Friday, March 10, 2006

Shift & Switch Part 1

Another two anthologies of Canadian poetry launched in the past few months. I have one on my desk here that I've been excited about and meaning to talk about for a while now. Having edited an anthology recently, I have a few thoughts on the usefulness of such endeavours. I confess most anthologies make me shake my head. Why, I wonder? What is the purpose of this text? Is it a roll-call for one's poetic community? Is it a promotional or educational tool? What is its function? Anthologies, it seems to me, can play an important role when they have a clear purpose.

So, when I look at Shift & Switch, the brainchild of A. Rawlings, Derek Beaulieu, and Jason Christie, I wonder what is its purpose. The introductions--one per editor--reveal a variety of intentions and reflections on the position of editors and anthologies in the Canadian canon, attempting to dodge a claim to national poetics (though the anthology does lay claim to a national identity in the title). I found Beaulieu's introduction the most useful, particularly when he described the writing itself, though I really wanted one of these poets to trace the development of avant garde poetry in Canada; I really wanted to see how a country with such a small population and such geographic hurdles, could in so few "literary" years, have developed such a wealth of innovative writers? And though I know that Charles Bernstein has had a huge impact in certain circles of Canadian poetry, I really wanted to hear about the Canadian poets whose work has made the poetry in this anthology possible, because though I understand that lineage (like trade routes) tends to run in all directions, and most logically north/south, and though I understand that poetry is fluid, and further, that the more avant garde the writer the less borders contain them, I do know that there is a particular Canadian poetic and it's a powerful, conflicted, complex set of influences. Where else in the world, I wonder, could such a text have been published?

I read Ron Silliman's post/review of the text in early January with interest, because it exposes, to my mind, one of the big differences between poetry in Canada and the US, and that is a sense of daring, the ability to completely leave the map at home, a sense of complete abandon. I just don't see the kind of risk-taking that happens in Canadian poetry going on to the same degree elsewhere. (Tell me where?) As for the particular poets gathered here, I agree with Silliman that not all of this work is of equal quality, and some of it seems in need of context, but I disagree that it makes avant garde poetry in Canada seem weaker than it is. Lacking a historical context yes, but weak, no.

But anthologies, and discussions of them, are problematic, and again, beg the question of purpose. What is the purpose of the book? Can I use it to teach? Does it caputre something of a movement or moment? If you're going to introduce a poetic, or a community of poetry, or way of thinking or approaching poetry, then you need to do the actual work of introducing. I'm not asking for a text book, I'm asking for context. I'm asking for adequate selections, enough to get a clear sense of the poet's project, for instance. Interestingly, unlike Silliman I found much of the concrete work in this anthology to be the clearest, most useful and best selected. I look forward to introducing that work to students as well as fellow poets who may not be familiar with visual poetry. Poets such as Matthew Hollett, Jamie Hilder, Gustave Morin--Hugh Thomas' "Tamari Lattice" is hilarious--and much of Frances Kruk.
Rob Read's Hieroglyphs, which reminded me of the artist Brian Jungen's work, will provoke an interesting discussion, but the Daily Treated Spam, would have benefited from context. (Yes, I understand what he's doing, but parameters?)

There is a lot to like here.
Jason Christie's selection was very strong, coherent, and funny too:

My gardenerbot is my gardenerbot because my little dog robot knows her.
Gregory Betts' "The Sonnets" was a wonderful discovery, and I look forward to more of Sharon Harris. The excerpt from Fun with Pataphysics would work well in a classroom.
Many selections--Jon Paul Fiorentino, A. Rawlings, Nathalie Stephens, Jordan Scott--make me want to read more, and in general the anthology makes me excited about language. On the downside, many other selections seem too abbreviated--not necessarily a reflection on the work, but rather the anthologist's desire to include many. This is often the price: quantity over quality. This book is bristling with new energy. It's an exciting publication, visually stimulating and so much more innovative than much of what I encounter between the covers. It's purpose, it seems to me, is to introduce us to the vast, impressive vein of innovative work to readers and writers of poetry in canada and abroad. I think it's safe to say that the editors have achieved that goal.

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