“The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry: Carmine Starnino and Christian Bök in Conversation” took place at Mount Royal University on November 26th, 2009 as an event of the Writer in Residency program. Many critics, reviewers, and fans anticipated this pairing hoping for insight into the current and future of Canadian poetry and poetics. The two discussants are the heavyweights of Canadian poetry. Christian Bök is a professor at the University of Calgary and Canada’s foremost experimental poet. His book Eunoia, published in 1999, is based on the restrictive form of Oulipo based on the restricted form of the lipogram set by the “Ouvrior de Litterature Potentielle.” Eunoia is restricted to using words with only one vowel in each of its chapters. The word “eunoia” means beautiful thinking and is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels. Bök’s laborious task of combing through the dictionary took him seven years to complete. He claims that each vowel has a personality evident in the text. He won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and Eunoia currently holds the title of the best selling book of Canadian Poetry in history. He speculates that the sonnet is an outdated historic form past its stale-date. Carmine Starnino is one of the foremost critics in Canadian literature, the current editor of Véhicule Press in Montreal, Mount Royal University’s Writer in Residence for 2009, and the author of several books of poetry and criticism including, A Lover’s Quarrel published in 2004. In this book, Starnino lambasted Eunoia in an essay titled “Vowel Movements: Pointless Toil and Empty Productivity.” Starnino ascertains Eunoia is a verbal novelty game. He supposes “an Oulipian form isn’t really reusable (the way a sonnet is) because the form has been cooked up to flatter a specific and superficial kind of technical cunning,” and that these forms are less adequate than the sonnet to “satisfy [a] particular communicative function.” And so the stage is set to discuss the possibilities of restrictions in poetic form and the future of Canadian poetry with the two most polarized tastemakers of the contemporary Canadian poetry scene. – Micheline Maylor
Kit Dobson: I’d like to start by introducing our two discussants tonight. First of all, on the right, is Carmine Starnino. Carmine is Mount Royal University’s Writer in Residence for 2009. He’s visiting us this week, joining in our classes, and participating in events around campus. He is the author of several books of poetry including The New World, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1997; Credo, published by McGill-Queen’s in 2000; With English Subtitles, published by Gaspereau Press in 2004; and, most recently, This Way Out, published by Gaspereau in 2009, which was recently shortlisted for this year’s Governor-General’s Award for poetry. He is the editor of the book The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry published by Signal Editions in 2006. His book of criticism, A Lover’s Quarrel: Essays and Reviews, published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2004, has generated a huge response from other Canadian writers. It is a pleasure to be able to welcome him this evening. And to Carmine’s right, your left, is Christian Bök. Christian is one of Canada’s best-known experimental poets and a faculty member at the University of Calgary’s Department of English. He is the author of the book Crystallography, published by Coach House Books in 1994; Eunoia, published by Coach House in 2001, with a new edition and new material recently released just a couple of months ago; and the book Pataphysics: the Poetics of an Imaginary Science, published by Northwestern University Press in 2001. He is the editor of the book Ground Works: Avant Garde for Thee, published by Anansi in 2002. Eunoia won the Griffin poetry prize in 2002, and is itself well-known in print, online, and through a sound recording also released by Coach House. It is, also, a great pleasure to welcome him here this evening. I’d also like to welcome you, our audience. We have been very excited to see the level of interest from our various communities around Calgary and, indeed, across the country about this event. What we have planned in terms of format tonight is about 45 minutes to an hour of conversation and debate. We will then open questions to the floor. You will notice that there is a microphone set up in the middle of the house. When we have time for questions I’ll ask that you line up and use the microphone. We are recording tonight’s event for future posterity and we have plans to make it available to others in a few different formats. We have had requests from coast to coast for the transmission of tonight’s event, so we are going to be making it available. For a start, we are being recorded right now for broadcast next week on CJSW 90.9 for their program Writer’s Block, which takes place on Thursdays. Therefore, we want to make sure that we catch your questions in the microphone. In order to begin our conversation tonight, which is going to be concerned with the current state of Canadian poetry, I’d like to ask you both, Christian and Carmine, to explain to our audience how you conceptualize your own aesthetic or poetic stance, and to read us a poem that exemplifies your work—inasmuch as a short piece can do so. Christian, I’d like to invite you to begin.
Christian Bök: Okay. Hi, my name is Christian Bök and I’m an experimental poet. What that suggests for me is that poetry is a kind of research facility and language is a kind of alien technology and like the scientist doing research and development at Area 51, the job of the poet is, in some way, to reverse engineer this alien technology for human consumption in a kind of “skunk works” of literature. I think that poetry in the twenty-first century constitutes, increasingly, a kind of weird genre of science fiction, insofar as it has begun to undertake a hybrid fusion of a whole variety of technical concepts and aesthetic conceits. And I think, given the diminishing readership of poetry in the modern milieu, it is wise for poets nowadays to start thinking about the future audience that they might otherwise address, including those robots, clones, and genetically engineered animals that will eventually adapt our culture. I’d like to think that I am writing poetry for an inhuman audience that hasn’t yet evolved—and the audience might include flies or aliens from Zeta Reticuli. And I think that, given my desire to try to address the future as adeptly as I can, I regard my own sensibilities thoroughly informed by the attitudes in my book Eunoia. “Eunoia,” spelled E-U-N-O-I-A is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels and the word means quite literally “beautiful thinking.” The word was coined by Aristotle to describe the state of mind you have to be in, in order to make a friend. And for me, this constitutes a beautiful metaphor for poetry itself. It constitutes a kind of beautiful thinking that, in some respects, should be able to extend good will to future friends. So, in this respect, I think that I’m a relatively unorthodox, perhaps anomalous, poet within the typical tradition of Canadian literature, insofar as I am very concerned about trying to be as innovative and anomalous as possible in the hopes of showcasing otherwise unknown potential within language. Now, I guess, to showcase what I do, I’d like to read to you my favorite paragraph from Eunoia, and I cannot think of a more ideal context within which to read it. This is, of course, the first paragraph from “Chapter I” for Dick Higgins: Writing is inhibiting. Sighing. I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish hijinks which hindsight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv- ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit- picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits, sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis- tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.
Kit Dobson: Thank you, Christian, for that opening. Carmine, over to you.
Carmine Starnino: As a reader and as a critic, I try not to assign any value to a poem based on the literary or historical circumstances under which it was written. My concern is whether the language pays its way on the page. My ear doesn’t know old from new. A sixteenth century sonnet strikes me as freshly as a twenty-first century lyric. As a poet, I write to scratch an aphrodisiacal itch, to mate specific words. So, language—my language—is often important enough to get the whole of my attention. I believe that syntax is an extension of emotion, that vowels and consonants are fundamental to sense and that a poem’s audio effects are essential in creating meaning. So, a lot of my poems tend to inhabit almost entirely their linguistic forms and devices. This is “Our Butcher”: I could bone up, be the right man for that one-man job, hang by its hocks a rabbit shucked from the jacket of its black-bristled fur and still talking in twitches. As well, I might grasp the particular way he swings a cleaver, brings it down on a neck like a primitive. More to the point, I’d learn to move the beak of my blade into the fragrance of flank, or browse apart a chest’s cardiac leafage, my white apron a blotchwork of blood. I’d like to pickle ox tongue and pig feet, screw lids on sheep tripe and calf brain, set out jars like indices to carcasses unpacked like suitcases. Striated and plush, crewelworked with fat and grosgrained with gristle, meat is not semblance, meat is baroque. That said, I’d love to break back the pages of a shank and read all day. Tales about the flex and kick, the squawk and gack of things in pens: grass-nipping goats, had-been hens, hogs which nuzzled mud and snorkeled its odours until their plug was pulled and the spinning gears stilled to small organs, organs I’d like to disinter and wrap, risen again inside the pink of new paper skin. When it comes to accessibility—which is, I guess, the elephant in the room here—I always tend to think about of William Carlos Williams’ lines: “I want to write a poem you can understand / for what good is it to me if you can’t / understand it, / but you’ve got to try hard.”
