's Vehicule Poets. He became a Canadian citizen in 1985. Norris teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Maine. He currently divides his time between Canada and Maine. His selected poems, Hotel Montreal, is available from Talonbooks.
Todd Swift is the author of three collections of poetry, Budavox, Cafe Alibi, and Rue du Regard. He is the editor of numerous international poetry anthologies such as Poetry Nation, 100 Poets Against The War and Future Welcome, and is the co-editor with Jason Camlot of Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century (Véhicule Press, 2007). Swift received his Masters (with distinction) in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and is presently Core Tutor with The Poetry School and a module leader on the creative writing MA at Kingston University, London. He has been Oxfam Great Britain's Poet-in-residence since 2004. His fourth collection of poems, Winter Tennis, will be out in April 2007