Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What we, in Canada, have come to think is a review worthy of publication

Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women's Poetry and Poetics

Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne, eds.
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009, ISBN 978-1-55245-221-9, 407 pp., $29.95 paper.
Prismatic Publics is an excellently conceived and executed collection of interviews and poetry, but it is also seriously flawed.
It's "excellently conceived and executed" but the fact that it is excellently conceived makes it seriously flawed? I guess that makes this a piece of evaluative criticism then. We have our judgement. We don't know why it's flawed. Better be a good flaw. Better be bad enough to warrant excellent null and void...
The book contains interviews with fifteen of the best women's experimental poets Canada has to offer, among them Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Margaret Christakos, and Daphne Marlatt. Each interview is accompanied by excerpts from the poets' books.
Is this the best one could come up with for a description? The reviewer could have taken the blurb from the back. Or tried rewriting that if all else failed (and it seems to have....). In fact this whole review could probably have been written from the blurbs on the back...no understanding of the nuanced intentions. The fact of the interview/work model and the usefulness of that.
For example, Brossard's interview is followed by well-chosen excerpts from Lovhers, After Words, Downstage Vertigo and Notebook of Roses and Civilizationsuch as the following (from Lovhers):
(bec.) the only reality
in body the (fiction) or this time
the mental space of the word women in ink
calls forth the unrecorded from myths and torment
turning point of the imaginary of forms of comfort (30)
Barbara Godard translated this work for Guernica Editions, while further selections were translated by Robert Majzels and Erin Moure.
The reviewer has nothing to say about the quote dropped in like a brick in martini glass. Perhaps the reviewer has no idea what the poem is doing. It doesn't appear that he read the interview. We don't know what he mans by "well-chosen" though we are to assume he knows what that means. He mentions, briefly, the three most well-known writers in the volume. Hm. Doesn't know how to read the others or they aren't worth mentioning? And why it's worth mentioning who translated this quote when there's no real analysis of said quote is beyond me. The point he makes below is like saying Brossard is a Quebecois writer...it offers no insight whatever.
The interview includes a discussion between Eichhorn and Brossard regarding the difference Brossard sees between writing a poem and a book or essay--genres in which Brossard is equally adept.
So the reviewer thinks that Brossard is adept? At what? Can we have an example? Perhaps that is also tucked into the remnants of reviewer's lunch. Or some other bit of paper scrap he is keeping for more important work? I am at a loss. I am being kind describing the author of this piece as a reviewer. I think this page, and the following page from Moure, and perhaps the intro, was all the reviewer read. If that. Otherwise he is operating on what he has gleaned from the air, from time, conversation and as we'll see later, grudges.
Moure's interview begins tongue-in-cheek with Eichhorn asking Moure about "another writer," one by whom she is "lately . . . being eclipsed," namely Elisa Sampedr’n." (214). Sampedr’n emerged in Moure's Little Theatres, from which no selection is included. In order to understand Sampedr’n's role, you need to be familiar with the nature of the Galician poet Pessoa, whose O Guardador de Rabanhos Moure translated as Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person. Pessoa tends to operate through alter egos. Unfortunately, no excerpts from this work are included and the book is out of print.
The reviewer knows Moure, okay but aside from her heteronym we aren't getting any information about the poems or interview. Again, this could be from her book jacket. He seems to have liked Sheep's Vigil. He's happy to show us that he has a google's worth of information about Pessoa. Or so. We get a glimpse into the character of one of the editors though, which is a nice touch. Which book is out of print I have no idea. Again, we are told there are no excerpts and given none of what is in the book. The entire project seems to be about what isn't here. He's just waiting to get to the obvious point of what isn't here?? Ah, the old, I want a review a book that this isn't...
The excerpts that appear are from some of Moure's most radical writings--Search Procedures, A Frame of the Book, and O Cidadán. From the last, we read, in "FANFARE'S FANS 'A'":
Who are the knights? Temples.
Visions over greed.
Oracular vesicular auricular.
Small bird pecking the rib.
Torpor ('s return) (235)
Concluding the book is an interview with Lisa Robertson, in which she discusses her experiences at the Kootenay School of Writing, literary collaborations, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and writing as a performative act. Abstracted from her longer works are excellent selections from XEclogue, Debbie: An Epic, The Weather and Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip.
Yes, the word "excellent." Well, that's just excellent. Wikipedia sums up better.
Consider this example from "Liberty," in Robertson's second book, XEclogue, based on Virgil's Eclogue:
Enormous grief as if outside 'our culture' a sense of peace floated or languished with no historical precedent. As if we could invent liberty, as if peace and liberty had no place in that slow starvation. As if, subject only to 'the laws of nature,' a gendered life were worth three years or nothing. (383)
