Thursday, 17 November 2011

Canadian Poetry

Last spring, fed up with a discussion of Canadian Poetry, Canadian Literature, that does not reflect or include me, I began an essay called "Canadian Poetry." After discussing a handful of Japanese-Canadian and Chinese writers who impacted me greatly, had a profound and a formative influence upon me as a writer, a few hours of research and a few of reflection, and some bum-in-chair sittings with the work, I set it to rest in the drafts folder. I was by then receiving the books to read, for the Governor General's prize for Poetry jury-duty, and with my flock and family not needing any less of my attention, I focussed on the work to hand.

Recently, I received a letter from a scholar who was student in a short course that I gave, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, who is interested in writing about the influences of Daoism in my work. This was an interesting letter to respond to, so, I did so, summarizing some of the facets of my study, how it is expressed in my approaches to both life and work, and agreeing to an interview by email down the road, once he has had the opportunity to follow the leads provided, to read and critically absorb the works I have published, and to formulate his questions for me. As it should be: the expected approach.

One element of any jury duty is conflict-of-interest, and another is confidentiality. Until the nominations are announced, it is felt, the jurists are open to the lobbying efforts of those who have money, power, time on their hands, or a defective hink to their characters, that might make them want to jump in and have a say, have an influence, have-- in effect-- control, over the decisionmaking process of the jurists, individually, as well as the jury as a whole.

All of us, as human beings, have a responsibility, as participants in this great game, to be sure that things go well on our watch, that all is well on our patch, and to give the work that crosses our desks our attention, and due diligence. It is entirely up to the individual, how we each define what is "our business." Sometimes, the world invites us to attend to some area of research, some task, to do a job or series of jobs that on our own, we never would have chosen for ourselves. In these circumstances, we decide to take on the job, or we decide not to: it is as simple as that.

On other occasions, there is something about who we are, where we came from, the communities that we participate in, that demands we take on work that-- again, left to our own devices-- we may not have been drawn to: we are not only individuals, but we are representative voices and minds, and our constituents are all of those who have anything in common with us-- some raised in entitlement, who find it easy to voice their opinions and take up public space, and some, not so much.

In terms of the poetry jury at least, the Canada Council made a skilled choice this year, in drawing together three poets who have different regional associations, different aesthetics, and decades of participation in not only the literary world, such as it is, but more importantly, in honing their craft, as independent practitioners.

Once the Governor General's Awards nominations, and the names of the jurists, are published, the work is safely completed, and all decisions have been made. This is not only to protect the integrity of the process from those with specific interests and turf to protect, but to protect the jurors from the feeding frenzy, that this sort of award is (structurally speaking) designed to enhance.

After the announcement was made, a friend sent me a link to an article that cited the rant and opinion of some gentleman of letters I had never heard of, there on the east coast, and I read a few related items, sent the link on to a couple of people, and continued minding my own business, absorbed with my multifaceted work. Later still, the same friend called me, and asked me a few questions, which I answered for him. Leaving the poetry wars for those who have a taste for it, I kept to my regular schedule, led on by my own internal personal navigation device.

In my work as volunteer with both The Writers' Trust of Canada and The Writers' Union of Canada, and in my day to day life as a writer on the circuit, participating in conferences and festivals across the west, I have for some years now been aware of the strong regionality of Canadian letters and literature. It has been my proposal, among other things, to destroy the recurrent brain-clamp of The Writers Union, which unerringly returns to a perspective that equates Ontario interests with national interests, by instituting an Ontario regional body to parallel the BC regional body, and to consider instituting new regional bodies in any regions where the membership base is strong enough to warrant on-the-ground staff and support. This may begin the process of distinguishing between the alliances built at the local and at the national levels, and would certainly be less disruptive than, say, demanding that head office be relocated to Winnipeg (a more central location than Toronto), for a minimum of four decades.

I have also suggested making an assessment of the regional associations of the territories, within that same organization, which may perhaps need to be realigned, so that they reflect some coherent travel pattern, cultural communication, or other sort of link between the writer-constituents and their NC representatives.  In this way, in my humble opinion, the ordinary work of writers who work together and bond together in the process can no longer overwrite the interests of Canada as a vast nation, inclusive of many communities, and might ensure that all of the non-Toronto, Other Ontario and non-Ontario writers, who pay their dues to the national organization are consistently, equally served.

