Best Isn’t a Beauty Contest: How Canadian Poets Demand More of Verse

By | 1 December 2014

2013 was the year that Russell Smith wrote that women writers who complain of gender bias were looking for a cop-out to explain their poor book sales. It was the year that the fledgling organisation Canadian Women In The Literary Arts, which had recently published the first gender count of the rates at which men and women were being published and reviewed in Canadian literary publications, turned a year old and launched a call for more Canadian women writers to engage critically with one another’s work. It was the year Madeleine Thien said, publicly, that ‘a big, empty, silent nothing sits at the centre of our literary discourse.’ In response to all of this foment, Zoe Whittall responded in April by creating a poem. Whittall created a collage of found text ‘culled and adapted from [reviews in] Canadian Notes & Queries, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the New York Times, [and] the Guardian,’ which went viral and prompted Jon Paul Fiorentino, one of this year’s long-listed poets, to subsequently write about the sexism prevalent in book reviewing culture. As if to put a fine point on the timeliness and relevance of Whittall’s work, in September of 2013, David Gilmour told readers of the online magazine Hazlitt that he was ‘not interested in teaching books by women’ and that students could ‘go down the hall’ if they wanted to hear about women writers. Fortunately, this year was also the year we expanded our list of eligible poetry-publishing Canadian journals to include a few important online outlets. Lemon Hound, the online journal that first published Whittall’s poem, was one of them, and so I was happily able to select Whittall’s ‘Unequal To Me’ as one of the best.

There is one more thematic preoccupation that I speculate is part of the year’s zeitgeist: the rise of cultural awareness around Canada’s history of institutionalised assimilation of aboriginal peoples and of the active political concerns of aboriginal Canadians. The Idle No More protest movement began with a teach-in in Saskatoon in November 2012, in response to the Harper government’s introduction of Bill C-45, which led to a series of demonstrations and protests around the country throughout December. One of the most visible protests was the hunger strike embarked on by Attawapiskat First Nation chief Theresa Spence, which made international headlines and lasted for six weeks, ending in late January of 2013. In 2013 the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had a five-year mandate to inform Canadians about the history of residential schools, were also well underway. The heightened visibility of aboriginal Canadians in current events undoubtedly influenced writers to bring their voices to the cultural moment and editors to seek out work representing diverse aboriginal perspectives and explorations of settler identity in this context.

It is fitting, then, that we see work that participates in formal trends but that also makes plain the power of European settlers’ writing and censoring practices to frame and reinterpret indigenous knowledge. We see work that questions the worth of well-intentioned words, and work that simultaneously claims, for its own cadences, the hum of indigenous vowels as much as it claims Western symphonic music. Quite a few Canadian poets have done work using found text from treaties and other historical documents to write in ways that destabilise, as Shane Rhodes puts it, ‘the settlers’ dream of legitimacy.’

Some lines from a poem called ‘How I Wrote ‘Patience Near Rundle’ by David O’Meara powerfully describe our sense of the current moment in Canadian poetics. O’Meara’s poem is about trying to write a poem at a retreat in Banff, but his grappling with the muse is interrupted: ‘one night [I] heard blues harmonica / drift from the aboriginal arts lodge nearby. / I texted a friend who’s Ojibway. Wtf? / He wrote back ‘why don’t you go / over there and ask them what they’ve got / to be blue about?’ Touché.’ These lines represent concisely what I’m suggesting went on in the collective non-aboriginal Canadian psyche this year. The event of aboriginal culture in conversation with a working/middle-class white culture occurs not only in the story, in the music that stirs the stillness in which O’Meara’s settler speaker tries to create a poem (which he ultimately never writes), and in the conversation between the speaker and his aboriginal buddy, but also occurs in the fusion of parallel histories into one moment, into one cultural object that is the very poem we read, the one O’Meara makes of his failure. It’s a cultural moment of loss, and searching, of wary reciprocity and of an elusive sort of patience. It is a moment in which privilege comes to realise that progress might not take the shape privilege once set out to push for.

There are so many possible things that can be happening, can be going on at once, in any given poem that does what poetry does best. There is no one way in which Canadian poets demand more of verse, of the huge idea of what poetry is and can be, when they set out to create a new poem. Each of the poets whose work I have selected has strived in the context of the history of verse, but has done so according to his or her values. Whether they aimed to hit a perfect bittersweet lyric note, to make an empty bracket seem to ring with loss, to rouse a reader to social justice activism or to twist language into gaudy malapropisms that make a reader groan with word-geek delight, the authors I selected demanded, and realised, great things of the verse they wrote.

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