Kit Dobson: Thank you both very much for those introductions. You are, I think it is safe to say, quite different poets—at least on the surface—and, I think, for many of us in the room there is a perception of opposition between your practices. I want to stick with the idea, and link it to the idea of the avant-garde for a minute to get us started. Christian, in your afterwards to Ground Works, you said that “avant-garde fiction, in Canada, has never enjoyed much cultural prestige, largely because such fiction has often called into question the pragmatic, if not parochial values of cultural identities still dominant in much of our realist fiction.” You have identified yourself with this avant-garde movement and made similar arguments about avant-garde poetry. Conversely, you have suggested, at least once, that “hoopla about the revival of the sonnet might seem a wee bit archaic today,” and you pay, it seems, less attention to what are often called “traditional” forms of poetry. I’d like to ask you to elaborate upon these points: first, that the avant-garde does not receive adequate attention, and, second, that poetics that interact with what we might think of as traditional forms are somehow archaic.
Christian Bök: Okay. I think that the act of reading poetry nowadays is already an archaic, cultural activity. When we read a poem, it is tantamount to going to pioneer village in order to see somebody hammer out a horseshoe. But I would like to imagine that reading a poem would be tantamount to going to an automated factory and watching a robot with lasers carve out a Lamborghini from of a block of titanium. I think that there is some difficulty around appraising or assessing the value of avant-garde practice, despite the fact that future generations in almost every historical period will look back upon the experimental practice from the past and wonder why it did not otherwise receive more attention because, of course, it has subsequently grown to influence subsequent generations of writers. I think the job of the avant-garde, in part, is to occupy a kind of untimely position within its culture. We often note that those poets are ahead of their time, perhaps because they take the position of the future generation and speak from its vantage point, impugning or renunciating past practice—or we might say that they are before their time, that in some respects they are addressing that future audience from the present and consequently are inscrutable perhaps to their modern contemporary context. And these pose certain problems, I think, for critics who are always trying to assess the merits of this kind of work, that at first glance might seem to partake of strategies that would be otherwise associated with the illiterate or the incompetent—ah, but that are in fact exploring new avenues of virtuosity along routes that would have otherwise been dismissed as mistakes or flaws in practice. Now, I should note that I have a lot of training in the literary history of poetry. I have a Ph.D. in the subject and consequently I am really thoroughly immersed in the past. Now, I don’t believe we somehow have to disavow our influences from the past in order to address the future. But I do think that it is wrong to be recidivist and not innovative, to merely sustain the past purely as a kind of museum activity. I think that the job of poetry nowadays is to constitute an aesthetic of critiques and surprises, to generate knowledge and make discoveries, and that this is the epistemological contribution that we make to the past. There is no point, I think, in writing the kind of poetry that merely knits doilies for candy dishes. We should be indulging in the kind of artisanal practice that, in fact, invigorates what we know about the past. Now, in the case of your mentioning of the sonnets: I joke with my students that are inclined to write sonnets, that I have no objection to that, but that they should just amaze me whatever they do. And it seems to me that after, say, the precedent set by Raymond Queneau in his book Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (“One Hundred Trillion Sonnets”) — he’s written a book that is effectively a machine for generating one hundred trillion sonnets, and if we were to read each one of these sonnets, say, once per minute, it would take the entire lifetime of the universe for you to actually absorb the entire quantity of that book. And I joke with my students, wondering why they would add an extra sonnet when they already have a hundred trillion here that have gone unread. It seems to me that that contribution by Queneau has in some ways made it difficult to justify writing in an otherwise habituated practice. Moreover, my friend Darren Wershler has actually written a sonnet that consists of only four characters, and yet it fulfills all the logistical constraints and protocols of a regular Petrarchan love sonnet, and it’s a very heartbreaking little poem, quite cryptic looking—but made with only four characters. And here we have, I think, an important kind of gesture towards minimalism in that tradition, in contrast to Queneau’s maximalism. Recently, just this last week or so, Gregory Betts released a book called The Others Raisd in Me, which consists of one hundred and fifty rewritings of Sonnet 150 by Shakespeare. He’s written these poems merely by crossing out words or striking out letters in the original poems, in order to generate a whole variety of new, or otherwise unexpected, texts that are hidden, secreted almost like that text’s unconscious within the body of that work. I think those kinds of practices actually add something to our understanding of the tradition—that they propose for us a new way of reading the past. Now, these activities actually are quite accessible, despite the fact that the avant-garde is treated as though it were something of extreme difficulty. I always joke with my students that, if poetry was as hard as you think it is, poets wouldn’t do it because poets are among the stupidest and laziest people I know. They wouldn’t do anything hard if it wasn’t fun, and the issues of accessibility for me, I think, are a moot point, in part because the demand that the avant-garde be accessible is tantamount to demanding that there be wheelchair ramps built up to the text—while failing, of course, to recognize that all of us are pretty competent readers, and that we can be engaged with these texts with a modicum of immersion. And consequently, I do reassure my students that these texts can’t be very difficult. I mean, these revisions of the sonnet are not so difficult to appreciate, and I think that is the attitude for most avant-garde movements historically.
Carmine Starnino: The issue of whether the avant-garde is getting sufficient attention? You are speaking to someone who wishes it received less. I just don’t know if it is good avant-garde policy to advertise your outsider status and then complain you are getting a raw deal from the world. I agree with what Christian said about the inherent experimental nature of the sonnet. I also think his dread of traditional form is well grounded. There is a danger in writing in received forms. And if the form is not freshened you run the risk of writing something irrelevant and dry as dust. The whole problem with that dread is, of course, that anxiety around the reliability and relevance of old forms runs quite far back, you only have to visit ancient Roman poetry and Catullus’ mockery of literary conventions and his obsession with being modern and striking a contemporary note. So, with regards to the question of the experimental nature of poetry, my sense is that poetry was and has been experimental far before the avant-garde ever showed up. I also don’t know if the question of writing sonnets should be automated. This is a sort of running battle I think we have between the two conceptions of what experiment can mean and what the form is. Automating a particular form removes any interiority, any human motive, and I’m not quite sure what the innovation would be if it isn’t being pressured by the need to say something differently outside of the need of that difference to be simply a mark of a radical newness. In the quote you spoke about the revival of the sonnet. But I don’t think the sonnet requires revival. From the moment it was introduced into the English tradition it has been available and popular and, like with the trillion sonnet-producing machine, no two sonnets are alike—except that no machine has proved that, poets have. So, the question of innovation is something that, certainly, the tradition of the sonnet has borne out. I guess, my question is: why would you argue that the sonnet is insufficiently innovative in that respect when people like Darren Wershler Henry and bp nichol have written them? So when your own peers have left their fingerprints on the form, I’m not quite sure what about the sonnet requires a term like archaic.
Kit Dobson: I hope that we can also push a little bit past the idea of the sonnet; I don’t want it to become a red herring for us. Part of this debate comes, Carmine, from a broader conversation about literary conventions that you set up in your introduction to your edited book, The New Canon, where you suggest that we need to have a conversation to address “what conventions we will agree to respect and what conventions we will allow ourselves to wincingly push past” as Canadian poetry evolves. Are there other conventions that are important for us to contemplate in this context? What are the other literary contexts that we need to consider in order to conceptualize where poetry may be going for us?