Again, no willingness or ability to actually comment on a formidable body of work, let alone the quote committed in a drop and run...what are we considering?? And why?
This is as good a time as any to segue into a discussion of the downfall of this otherwise excellent book--gender.
Oh, it's gender! Oh my. The agenda! Yes, the agenda. You women really piss me off. Questions of gender piss me off. I don't quite get what Robertson is doing, but it's irritating.
Or, more precisely, gender discrimination.
Really. Really? 
This charge will not come as a surprise to Milne and Eichhorn. Milne writes in her introduction: "But if, as we claim, our concern is with innovative poetry and poetics, why edit an anthology that remains bound by the constraints of gender and nation at all?" A good question, at least as it relates to gender--but the response to which leaves much to be desired. Milne continues: "Although this question dogged us from the outset, we had no way of anticipating that we would find ourselves editing this book in the midst of the most significant debate on feminist poetics in the past decade. What would come to be known as the 'numbers trouble' started with the presentation and eventual publication of Jennifer Ashton's article 'Our Bodies, Our Poems' and Jennifer Scappettone's response." What led to this debate was the publication of two books by Wesleyan University Press, American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (2002), edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, and American Poets in the 21st Century (2007), edited by Rankine and Lisa Sewell.
Not even going to bother commenting on this....
We don't know why Spahr was not involved in the latter project.
Or why this has anything to do with what and what?  
Presumably, though, it came about in part due to the storm of dissension that greeted the first volume. Significantly, it does not bear the title "American Men Poets in the 21st Century," probably because of the possibility of a charge of gender discrimination against Wesleyan University.
The follow up to American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (2002),  had half and half. That would appease? What is the point here? The Spahr and Rankine text was enormously influential. This reviewer has absolutely no idea what he's talking about. None. 
Why, then, would Kate Eichhorn, Heather Milne, and Coach House Press believe that the same charge should not be levelled against them?
Why indeed do any women bother to dry and redress a body of work that has not had adequate engagement? A body of work that is attempting to contextualize a thriving body of writing? What is the history of "women only" anthologies in Canada? Had this reviewer done his homework and really showed us why the volume would have been stronger with male entries--and which male entries might be included and why--I might have been convinced. It's not his objection, it's his lack of skill at stating his objection. It's the lack of respect for poetry, for writing, and for the person reading (really, did I just read this and add another 10 minutes to my response? I did).
As to the 'numbers trouble,' Milne is a professor in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. Walk down the hallway containing that department and notice the names on the doors, the majority of which are female. The same situation can be expected at English Departments in most other Canadian universities.
Really? So this is an anti-intellectual rant? Based on a stroll? No actual desire to get the numbers (statistics), to back up a claim that has no business taking up much of what is supposed to be a review? We clearly don't need CWILA... p.s. not sure how a hallway contains a department but now we are being nitpicky.
Yes, women in years past had a significant struggle to have their names on those doors and to gain full professorship status--a fight that still goes on in certain backwards locations today.
Stop talking. I am officially out of patience.
But that fact is no longer enough to support the publication of a 'women-only' anthology, and for that reason, this book cannot be recommended.
Wish I had more time to give this, but I think the 8 (plus 10) minutes this piece took out of my day already is 8 minutes too much. Even if you are half as bad a reviewer as you think you might be, all you silent women out there, I guarantee you, yours will be much, much, much better than this one.

John Herbert Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. He reviews poetry in Canada for Malahat Review, Arc, Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead and The Danforth Review, in the U.S. for Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Revisits, and in Australia for Jacket.
Buy this book at McNally-Robinson Booksellers.


Lorri Neilsen Glenn said...


Lemon Hound said...

It's astounding. And there you are Lorri--the one that got away. Email me!

Unknown said...

since the review author boasts of an Australian connection, I thought I'd check that out. Jacket magazine did really exist, but closed in 2010.
I searched the entire list of their reviews,
and cannot find his name there.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, it's all very confusing...clearly this guy is interested in innovative women's writing. Here's a decent review of Hejinian...

yaniya lee said...

Oh, thanks for making me laugh at a tragic situation.
You are channeling Irigaray when she so astutely cuts down Lacan, and (my favorite) Adrian Piper when she tore Donald Kuspit a new one in her open letter.