Throughout my time participating on the twuc writers' listserv (off and on for about five years), and on the National Council (a single year of duty with a sharp learning curve), I observed a recurrent dysfunction, with the BC writers and our regional body intervening uncomfortably with the even flow of the organization, recurrent attacks on "head office," a pervasive feeling of voicelessness, and sadly, recurrent attacks on the overworked volunteers. Whether or not the idea of a regional body for Ontario is ever floated at an AGM, or formally proposed in any of the Union's agreed-upon "intake valves," is not apparently of great concern to me; I am currently volunteering on a single twuc committee, which is seemingly inactive. But, the ability to look at a thing, an organizational dysfunction for instance, and to be able to assess the roots of that dysfunction, is a valuable thing.

One teleconference with the Author's Committee, TWT, brought home a similar regional difference in perspective: we were speaking of graphic novels, and I mentioned manga and anime-- no one, it seems, had heard of them. Well, it is not my job to be educating everyone about everything, but I did take the time to explain my terms. The west coast is a region distinct from other regions, marked by cultural influences both indigenous and immigrant-settler, that are distinct from Winnipeg, Toronto, and from Halifax, too. The strongly race-based distinction between settler arts and indigenous arts in Canada is also a fact that I am well aware of, and continuously negotiating.

Once the winners of the GGs are announced, then the jury members-- those who take the confidentiality clause to heart-- can relax a little further, and relate again to the rest of the world in the usual way. So, yesterday, thinking that my readings for the GG might have some interesting relevance to a work-in-progress with such a grand, open-arms title like "Canadian Poetry," I decided to return to research: I ran a search on the award-winning author for poetry, upon whose fate I had, for a time, my hand.

After making yesterday's post, honouring the winner and all of the poets nominated, I carried on.

I had already agreed with several other poets, that writers who seek fame by destructively responding to events in the public domain, are free to do so-- no one can stop them anyway, so why worry about it? Still, one writer's private response to my post caught my interest, curiosity led me further, and I copied and pasted the name "Zach Wells" into my search engine, added mine, and finally came across the public assassinations of me he indulged in, on his own blog, about a month ago. To my eye, these opinions do not meet (as some in a non-literary industry put it) "well-formedness conditions."  The perspective seemed, to me, to be very clearly based in the writer's own adulation of those he admires, his alienation from all who are different from himself, and his inability to perceive the vast blinders he carries, on his own precarious way through life. The comments from those who agree with his assorted complaints in some degree, alongside those from writers attempting to reflect back to him the great pompous and ill-informed import of what he was saying in a public venue-- all stand together.

I have zero interest in the poetry wars. Still, I am disappointed that in publicizing summary judgements on my work and career, that he should seem unable to use that great leveller, the search engine. Not that he need go so far as the local scholar, approaching me directly and attempting to get some information, but-- just a quick scoot through the public domain might do.  I also recognize that, as a self-appointed man of letters, he feels entirely safe in not bothering to do so, when speaking of a brown-skin west coast breeder, who came from nowhere, ended up nowhere, and somehow miraculously, stupidly, ended up being placed temporarily in a position of power. For which, presumably, I am inherently (by race? by sex? by class? by region? by educational associations? by poetry and poetics?) unfit. (These two together earn him the subtitle of his blog, if nothing else ever did.)

I cannot speak for the other jury members, both of whom I had heard of, but failed to worship, prior to our meeting in Ottawa. But for myself, I have been invited regularly to write and publish poetics statements-- not frequently, but regularly-- and I have done so, from the earliest nineties to just last month. Although, as I publically stated at the recent V125 gathering, my career has been nothing to be jealous of, at the same time, I have done nothing to be embarassed by, nor ashamed about: I have been diligently working my patch, and I will continue to do so, as a Canadian poet, as a self-appointed woman of letters, as a mentor and a colleague, a cultural worker, a writer with an audience.

If becoming the target of a poison pen is what passes for "another feather in the cap," well, um, thanks. 