Carmine Starnino: Are you asking whether there are conventions outside of Canadian poetry that we should be respecting?
Kit Dobson: I’m asking both whether there are conventions beyond Canadian poetry that we need to concern ourselves with, and what the other “traditional” forms are that we should continue to think about.
Carmine Starnino: It’s a tough question because I think the question of Canadian poetry as a nationalistic product has put our focus on certain ideas. One of the things I think maybe Christian and I agree on is we are running up against the enshrining of free verse and the plain spoken as a natural language of a national poetry. There are many reasons why that continues to be the case, and for the fear of foreign influence that continues to stalk the country. One of the things that strikes me about the stories we tell about Canadian poetry is that they are far too simplistic. They don’t fit the facts, and the facts—from E. J. Pratt to Ken Babstock—are that we are distinguished by a protean diversity and variety. One of the reasons I have difficulty with even accepting the existence of the avant-garde is that I think that diversity is so wide it has in a sense sort of swallowed up a lot of the demarcations that the avant-garde has depended on for its identity. So even in this country, I think it is just one more mode, one way of writing, one more school. One of the things that I have discovered when speaking to some of the younger poets is that this two-tradition experimental/non-experimental way of seeing things doesn’t concern them anymore, they don’t even recognize it, they certainly draw on their influences from wherever. And I think that this is one of the marks of Canadian poetry on the world stage is that we have some of the most distinctive verse stylists of the 20th century. And many of these stylists—and I would include Richard Outram, Peter Van Toorn—are themselves seen as difficult and experimental from the perspective of the Canadian mainstream. Certainly in my own way, I’ve tried to promote their work and make the existing conventions soften a little bit, to make them hospitable to poets who are, I think, are in their own way experimental and difficult—at least from the perspective of a tradition that sees their work as entirely too concerned with language and literary effects and entirely too tied to the older traditions. So I think one of the conventions that we need to push past in this country is the need to sort of teach—and this continues in workshops I think and certainly in anthologies—that only certain influences are good and others are bad. I think that if we are going to fight for the future poem—I mean it is something that Christian brought up at the start—then, that future has to include being able to draw one’s influences from any quarter without fear or anxiety. And certainly this is a future that in my own way I am trying to prepare for.
Kit Dobson: Christian, would you like to respond?
Christian Bök: I think that no school of writing would like to be regarded as backward, as not being at the cutting edge, whether it be traditional or experimental. Everybody believes, I think, from their own perspective, that they are at the cutting edge. Certainly the avant-garde doesn’t function the way it did at its inception in the early twentieth century, when it was possible to imagine a single uni-linear model of historical progress, in which a poet could occupy the forefront of that line, speaking oracular messages prophetically about the future. I think that nowadays the avant-garde has no longer any sovereign frontline from which to advance its own history. And in fact, it disappears into a whole variety of relative influences that are interconnected almost like a digital network of rhizomatic complexity and consequently nobody can actually speak with authority about what the one direction into the future ought to be. And I think perhaps this is what Carmine is suggesting. I would never have said that there is only one way to be the poet of the future. I do, however, think that it is a testament probably now to the success of the avant-garde that its good ideas, its models of anomaly and innovation, constitute values by which every poetic movement would like to be able to characterize itself. For example, the poets that Carmine has cited (and that he believes are perhaps radical because they would, for a mainstream audience, appear “avant-garde”) such poets suggest the degree to which even conservative aesthetic values want to appear progressive, right? Even the conservatives describe themselves as “progressive-conservatives,” right? Nobody would like to believe that, perhaps, the values that they are otherwise adopting may constitute, if not derivative, at least recidivist, values—that they are actually not making any epistemological contribution to the future. And I suppose this is the main point upon which I would differ with Carmine’s set of aesthetic values. We’re supposed to be making contributions to knowledge, in the same way that, I think, scientists do, that you have to make a discovery, we have to make a surprise, and it has to be of significant merit to warrant attention, and in our case, as poets, we know very little. Poets are demoted to this job because they couldn’t do anything else. Math is too hard. And I can never tell my students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing. If they actually knew something, they’d be in that discipline doing it. They’d be in history or in biology or business or whatever, making the important epistemological contribution that would, in fact, change the world. My poets, however, my students, would say that they have these important emotional insights that the world needs to know about, and I would say that if that were really true, the proper venue for doing so, for announcing these emotional insights, would in fact be a press conference, not a poem, because, of course, by expressing this work in a poem, you would be almost certain of it languishing in relative obscurity. Nevertheless, poetry is now, I think, is a very diminished cultural activity, compared to other forms of culture practice. I mean, it used to be that poets would found civilizations; they would write sacred texts that would, in fact, provide the grand overtures for an entire civilization. But that is not the case nowadays, despite, say, the cultural significance of an activity like science. Science is probably the most important thing that we do as a species. Poets look, I think, with some alarm upon it and actually ignore its language. There is no great epic poem about the moon-landing, for example. And to me, that seems very amazing—that, in the history of art, there should be no response directly to that experience. If the Greeks had rode a trireme to the moon, there probably would be a twelve-volume epic about it, written shortly afterwards as a way of transmitting to future generations the importance of this grand achievement, and it’s certainly the most important thing we’ve probably done collectively as a species, to actually set foot on another world, and yet we haven’t, I guess, produced a poet of epic significance, who might be able to broach that historical moment with much expertise. And I think that that is a shame. It seems to me we can’t continue to be the kinds of poets we are, in the wake of all of these important culturally significant events that are, even now, occurring in the world, with genetic engineering and climate change, nuclear proliferation, you name it. These aren’t the typical topics by which poets, I think, interact with their society. It just seems important to me to underline the necessity of being pertinent to our own cultural experience.
Kit Dobson: Thank you for that. I think that we can suggest that there is some life to poetry, and I think that signs of this life can be found in the debates that you two have had over time. I’d like to zoom in on the debates between you, which will certainly be one of the things our audience will expect of us tonight. To go back to Carmine first: I referred to your anthology, The New Canon, a couple of minutes ago. In that anthology you include Christian’s work, and specifically poems from his book Crystallography. But the conventions that Christian has both moved past and respected elsewhere have been problematic for you. You write, in your review of Eunoia that was subsequently included in your book A Lover’s Quarrel, that Christian’s book Eunoia is, essentially, “a prosodic prank turned into a book.” The constrained form that Eunoia deploys seems in that review to be a constraint that diminishes the artistry of that book. You write in that review that your qualm is not withEunoia itself, but with admirers who are stuck on the charm of the book’s Oulipian constraints. There’s a lot that’s been said about this review. Would you like to elaborate a bit for us about this background?
