Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Helen Hajnoczky: Report from Calgary

Ultimate Writing Championship: A review of the “Cage Match” of Canadian Poetry between Dr. Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino, November 26, 2009

Though the opponents came into the octagon dressed the same, they had very different fighting styles. While Bök put on a comedic show, feigning this way and that with self-deprecating remarks about the unimportance of poetry, then dolling out sharp jabs of well-developed ideas, Starnino opted for snide remarks about disliking the avant-garde, which he threw between flailing attempts to knock Bök out. 

Bök opened with a succinct description of his aims to write a culturally relevant experimental poetry, and with a reading from “Chapter I” of Eunoia about: “writing shtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight.... dismiss[ing] nit picking criticism that flirts with philistinism.” Starnino followed with an unclear description of his own aesthetic, um-ing and uh-ing so often that the meaning of his introduction was obscured, though he did clearly express his desire to write a poetry that, though not necessarily easy, remains accessible. Starnino pulled it together late in the round by giving a competent reading from his book, This Way Out.

After the second bell, the contenders danced around each other with some passionless debate about the status of the sonnet in Canadian poetry, discussing whether or not the form has been exhausted. In the next round, however, the Mediator pushed the opponents together by bringing up Starnino’s Eunoia-deriding essay, “Vowel Movements.” Starnino claimed that readers are too dazzled by Eunoia’s constraint to critique the book, and asserted that Canada has no avant-garde critics tearing apart the movement from within.

Bök responded that the avant-garde has always been an international movement, and so, many critics of the Canadian avant-garde live and write outside of Canada. Bök then listed numerous outspoken avant-garde critics (including a shout out to Lemon Hound). Despite Bök’s concrete evidence, Starnino restated that he doesn’t see the active avant-garde community that Bök described, and restated that he doesn’t think there are any avant-garde critics who are harsh enough. Bök dismissed these comments by politely expressing his regrets that Starnino cannot recognize the rich and vibrant community of experimental writers and critics in Canada.  

Overall, Bök delivered solid combos, like his quip that poets shouldn’t be knitting doilies for candy dishes, but chizzling Lamborghinis with lasers. Conversely, Starnino jabbed this way and that, claiming that he would rather be unpopular today and widely read in 100 years (as though contemporary obscurity guarantees future popularity), and deriding the avant-garde which he wishes would go away, while simultaneously claiming that traditional poetry and experimental writing are integrated in Canada and that the avant-garde is not really a separate category. Bök’s articulate responses to the mediator’s questions made Bök look like a real contender, while Starnino’s passive aggressive remarks about not understanding Eunoia’s popularity, or his assertion that even though people buy Eunoia, they probably don’t read it, made him look tired and sluggish.

Problematic to the debate was the one issue on which Bök and Starnino agreed; the need to weed out bad poetry from Canada’s literary scene in order to improve the general status and substance of the art form. Despite their belief that poetry needs to narrow its field of vision, the poets and critics that Bök and Starnino offered as examples throughout the match were almost exclusively male, and almost exclusively of Anglo, Christian descent.

When I asked why they thought, in a country as ethnically diverse as Canada, that the most prominent writers they could call to mind were white men, neither Bök nor Starnino answered completely. With the exception of Starnino’s brief mention of the difficulties aboriginal writers perceive in publishing their work, both avoided the question of ethnicity, focusing on the role of women in their respective genres. Starnino asserted that as an editor he always invites women to submit either critical or creative work, and claims that these women often fail to answer his invitations. Bök claimed that the conceptual writing movement to which he belongs was started by accident with his friends in a bar, and it just happens that no women were there. Bök concluded by saying that the avant-garde would welcome a stronger female presence (I should mention here that I studied with Dr. X for three years at the Uof C, and he was, indeed, supportive of my experimental feminist poetic practice).

Despite their claims that they would welcome more diverse voices, both Bök’s and Starnino’s arguments throughout the debate reveal a problem with their approach to solving the issues they perceive in Canadian poetry. Faced with diminished readership, insufficient critical attention, and a growing cultural irrelevance, both writers argue that more needs to be done in Canadian poetry to reduce, restrict, and reject. But perhaps the decline of Canadian poetry needs to be answered not by putting more bars on the windows, but by throwing open the doors. Bök wants poetry to be culturally relevant. Starnino wants poetry to speak to people. But how can poetry do either of these things when most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene? Instead of trying to further limit poetry to make it relevant, to make it speak to people, what can we do to break poetry wide open, and let everyone in?

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, and Rampike magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. In January, she will begin posting weekly on Lemon Hound.