Monday, January 18, 2010

Nikki Reimer: Make Mine Specific! : (a response to Stuart Ross)

In “Make mine miscellaneous!” which originally appeared in SubTerrain (#53) and on the blog Hunkamooga, Stuart Ross discusses his recent experiences as a juror on the Canada Council for the Arts poetry grants to emerging writers, and kvetches about the volume of “Project” or “Theme” books being proposed:

“But I ask: Why so many stinking Project and Theme books? And why are writers who describe themselves as “emerging” writing so many of ‘em? Shouldn’t writers who are learning the trade be trying out everything they can, creating a tangle of eclectic experiments, writing about any stupid thing that pops into their churning skull?”

I loathe the terms “emerging” and “aspiring” to describe writers. Emerging doesn’t account for the ongoing and continuous practice of a being a writer; “emerging” refers to mediation and publication, which are activities conferred by official organizations like magazines and publishing houses. Chapbooks don’t count. Community engagement and unofficial conversations and mentorship with other writers don’t count.

One either writes or does not write. One either takes oneself seriously as a writer, or one does not. One either subscribes to a capitalist impulse to categorize “good” and “bad” writing; “aspiring,” “emerging,” “emerged,” and “seasoned” writers, or one ignores all that bullshit and focuses on the writing itself. Ross comments on the former, but does not think far enough into the idea that emerging/emerged distinctions are rather arbitrary:

Our little cabal of three could do this [giving out grants for poetry to “emerging writers”] presumably because we were “emerged writers.”

Further, every time I hear or read “emerging” writer, all I can think about is something akin to Daniel Edwards’ “The birth of Sean Preston.” (picture above.)

The emerging writers category is the Canada Council’s, not necessarily the poet’s. From their website: Grants for emerging writers are intended for writers who have published one literary book with a professional publishing house or a minimum of four literary texts in literary magazines or recognized periodicals. A writer who applies under the emerging writer category (full disclosure: moi) may have been writing for ten or fifteen years or more, and may have already tried “everything they can” and spent time working out “any stupid thing that pops into their churning skull,” but they may not have published prolifically enough to fit into the “mid-career” category. I’d argue that this term is also problematic, but let that be taken up by a mid-career writer.

So Ross’ “favourite poetry books” belong to the “Miscellaneous breed.” But writers who are interested in form, structure, repetition and palimpsest (full disclosure: moi) may instead prefer to engage with books written out of or around a structuring theme, an idea or an argument.

Anyway, I see his:

Rhymes of a Jerk, by Larry Fagin. Pearl, by Lynn Crosbie. The Romantic Dogs, by Roberto Bolaño. Flutter, by Alice Burdick. Shroud of the Gnome, by James Tate. Jen Currin’s The Sleep of Four Cities. Your Name Here, by John Ashbery…

And raise him:

Forage by Rita Wong. Anything by Robert Kroetsch. The Men and The Weather by Lisa Robertson. Anarchive by Steve Collis. 9 Freight by Kim Minkus. Matter by Meredith Quartermain. Sybil Unrest by Larissa Lai & Rita Wong, Jen Currin’s Hagiography

Nikki Reimer blogs and plans arts events in Vancouver, where she is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Her poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Front, Prism, BafterC and filling Station. A chapbook, fist things first, was recently published by Wrinkle Press and a book, [sic], is forthcoming from Frontenac House. She has never been to grad school.


Lemon Hound said...

Great post, Nikki. As for Ross' suggestion that a poet be responding to everything they "can, creating a tangle of eclectic experiments, writing about any stupid thing that pops into their churning skull?” I am not sure why that suggests a non-project.

I think what's at the core of this beef is the single poem versus the long poem. And one might ask, why versus?

Helen Hajnoczky said...

Hmm as an 'emerging writer' I have to say I just like coherent books better. I find them both more interesting to read, and more interesting to write. Really, if you've gotten to the point where you are writing a full book length poem, chances are you have two dozen notebooks full of your many experiments already--perhaps you just don't want to publish them. Sometimes the idea you really want to explore needs a whole book. I agree with Sina--I don't see why a defense of the grab bag book needs to deride the book length poem or the conceptual book. I think the book length poem is a very positive defining characteristic of the Canadian poetry tradition--from Atwood's Journals of Susanna Moody to Walschots' Thumbscrews.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for pointing out the history of the long poem, Helen. It IS one of the things Canadians do, and do well to my mind. Not all Canadian long poems are fabulous, no, but the second edition of The Long Poem Anthology remains one of the great examples of contemporary Canadian poetry. Not THE, one.

Chris Hutchinson said...