Carmine Starnino: Yeah, I mean I should of course begin by acknowledging the success of the book and maybe I should use the word phenomenal. I mean the book has done very well in Canada and has jumped the pond and has done very well in the UK. And in trying to figure out why, I have to also admit that I think the book has rekindled a sense in readers of poetry as something ludic, provocative, outrageous—all of which I think it is. You got this from the reading though, you don’t need Christian reading to figure out that the book is in fact quite something. My difficulty with the book emerged when it became increasingly clear that admirers were basing the identity of the book completely on its formal character. So you what you got was the poem’s lipogrammatic structure being aggressively marketed as intrinsically valuable and radical and I have to say I distrust anything self-consciously radical. I’m sure of a lot of you watch Mad Men and I’m the kind of guy who votes for the square ad guys. I don’t like the beatniks. The beatniks, I think, began to use the Oulipian providence of the book or to sort of stack the deck a little and self-consciously elevate the constraint to something a bit other-worldly, a little bit sacred and that was borne out for me in the reaction to my review because I think the reaction was based on the belief that certain kinds of au courant writing exists beyond the preview of criticism. Now, I certainly understand the sort of experimental bona fides of the book but I don’t think they give the book a free pass. If I can give some insight to a community I don’t know very well I have to say one thing that strikes me is that there are no critics in the avant-garde. I mean the relationship between what is produced and what is written about, it is one of meekness: I don’t see anybody sort of assessing these works for their margins of success or failure, for their margins of error. The debates that have occurred around the avant-garde so have always come from what you might call the mainstream or the official verse culture or whatever it is you want to call it. They don’t occur within that community – although, within the community that you might say I represent, debates occur all the time. There is great tension between what is produced and how that product is assessed. And between the assessors and between the self-declared critics who sift through what is produced in terms of its aesthetic success or failure. And so I don’t know what it says about the provocateur aspect of this community when the most outspoken, the most dangerous, the most reviled critics belong to the other side. The other side seems to be a much livelier place, I have to say, than the avant-garde where no critics have emerged, no one to sort of engagingly write about the work being produced in the hopes of introducing it to new audiences. The prose I’ve seen from that community is quite bad – the belletristic prose. No one is pushing back and asking for a little bit more. So I’m not quite sure how you would assess or discuss success in that community, it seems a community that extends free credit to everyone. That is a concern to me because I don’t see it in other communities—Marjorie Perloff, for example, in the United States. I see her intervening into mainstream arguments all the time to her credit and to the credit of her arguments and to great effect. And I don’t see that happening here, I can’t nominate anybody on that side. I think Christian has done some great work on the Poetry Foundation website when he was a blogger there and I think he writes quite engagingly about and provocatively about this work but you know he is just one person and I haven’t actually seen him do that here and actually haven’t seen him criticize anybody. So it strikes me as a bit disingenuous you know—well, maybe disingenuous isn’t the word – but the debates that are occurring around the avant-garde are not occurring within the avant-garde and it seems to create a little symbiotic relationship where Eunoiarequires the oxygen of publicity that only the official verse culture can provide. And it strikes me as a little bit of a contradiction I’m not sure I’m phrasing it properly, I’m hoping that Christian can sort of get a sense of what it is I’m trying to get at. I don’t know whether I’ve missed some of the great critics of the Canadian experimental community, but it does strike me as a failure, that there is no one in that community who will stand up and try to judge the work being produced in terms of what works and what doesn’t, what should be kept and should be really dismissed to the dust bins.
Christian Bök: Well, I think that I should begin by acknowledging the success of my book! Let me address this first question about the critics of the avant-garde. I find this a very surprising thing that you’ve said, and I would apologize in advance for contradicting you by pointing out that there are actually lots of critics among the avant-garde, probably most significant of them is Marjorie Perloff, who directs a great deal of attention to Canadian literature, and from our perspective, as poets, she’s kind of like the Peggy Guggenheim of literary criticism, an enormous figure, a former MLA President, just recently retired from her grandiose position at the west coast universities in California. She’s a titanic figure who speaks and determines taste and wields very large sort of judgement. Moreover, there’s of course Ron Silliman, who has an elephantine blog, in which he discusses work from all across North America, making assessments and drawing lines of division among a whole variety of avant-garde practices, assessing their merits and being able to contextualize them within their particular, historical moments. We can’t forget, of course, Charles Bernstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has mentored numerous young avant-garde, Canadian poets and is a very staunch critic, assessing again the merits of such work. On a more the home-grown front, we have a poet like Sina Queyras who, on her blog, Lemonhound, participates in a kind of ongoing dialogue with the poetic community here in Canada, and I think there is a great deal of discussion among the avant-garde, a great deal of controversy and provocation, because of course there are a whole variety of competing schools of writing that vie for attention. I would say that, right now of course, the two dominant modes of avant-garde practice that have succeeded Language poetry (which was the last great avant-garde school of writing in the twentieth century)—the two movements vying for attention are Flarf (a kind of Dadaist poetry written entirely through the use of Google search-engines) and Conceptual Writing, of which I am a founding member, a group of people who merely transcribe at great length, with great labour, entire databases of prewritten information and then merely republish it. All of these kinds of modes of writing are topics of much discussion online and constitute centres of provocation across North American poetry. I think that a work like Eunoia functions within these provocations, in part because of its anomalous success. I mean, it would be easy to dismiss its success as an anomaly if it were merely successful here in Canada, but the fact that it went on to become a bestseller in the UK, even moreso than it was here… It sold more books in less time, and made far more money, and was on the bestseller list for longer than any other book of poetry. It was the eighth most sold book in the UK for several weeks and was the bestseller list with the likes of Barack Obama and Nigella Lawson, competing for pole position on Christmas wish lists. This, to me, seems a bizarre occurrence. I would have never have expected something of this sort to happen, right? And I can sympathize with Carmine’s mystified attitude, because I too feel it. Why is this book so successful? That said, I think that, by virtue of its success, it sets a difficult precedent for any subsequent practitioner of poetry in Canada, for both the traditional forms of writing and perhaps more experimental forms of writing—in part, because it showcases, I think, the low level of ambition among our writers. None of us really imagines that we could ever aspire to a large audience. None of us ever imagine that we might actually provoke controversy and discussion, all of which might result in debates of this sort. None of us really, I think, imagines that our cultural legacy might extend beyond the shores of our own nation. Canadian poetry, I think, has a very insular understanding of what constitutes success. When you go abroad, the poets who are typically recognized are, of course, the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, perhaps even Anne Carson, but after that, the names that might otherwise come to mind are greeted with mystified looks by international readers. And I think that it’s at the moment, when we point to avant-garde poets, that the list then gets extended, because the controversies and provocations that occur within my community take place upon an international stage. While I think that I was initially ignored here at home during the composition of a book like Eunoia, in its early days when I was working on it, it was nevertheless greeted with much fanfare elsewhere in the world, and I think that such a fate awaits most practitioners of the avant-garde. It’s a much more internationalized sensibility, and is trying to respond to a kind of planetary culture. And I think that, contrary to Carmine’s assertions, it’s participating within a critical community that is much larger than the one we might find here in Canada. And it’s addressing an audience that is, in fact, quite diverse, capable of reaching out beyond the purview of its own very modest parameters.
Kit Dobson: Carmine, would you like to respond to these assertions?
Carmine Starnino: Yeah, I did bring up Perloff and I should have mentioned Ron Silliman and Bernstein. I do see them as playing a more interventionary role than almost anyone I can see in Canada and I think Christian does sort of answer the question by suggesting of course the whole aesthetic, the whole movement is a bit more international than maybe I am sort of perceiving at the moment. Yet, I think Ron Silliman’s criticism is extremely gentle. I think Bernstein strikes me as sort an avuncular figure, someone who is a mentor to a lot of people, a lot of writers. The scene doesn’t strike me as particularly hard on anybody. It seems to be more of a collective. I don’t see and you know obviously my sense of it comes from Canada and sort of what I see occurring in this country. But, I would love to see two things; I would love to see a critic stand up from the ranks and start to, sort of, see less bullishness towards certain sort of tendencies. I would like to see someone being a bit harsher towards sort of some poets, sort of a Zach Wells of the avant-garde. I don’t know if that is even possible but I think that would be a breath of fresh air; it would do a whole lot of good. And I would like to see an avant-garde poet-critic intervene in the debates happening on the mainstream which rarely happens and some of the most aggressive push back that is occurring with regards to this whole sort of Michael Atwood, Margaret Ondaatje, Borg-like conception of Canadian poetry, is happening from, for lack of a better word, from the mainstream. The beneficiaries would be all of us. As long as this questioning continues, all Canadian poets would benefit from a more open sort of tradition, the tradition that is more hospitable to various kinds of poetry. But this sort of hang-back attitude—watching it happen and hankering after all sorts of tokens of mainstream success like, nominations, anthology appearances and reviews, doesn’t strike me as right. I think that we share a mutual distaste for certain tendencies in Canadian poetry, but I only see one community actually doing anything about it. You can call it something like the gross innovative product, you know. What is the avant-garde pumping into the community—what new ideas, what new sort of approaches, what new criticisms? I can claim a number of poets that we have brought back from the dead, Richard Outram being one of them. I have sort of intervened in bringing back Peter Van Toorn, these are poets that now find have readerships, these are poets that are now being written about—without the intervention of the mainstream, these poets would be unread. So we are making a difference, I think, and sort of slowly shifting perspective towards poets that deserve a second look. Maybe I’m being sort of thick-headed here, I’m sorry, I just don’t see it happening on the other side, I just don’t see what difference… if the avant-garde disappeared tomorrow, how would things be different? This is a sincere question. If avant-garde activity over the last thirty years disappeared, how would this country be different?