The name still seemed familliar, and so, I looked a little further: it turns out we performed together once, at a promotion for Rock Salt anthology, and published together at least once in that same collection: clear poetics statements are published for both the critic and the juror: readers are invited to read both for both, and to form their own opinions.

So, in 2011, is ZW here in the west, where I might trip over him, or way down yonder, where I have never once been invited to perform? I do recall a conversation with an Irish editor, who found it extremely hard to access the indigenous writers of the east coast through the usual methods and contacts, though I can't recall for sure which province he was most distressed by. But I do assume that Halifax is as culturally diverse as Vancouver is, it certainly was when I hitch-hiked through in the early 80s, my only visit.  So, even if the writer has not come across other voices like mine, in an experiential or a cultural way, he certainly-- as a good citizen and an educated person-- could have shared a table with others who are more like me than like him, at his local venues, as humans, as voracious readers, as performers, or as independent, book-publishing authors. He might have investigated more deeply, asking, what are the aesthetic motives underlying this work? 

His blog title seemed familliar, I do think he has heard me read twice, and posted a review that flattered the fellow I was performing with, the young and handsome Matt Rader, and shrugged off my work as sort of ho-hum, you know, no intelligence there for sure.

What is it, I wonder, precisely, that triggers him, that pisses him off? Just because I am no big fan of or imitator of the Anglo-Saxon side of the family, and just because I am culturally different from his preferred flavours, doesn't mean that I am a literally incomprehensible, deservedly invisible, Canadian writer. Like him, I have been saying shit that I shouldn't say, for decades and in public, and there is of course a consequence for this, in both our private as well as our public lives.


To be fair, having relocated and reread his 2008 review, I should quote it more fully:
Joanne Arnott read next, from Mother Time her newly published volume of new and selected poems. She read very well, in a deep, throaty voice, but I can't say I was enthralled by what she was reading. They were mostly motherhood poems, which is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it's become such a subgenre of contemporary lyric verse that, without something really distinctive and individual in the poems, they sound much like all the other motherhood poems out there. There wasn't, to my ear, such a distinction in Arnott's work. The highlight of her reading, however, was her singing, a cappella, a modified version of Rockabye Baby.

It may be that extending literacy to all races, genders, classes was a bad idea, after all, but those decisions were made by our elders, and they don't look likely to have changed their minds. Nor do their spiritual offspring, promulgators of official cultural decisionmaking process, appear to be shutting down the pipes, either, of attempting to transfer every orally-oriented human into a textually-proscribed plaid suit.

We have lived with the rise of the internet, and all the great opportunities for communication beyond our isolated communities that such new tech-- every generation has their new thing, their new tech-- presents. One thing that is certain, the class-race-cultural dominance of those ZW feels are the really important people, the cutting edge, are a passing influence, a transitional stage in Canadian growth and change that is unlikely to make it to the next century, much less the next millenium.

Canada is growing up, in part because of those of us who do believe there is a point to dealing with our tasks in a deeply ethical, informed, intellectually and emotionally engaged sort of way, the synthesizers, creating something real and abiding from life's many shards. The young will mature and the aged will decay, and what the cool kids need will fall into irrelevance, leaving them as angry over their cups as every generation has ever been, at the end of the day. That is just natural. But, as a person with presumably many years ahead of him, ZW might want to inform himself a little more widely, a little more variously, about what this world of Canadian letters is really, really all about.

To return to the jury process: in order to win an award, any book or any author needs to have a multivalent appeal, so that those who would rarely be called to sit down at the same table, can agree. The Canada Council didn't have to deal with a hung jury, this year at least, but the reading and writing public should rest assured, the chronic attacks on Council jury protocol is not much needed, and from my perspective, Canadians in general are well-served by the current process.

I do think that it would make more sense to have the cut-off for books considered set a little further back from the jury's meeting date, in order to have conflict of interest agreements signed in a well-informed way. But, unlike some culture critics, I tend toward trusting people to do a good job when they are called upon, and I do assume that those who are calling them to the task have done their research, and are in a position to use their judgement wisely.

Cheers, + ciao for now,

Image source: something that i saved on some other journey through the web, researching other things; it's titled "Heron" by the person who uploaded it, and is included here as a nod to ZW, whose poem in Rock Salt I have now read. Zach Wells quotes from his blog: just google him.

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