The book with a conspicuous through line or an explicit thematic drive is much easier to talk about, to defend, and to justify, especially in terms of New Criticism’s still lingering notions that poetry should resemble a kind of ‘well wrought urn’—something ultimately unified and inherently harmonious. It’s also much simpler to market such literature to the public. A book that’s explicitly ABOUT such-and-such is easier to write catalogue copy for because it takes less thought. At its worst, what this all leads to I think is a kind of reductive approach to the production, analysis and evaluation of literature. (And never mind the fact that, despite my so-called ‘emergence,’ the CC has been rejecting my applications for years! Ouch!)

Lemon Hound said...

"At its worst, what this all leads to I think is a kind of reductive approach to the production, analysis and evaluation of literature."

Really? That seems surprising from the little I know of you, Chris. I'm not sure I agree. Though I am quite certain that funding formulas tend to leave a lot out and favor the proposals written with funding formulas in mind...and those who are good at filling out the forms and making the work spin are the most successful. I heard a list of the Canadian poets who had received the most funding over a period of x number of years and it was quite illuminating.

On the other hand, I do believe in our system, flawed as it is. And that isn't because I have once been funded for poetry. That was for Slip, my first book, and a very lyric one at that.

Chris Hutchinson said...


Well, I did qualify that statement with “at its worst”. So perhaps I should also speculate about the other end of the spectrum. Sure, at its best, such an approach rewards and enables certain kinds of poetry. There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about 'project-type' or 'theme-driven' books. But like you say, the system is flawed, and “certain funding formulas tend to leave a lot out and favour the proposals written with funding formulas in mind.”

So what is left out? Perhaps some of the best stuff.

Maybe this is inescapable. There is always a certain kind of poetry (the ‘genuine' kind some might claim) that is one step ahead of the critics and beyond the ken of juries who must judge by consensus. We might go so far as to say that this is part of poetry’s job description: to resist popularity (not to mention assimilation, commodification, mass production etc.), or at least to be a little too weird to be invited to all the cool-kid parties. A few obvious examples: Keats, Emily Dickenson, Whitman.

Stein said somewhere something about how the truly new is invariably perceived as ugly at first, so that the reception of such art is often beset with difficulties. And isn’t this so? Isn’t it a lot easier and more immediately rewarding to make well crafted copies of the current paradigm, than to it is to shift the whole damn thing, if only slightly?

And if the nobility of poetry is what W. Stevens said it is, namely “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality” then perhaps poets shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves at odds with certain institutions, such as government funded institutions like the Canada Council.

I am not blaming the system; rather I’m trying to describe the difficult and complex nature of the relationship between creative artists and the institutions which (sometimes) support us.

poetactics said...

It is my experience that granting bodies tend to want a project that is specific and well-defined; I can't speak about the Canada Council for the Arts, but scholarly bodies that also fund writers tend to favour an application with a structure of some kind: conceptual, thematic, political, formal, etc. Some writers are trained to write grant applications in this manner, because we are told it is the only type of application that will succeed. Grant applications have to be considered separately from the project, because their aims are different--namely the writer wants to be funded, and many of us try to pick a project that sounds as cohesive as possible to secure the funding. This is mercenary, yes. Does that make it wrong? I don't know; often that funding allows time to develop the "eclectic experiments" that Ross desires alongside the actual project that hopefully received the grant.

xine said...

I wish there were interviews with the poets who submitted the proposals Stuart looked at. I am so curious about how their book reading (or other media intake) is affecting the way projects are conceived. Also, I wonder how and if CC applications have changed over the years and if their current formulation affects the way projects are being coached. Or has the CC tended to support "non-grab-bag" proposals in recent years, resulting in trend-o-rama?

Anyone with scoop out (t)here?

Not to go on and on, but I also find it easy to imagine books that could appear to be both "grab-bags" and "book-length-concepts."

m said...

As someone who is considered an 'emerging' poet (and now I have a handy visual for that term--thanks!) and who is working on a 'project' book, and whose application Ross probably read and most likely declined, I can say that for myself, I craved the structure and confines of a project. My first book was a miscellany (although the poems mostly explored a few overlapping themes) and I wanted a new challenge. And it has been a challenge, one through which I know I have written my best poetry to date. I also know that if I write a third collection of poetry, I doubt I'll do a project book simply because I'll want a new challenge.

There are some project books I LOVE and some not so much, but the same can be said for miscellany books.

As well, I can imagine for an 'emerging' writer, the idea of putting on your application that you just want to write whatever idea inspires you and you have no idea what that might be, feels like grant-suicide. Why would they give a nobody like me the money to just screw around for a few months to see what might happen?

I could go on, but I'll stop. Great post, by the way!

Razovsky said...

Great to see all the discussion on this. I think, though, that Nikki and I have different understandings of the word "raise."

nikki reimer said...

Really appreciate everyone's comments and discussion. And let's all put our heads to work devising a new term for emerging, shall we?