Kit Dobson: Christian, I want to let you answer that question, but I also want us to draw our thinking together here a little bit. Both of you have said in different venues that Canadian poetry—the mainstream that you are gesturing towards, Carmine—is bad. I’m curious about what it is that makes it bad. What can we do about that? Maybe you two could find some common ground on that issue. But Christian, I’d like to invite you to answer Carmine’s question first.
Christian Bök: Well, you know, I’ve based my entire career upon, you know, a critique and complaint about mainstream poetry. Every essay, virtually, that I’ve ever written upon the subject is designed to be provocative. I’m kind of dismayed that you don’t see that there’s an actually an active degree of complaint about this. I have a very vexatious relationship now with the Canadian Council, I think, as a side effect of the constant, vociferous upheaval in my interaction with them. All of us who are experimental poets of one stripe or another, I think, are somewhat dismayed that it is difficult to actually gain more attention. In the last thirty years, in the Governor General’s Award, for example, there hasn’t been a single winner who was himself an experimental writer, produced a work of experimental poetry, since bp nichol shared the prize with Michael Ondaatje, and in that time there have been, I think, at least five or six books that have been shortlisted, that would have otherwise received attention and probably should have won. And yet nobody has complained, say, in the mainstream community about those kinds of oversights. If we were to place the category of experimentation with any other kind of identity-based category, I think, there would be some outrage, or at least some complaint. Of course, I’ve written at length about this personally, and I have lots of peers in the community, of course, who are constantly lamenting this fact, and probably chief among them would be the likes of Sina Queyras, who makes these very plaintive appeals about the sorry status of mainstream writing. I hardly think that any of us are ever sitting back watching things from the sidelines. The avant-garde actually have one of the most vibrant communities in the country—certainly here, even in Calgary. This is probably the best place to be a young poet in Canada, because there is a very active small-press community. There are numerous reading series, probably too many for any one person to attend at any given moment. There’s an active effort to ensure that people participate, in community-building activities. I think that if the avant-garde disappeared, say, for the last thirty years, would people notice? Well, I think poets would notice. I think that if poetry itself were to disappear, nobody would really notice, right? Or were the entire artistic community to disappear, I think maybe a few government agencies would begin to notice—but you know the kind of activity that we do is already, by its very nature, marginalized. If only 1% of Canadians out of forty million purchase one book per year, one book they might purchase, well, that’s already a very small percentage of the population, 400,000 people—if only 1% of those in fact buy poetry, well, we’re down into a small community who might be invested in this kind of work, and if 1% of those buy a work of avant-garde poetry, well, I’m selling my book primarily to my friends. And it seems to me that that’s the kind of level at which cultural engagement begins to take place for most of us. I might ask, you know, “Why is that, if the mainstream community is in fact so mainstream, it not appeal to a greater readership?” Why can’t it compete with the likes of Barrack Obama or Nigella Lawson on the bestseller list? I think that we have to ask ourselves important, probative questions about the meaning of poetry in general, not just the contributions being made by a small percentage of those poets among the avant-garde.
Kit Dobson: Carmine, would you like to discuss why Canadian poetry is so bad?
Carmine & Christian: No, no. Oh God, we could go on at length about that if you like.
Carmine Starnino: One thing that Canadian poetry is bad at is recognizing and this is something maybe that speaks to some of the frustration with the paucity, or dearth of experimental writing recognized by the Governor General’s: Canadian poetry has always had difficulty accepting and recognizing the eccentrics, the singular phenomenons, the unique voices. This is something that I think has bled Canadian poetry of any kind of life, its need to have a one-size-fit-all kind of poet. This is where the critical language Canadian poetry uses to talk about itself and talk about what is being produced is so important and this is where I think and I think Christian is right, in the sense that—and I’m sort of contradicting my own argument here—that the avant-garde has contributed a great deal to providing us with new vocabularies for assessing some of the more unusual work being produced in Canada. And so my sense is that unless these voices are allowed in, unless we do a better job of recognizing them, and learning from them, we do readers around the world a great disservice by continuing to sort of promote this narrative of Canadian poetry as being sort of rooted in landscape and citizenship. I don’t think Canadian poetry is bad at all. I think that some of our poets are amongst the best. I think the problem with Canadian poetry is only the fact that, as yet, we do a very poor job of recognizing these poets, we do a very poor job of celebrating them and we do a very poor job of actually describing them in ways that celebrate their difference from other poets. And so I think the vocabulary we use to discuss poetry often looks for common denominators and often they’re cultural, geographic, or regional. We sort of really struggle, or as an institution Canadian poetry really struggles to find ways to talk about say Al Moritz that makes his work different than someone like Don McKay. You see this a lot in reviewing culture, that the critical vocabulary is so poor that people talk about them in the exactly the same ways. One of the things, I guess, that makes Christian’s presence on the scene so interesting is that it’s impossible to talk about him the same way you talk about other poets and which is why I welcome him as a singular phenomenon and not as representative of any sort of school. Which is why I think one of the things I should have done a better in that review of Eunoia was talk about my admiration of the poems in Crystalography, which was my first direction to Christian Bök and this was before I knew he belonged to some kind of insurgency or whatever. I think there are some beautiful poems in that book and that’s why I included him in the anthology because I thought he belonged, not because I was making any statement about his position vis-à-vis the rest of Canadian poetry: In a sense I think there is no problem with Canadian poetry, there are some remarkable, beautiful, mind-blowingly good poems being written. I think the problem is with the ways in which the stories we tell about Canadian poetry and the ways in which vocabularies we use to talk about that work. Often the lack of vocabulary means that work doesn’t get seen at all because it can’t be talked about.
Kit Dobson: Well, better vocabularies are certainly on display here tonight, anyhow. I wonder if we could get some lights at this point and invite you in the house to join in this discussion as well.
Christian Bök: Yeah, that would be great.
Kit Dobson: As I said earlier, we have a mic at the front, so I would invite you to ask questions of Carmine and Christian from there.
Carmine Starnino: I like that you have to put on a jacket to ask us a question.
Audience member Andy Papadopolis: Yeah I thought I’d be appropriate for the occasion here since you asked for a Greek, Christian, I thought I’d show up and ask a question. I am delighted to be part of this event, or to attend: it’s great to have some great poets here, disappointing that this place is completely packed, standing room only, with the best poets, some of the best poets in Canada, very disappointing. I’m a little bit embarrassed and ashamed about the unpoetic title of the event but, again, I’m really making a very serious statement: it’s a reflection of the society we’re in, right? The metaphor we can find is a “caged match.” We’re talking about poetry yet we’re bringing it down to the lowest possible way we can create some potential excitement. This is the state of poetry, this is why there are not enough people here… how can we make it more relevant, more exciting?
Christian Bök: Actually have a cage match, I think, really.
Audience member Andy Papadopolis: Pardon me?
Christian Bök: To really have a cage match, let’s go into the octagon, duke it out, right? Eh?
Audience member Andy Papadopolis: How best can we keep it civilized? How best can we keep it poetic? How best can we keep it mind-expanding and attract a lot more people?
Christian Bök: Nerf bats!
Audience member Andy Papodopolis: I love the ah, I love the ah…
Carmine Starnino: I’ve got to say very quickly in defence of this event, the department was inundated with RSVPs and so they were convinced that the room was going to overflow. I think the event was victim of its own good publicity because some people thought they just couldn’t get in and maybe stayed at home or maybe they’re waiting outside. I don’t know. We fully expected that this place was going to be, you know, full.
Audience Member Andy Papadopolis: Again Carmine, I think it is a reflection of how many people are reading poetry, not only in Canada, in the whole world. And I guess to my mind I’m looking at the debate and thinking of Eunoia and the Greek, sort of extension of the language is that an… as far the whole discussion, is the discussion… in other words is it out of place, is it the right discussion the right debate to have? Whether avant-garde should be criticized or should we be writing sonnets or not. To my mind and I’m fairly new to poetry and I’ll confess, I’ve never taken an English class in my life and probably if I do I’ll not pass it. I do love and I do write a lot of poetry recently over the past five years, and it puzzles me why do we feel poetry is not relevant? I find it shocking.
Christian Bök: Because it’s not relevant right now. It’s a difficulty, and poets are really to blame for that. In Canadian literature, poetry is really stifled by its own competent mediocrity. There is no necessity for poets to actually aspire to kind of ambition that would really be world-changing, because poets who are relatively normative and mediocre are rewarded very handsomely for their cultural contribution, and in fact, I can’t think of any other art-form that sets its standards and ambitions so low that it doesn’t even feel obliged to redress its own sociological inconsequence, right? Moreover, we have a tremendous tolerance of that incompetence. When we actually go to events, how many of you have actually sat through a very long poetry reading that you just wished was over? And none of you have thrown tomatoes or foodstuff at the person on stage. It’s, I think, a testament to the degree to which poetry fails to achieve a kind of virtuoso merit within the context of its own cultural contributions. It is the job to which artists are demoted.
Audience member Andy Papadapolis: It brings a really sad commentary to my mind going back to classical Greece, you mentioned it was a public event along with the Olympics where people would attend dramatic poetry, the state gave free tickets to the poor citizens so that they can attend dramatic poetry and here we hardly…
Christian Bök: No, I’m losing my market share to online porn…
Audience member Andy Papadolpolis: I’d like to see the discussion and the whole cage match focused on that aspect. What is it that poetry is missing to my mind, the statement you made, Christian, is false that poetry is a very powerful art form to communicate very directly…
Christian Bök: I fully agree that it can be, yes I’m not disputing the fact that it can be…
Audience member Andy Papadopolis: So how can poetry get back into be come relevant because potentially we’re arguing about avant-garde and sonnets and maybe we’re out to lunch, we’re totally lost in the wilderness while the world is going a different direction and we’ll never make any difference, we’ll never know whether we exist or don’t exist or never care about it.
Christian Bök: I think the argument I’m making is that poetry is supposed to be able to take risks and that there isn’t a great deal of incentive to do so if those risks are not rewarded. In the milieu of science, of course, it is necessary for scientists to take risks in order to make a discovery. I just think that we’ve now become accustomed to the kind of poetry that warrants a normative form of attention. Prizes and awards, for example, homogenize taste more than they actually reward merit. They don’t distinguish those singularities the backdrop of their culture. In many respects, those anomalies are, I think, myopically foreseen as something that is too exceptional to be warranted any attention.
Audience member Jeffrey Donaldson: There’s got to be more than a hundred people in this room. I don’t really understand what this issue of there not being an audience for this very interesting conversation tonight. I come from another university in Ontario and if Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino were giving a cage match discussion there would not be 100 people in the room, so Mount Royal University can congratulate itself for filling a space like this to listen to poets talk about how poetry matters, I’m enormously impressed by the number of people in the room. I’m a bit confused about the whole question of what the purpose of the avant-garde is. What I’m hearing you say, Christian, is that poets ought to be relevant and have a larger audience but I can’t help but feel that what a poet would mainly have her or his eye on if having that attitude is the marketplace by selling more books, and that a poet’s job is… you say a poet needs to be relevant, do you mean by that that if you are relevant, you will be read by more people, why isn’t a poets’ relevance a function of his truth telling capacity for instance? You had just finished saying, you would like poets to take more risks. Wouldn’t the poet who chooses to write in a particular form of poetry be taking more risks, knowing that they aren’t going to be read than someone who writes a book such as you have which fits in very lets say comfortably into an idiom that has contemporary popularity and can sell a great number of volumes, that in a way you’re taking far fewer risks than that poet who isn’t going to be read at all because they saw what they were supposed to do, they felt they were called to do it they wrote it down and nobody wanted to read it.
Christian Bök: Well, I have to dispute the idea that I didn’t take a risk by writing Eunoia. I didn’t receive any funding at all for it. In fact, juries objected to its submission, arguing that it would be a waste of their money, because it couldn’t be finished, it was impossible, and it wouldn’t sell. So I get to shake my fist under the nose of my critics, who would say that it was not worth the effort to do so, because of course it has, in fact, gone on to become the most successful book of poetry in Canadian history. And that is the argument I have been trying to make ever since I started being an avant-garde writer—that if we were to apply the same standards of value against, say, Einstein when he was formulating the Theory of Relativity, nobody, no mathematician would in fact have appreciated the merits of that study. And of course, there may be only five thousand mathematicians in the world who thoroughly understand the Theory of Relativity. Now I’m suggesting that he has a tremendous market, right? For that particular set of equations—okay?—but nevertheless, he has made a enormous cultural impact upon our understanding, and he probably has made the greatest contribution any human has made to our substantive, and profound, if not sublime, understanding of the universe itself, the basic software of reality. Poets don’t actually think to aspire to of write the software of reality, right? I’m concerned about that, because we’re functioning in a world where poets will probably have to range very far outside the catechism of their own literary training in order to maintain their own cultural relevance. It may be necessary for poets to, say, learn computer programming, or to learn a science, or to immerse themselves within the language of economics, something outside of the purview of their own study. My friends, we joke that if we want to find poetry now, we can’t find it much among the poets. Poetry has kind of left the building, and like Elvis, it’s in its Cadillac on the way to Saturn. It’s someplace else now. It’s in traffic reports, it’s in the walkthroughs of video games. It’s in the online chat rooms of the world. There’s a kind of inadvertent experience of poetry, one that we would otherwise ignore at our peril—and we can’t write and contribute to its quantity, if we’re not going to be willing to contribute to its quality. There’s already exabytes of data, everyday, being added to the Internet. There’s such a plethora of information being uploaded that to add one more poem to that pile seems to be almost inconsequential, you know? How do you make an impact on that milieu, especially in a world where, I don’t know, Halo 2 is probably the greatest cultural artefact created by humans, because it has made more money and appealed to more people than any other cultural artefact in human history.
Audience Member Jeffrey Donaldson: Listening to what you say, you seem more fixated on finding a poetry that will fit with the contemporary modes of discourse than your average poet is concerned to do. Poets do write the software of the world that we live, they just don’t call it software and if they wanted, exactly,
Christian Bök: That’s the problem.
Audience member Jeffrey Donaldson: if they wanted to call it software…
Christian Bök: They’d write code.
Audience member Jeffrey Donaldson: They could make more money right but they choose not to call it software because they feel to be truly avant-garde is to stand outside that mainstream discourse and try and have something to say.
Christian Bök: I think that modern languages and discourses of contemporary life are poorly represented in a lot of poetry. I tell my students that the word “microwaveable” is, I think, grossly underrepresented in most poetry nowadays, and yet that word is the kind of language that they would otherwise speak. I’m tired of seeing poems about “rivers,” “breath,” and “stones,” the kind of language I see all the time in poems—and yet it is not the language I see in everyday life: “kevlar,” “Teflon” and “slurpie” seem to be a more pertinent language. I don’t mind reading pastoral poetry, so long it is set in the World of Warcraft. I’m thinking that that constitutes a gesture more responsive to at least our experience of modern life. I’m just concerned that poetry is increasing an artisanal activity. It is no longer the cutting-edge, high art-form it used to be, but it’s now akin to glass blowing or cabinet making, something that actually doesn’t aspire to a high art-form at all. It doesn’t get exhibited in art galleries around the world. It gets exhibited in museums.
Audience member Jeffrey Donaldson: My one last thought is that is that was always the case if a poet is concerned with that he is really trying just to get famous… that Homer wrote the great epic of contemporary historical concern in Greece because he had to be a journalist as well as a poet, he was the journalist of a contemporary society at the time of Greece but poets today don’t serve that purpose they serve a different purpose and if we want the kind of audience that Homer got, serving as a journalist, then we should become journalist. My sense is that the reason we aren’t writing poems about landing on the moon is because everyone else is writing about landing on the moon, it’s covered historically and it’s covered journalistically and the poets will try and find the means to accommodate these very rapid changes to our society in ways that aren’t going to be obvious or current or sort of fit into the main discourse of the market place, they’re going to do it in a way that might not be appreciate for, like Blake, 200 hundred years.
Christian Bök: I sympathize with your point.
Kit Dobson: Carmine, I’d like to ask if you have a take on this issue?
Carmine Starnino: I just find it odd to have… I think society has thrust avant-gardism on all poets because all of us have been pushed to the margins and so it is the collective condition. I think, that we are seen as too difficult and seen as too “out there” to be taken seriously. I just find it odd to have Christian is so impatient for instant success when I thought I belonged to a tradition, an art form the thought in terms of hundreds of years. I mean I fully expect not to have readers in this lifetime. I fully expect not… I edit a series called Signal Editions and my job as an editor is to lower expectations. My job is one, to lower expectations and look for books that can be read ten years from now, twenty-five years from now, fifty years from now, a hundred years from now. So, I’m just struck to hear Christian’s impatience. I’m not quite sure what he attributes the success of Eunoia to, some of it has to be attributed to, quite fairly, this viral effect the book had. People bought it because other people bought it. It quite sounded interesting. I wonder how many of those twenty or thirty or forty thousand people who bought the book—correct me if I’m wrong, maybe it’s too low—but how many of those tens of thousands of readers, which is a drop in the bucket from the perspective of the Grishams and the Clancys, actually read it? Bought it and put it on the shelf, bought it and gave it away as a gift, or bought it and forgot it in the car. This is the danger with, I think, using these tokens of success as a way of assessing the importance or relevance of what we do. They mean nothing in the perspective of the longevity of the work or the hoped for longevity of the work. I mean if you sell 100,000 copies of Eunoia but it’s unread fifty years from now, is that any better; would it be something that you would want? Shouldn’t your concern be staying the course? That’s number one. Number two is, I don’t know any poet who doesn’t respect the genius of the English language and wishes that more of the way we speak could be introduced into the poems. I think “microwaveable” is a beautiful word and deserves to be in as many poems as possible. I think there is a risk with respecting science too much when it comes to poetry, like these evolutionary ideas that I think I heard quite a lot or that were suggested in Christian’s talk or some of his answers; for example, the sense of traditional form as tied to some cycle of mass extinction then replacement by newer, better, faster forms. The sonnet for example does not grow old. It can’t—it’ s not a fixed form, it’s just a recipe of suggested ingredients open to endless interpretation, that’s the reason I can write a sonnet, and that’s the reason bp nichol can write a sonnet and that’s the reason Darren Wershler Henry can write a sonnet. We all have this shared sense of what a sonnet is, that’s the tradition, that’s what we belong to, avant-garde, experimental, non-experimental—we’re all part of the official verse culture, because we all draw on the same influences. If I can admire the word ‘microwaveable’ just like you can admire the word “microwaveable” I don’t quite see how vast the differences between us we can possibly be?
Audience member Chris Dodd: I’m wondering if we’re being too hard on both poetry and on the readership of poets? When the film, Nottingham Hill came out, the poem “Funeral Blues” was read in one of the scenes, that’s an Auden poem, and I believe that in the UK, after that film 200,000 copies of Auden’s works were sold. That’s a lot of copies of poetry and maybe it’s that we don’t have the right context and delivery for poetry to get it out there to a lot of people.
Carmine Starnino: Somebody would have to work very hard to persuade me that sales means anything when it comes to poetry. What does it matter if 200,000 people buy Christian Bök; what can it possibly mean? How does it speak to the quality, the relevance, the longevity, the possible immortality of the work? I just don’t see the connection.
Audience member Chris Dodd: I understand what you’re saying there, but at the same time one of the things that’s coming out from the discussion is that poetry is losing its relevance and losing its place in the world and I think that shows that people will read poetry when they feel it is brought to them in the right way.
Christian Bök: Well, I think that poetry is brought to people all the time. It’s just not in the context where we typically expect it. Most people, I think, get their poetic fix, say, in the average hip-hop song. Most people probably get their fix of poetry in variety of milieus, where it isn’t immediately recognized—milieus where the text they’re reading has a literary dimension to it, has a poetic dimension to it. In some respects, the job of poets is to point out these new contexts, within which you might be able to understand your experience as poetic, as actually partaking of this literary milieu. On the one hand, I might be able to say, okay, sure, sales are not a reflection perhaps of the long term merits of work within the long historical narrative of posterity, but, you know, it’s my lifetime and I would like to be able to enjoy it, and I don’t think that I’m actually willing these activities to people three hundred years from now. I doubt that even we will be the same fifty years from now, and given the kinds of dramatic changes that await us, it’s a future that we probably have to address in some intelligible way. I think that it’s important to be able to speak to the normative, local context of life in an engaging, pertinent way. When people ask me about what it means to be a relatively successful poet, I always joke that, in fact, when compared to the actual success of J.K. Rowlings, for example, or Angelina Jolie, my celebrity is very small, very miniscule, by comparison. To say “I’m a famous poet” is tantamount to saying “I’m a famous croquet player”—I murder on the Manchester Downs, perhaps you’ve heard of me? There’s a way in which only within the highly rarefied milieu of poetry would I ever enjoy any remote celebrity. And part of what contributes to that credibility is the fact that the book has enjoyed success in spite of itself. I mean, it really was written with about five hundred people in mind. I would never have expected it to go on to enjoy a public forum that’s as large as it is. And of course, it raises the stakes against which future success for me can be judged. Whatever book I write next, it will be loathed and abhorred by critics, and consequently it’s got to be pretty good. Now, I’ve got to be even more ambitious. And on one hand, I’m not worried. I’ve already done it once, and I think everybody else should be worried… What’s your next book going to do, right? Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, right? In this respect, I think is heartening to see that it is possible for a book to actually receive attention. It’s heartening to note that it’s still possible. But it’s disheartening to think that it doesn’t enjoy more attention, that it’s not possible really for a lot of poets to have the biggest imagination in the room. I became a poet, in part, because I didn’t have a shortage of imagination. It was because I wanted to be the most speculative, experimental, extravagant personality in the room, right?
Audience member Chris Dodd: I still think that‘s, perhaps, doing down poetry.
Kit Dobson: I can see we have a number of thirsty people in the room. We are going to be recessing shortly to the hall where we have both drinks and books by both of our poets on sale. I would like to invite one more question and then I suspect that we will continue this conversation in the hall.
Christian Bök: Yeah, I find that these kinds of events interfere with my drinking.
Audience member Helen Hajnoczky: While you were speaking both of you seemed rather concerned with culling the herd of poetry in both your respective genres. So, any more critical discussion to exclude more writers that we don’t think are emeritus; however, while you were speaking with the exception of Marjorie Perloff, Sina Queyras, and a couple Atwood mentions most of those writers you spoke of were men, and most from Anglo-Saxon descent and I wonder in a country like Canada that’s so founded on its cultural plurality, I wonder what the purpose is of closing both genres more? Especially with the avant-garde where you say you want more contemporary, more typical language or with traditional poetry where you want it to be more accessible…
Carmine Starnino: No, I want more contemporary language. This is a mistake. No, I don’t want… the accessibility is a red herring. I want my language to be more contemporary, harder-edged.
Audience Member Helen Hajnoczky: You did say accessibility is important to you in your writing.
Carmine Starnino: I think accessibility is important. It is not… my main motive is not to… I mean, certainly, I want to communicate with as many people as possible, I mean William Carlos Williams called poems machines made of words. And Philip Larkin pushed it further and said you know these machines provoke an insight, a sensation in the reader. My main motive is not be as successful as possible, it is, in fact, to revel in the language and if you get me that’s great. And many of the poets that I have promoted and defended and written about are by any measure, difficult. They’re not easy poets. This is why the whole idea of difficulty and accessibility and experiment is so vexing for me because it cannot be claimed just by one quarter or one half of the writing community. Those terms belong to all of us. Nor can one community claim those terms and then refuse to assess the success of what they’ve done—or lack of. So, I think I’ve gone off on a jag here. You wanted to ask another question. But I just wanted to put a stop to that. I’m not “Mr. Accessibility” and I want everyone to write these easy poems that reach as many people as possible, because that doesn’t work. This book isn’t a best seller. So accessibility isn’t working in terms of spreading the word about poetry. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Erin Mouré. She said she always get people telling her that her stuff is too difficult and her point is, “my stuff is selling better than it was before.” So, clearly, audiences are looking for something other than what is clear, what is accessible, what is easily communicable. Not that I think Christian needs any more swelling, but I think that one of the things that Eunoia has rekindled is a sense that poetry is dangerous. And I think that when you are around a poem that doesn’t quite make sense to you, or doing something really weird I think that is something that taps into people’s sense of what a poem should be. This is a sense I wanted to tap into as well, this is the sense the poets I represent want to tap into, also. There is no two communities that are separated by some sense that one is on the fringes and one is on the mainstream in the middle of it all. We represent different edges of that fringe. This is the point I wanted to make. But, you are also asking questions, sorry, about the lack of diversity in Canadian poetry in terms of the critics and reviewers and the poets. Was that your question?
Audience Member Helen Hajnoczky: Yes, and with how with such a concern about further narrowing our attention who you hope to exclude?
Carmine Starnino: Oh boy, I don’t want to exclude anybody. It’s not my fault they write bad poems. It’s not my fault they write bad poems. You know, celebrating poetry means celebrating the rarity of it, the scarcity of it. So that is a truth that has to be acknowledged, in any creative act people fail. It’s a human truth. So you can’t ignore it because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. But as for the lack of diversity, this is a problem. This isn’t only a problem from the editorial perspective; Why aren’t we publishing more women; Why aren’t we letting more women into editorial positions? There are lots of women in editorial positions, Anita Lahey at ARC, for example. There are lots of other women in editorial positions and writing criticism as well. Linda Besner is a young poet, I think, who writes great criticism. Sina [Queyres] is one example as well and there are others. The dearth of critical vocabulary makes it difficult, I think, as well to talk about these poets and the work they are doing. I know there is great frustration in the native communities because the work is locked up in anthologies or taught in classrooms but really not more is done to circulate the poetry. I certainly think more can be done. But, I also think these communities should be more self-motivated. I think that if something is happening that you are not pleased about you should make it a point to mix it up and change things. And I think that the internet makes it extremely possible to have a voice now. There is a meritocracy on the internet. I think with the number of blogs out there only the best and most interesting are being read now. So, I don’t want to exclude anybody. I don’t want to push anyone to the side, you know, but if they get in my way what am I supposed to do. I don’t know if that answers your question. I think, when I was editing Books in Canada I had a hard time inviting woman poets to review, this is the truth, my first commission, I always commissioned a woman poet first for any book and invariably they would turn it down. I don’t know what that says about the fear of being critical towards a book or the risk of being in a position having to say something negative. But it was extremely hard to encourage female poets to write reviews and be a part of the critical debate. So, I think there is something sociological at work, a self-exclusion. So to speak, that’s happening in that community. I’d love to see more women writing reviews. I think there is something missing from the critical debate without those voices. But, we can’t will them into existence and no one is excluding them as far as I know.
Christian Bök: I understand how pointed your question is, right? It’s designed, of course, to suggest the degree to which, in history, the avant-garde, of course, has been quite negligent—right?— in its support for female practitioners. To its discredit. Certainly that has been the case among the militant avant-garde who thought there was only one avenue of exploration into the future. And certainly the practice of women has been ignored, I think, by posterity and response to such movements. However, there’s certainly been, since, say, the late sixties, a concerted effort to make redress and to pay more attention to feminist literary practices. Avant-garde poets who immediately come to mind, of course, are the Quebecois feminist writers whom we all appreciate, including the likes of Nicole Brossard or Erin Mouré. In my own school of writing, among the Conceptual Poets—I must admit that it was pretty much started by three guys in the basement of a bar in SUNY Buffalo. But, of course, nobody at the time sat there thinking we would become our own political party and that we would, therefore, require a diverse representation of voices, right? We just thought we were making a little fire-truck in the sandbox of our own design. But you know, when the toy becomes sufficiently attractive to other players, then of course you have to make room— right?— for other people to participate. I think that’s, you know, what most of us are inclined to do, right? We want more participants. We would love to be able to expand the purview of our reach into the lives of others, right? As diverse an audience as possible. And now those people might include the likes of Caroline Bergvall, Vanessa Place, or Kim Rosenfield among others. Of course, there’s a long history of redress, and the avant-garde participates within that history. In fact, I would suggest that its two motivations are, on the one hand, boredom, and on the other hand, redress. And among the kinds of redress that are necessary are those politically marginal voices that wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to speak. And they, of course, are speaking in a kind discourse that may not be recognised by the dominant ideology. Now, I suppose that if I have any “exclusionary” rhetoric to my own language, it’s about the degree to which the normative forms of writing in Canadian poetry seem to have naturalized themselves becoming the homogenized form of taste, to which everything else has to conform. Certainly that’s true of granting agencies and awarding agencies. Prizes make it difficult for people to, actually, depart from an otherwise constrained set of normative practices. And I would like to think that experimental poetry makes it possible for a diverse variety of identities to consider throwing their hat in the ring, to participate, because there’s, at least, permission granted by these experiments in advance.
Kit Dobson: I would like to grant us all permission to repair now to the outside.
Christian Bök: Yes, please. Thank you for your indulgence and I appreciate your intention.