Friday, October 3, 2008

Some commentary around the subject of Jailbreaks...

...without actually mentioning the book by name.

Sina Queyras seems to have gone out of her way to avoid explicitly identifying Jailbreaks and its editor. I expect this is because Ms. Q. sees yours truly as a retrograde force in contemporary poetry. It may also have something to do with the fact that I published a review, by James Pollock, of Ms. Q.'s own anthology, Open Field, that was highly critical of the book's lack of editorial direction and apparently arbitrary selection criteria. Ms. Q. clearly found said review "bothersome." (I don't always agree with the arguments in the reviews I publish, but in this case, I think James very precisely nailed down the faults of Open Field.) I'll be charitable, and assume that Ms. Q.'s handling of Jailbreaks as tho it were someone else's soiled snotrag has nothing to do with my exclusion of the sonnet she published in her book Teethmarks.

Leaving her possible motivations aside, it is far from clear--as one correspondent said to me today--that Ms. Q. has actually read Jailbreaks. If she had, she might have acknowledged that "The form has been part of poetry fairly consistently since its arrival on the scene" is an argument I make in the introduction to JB: "Contrary to what one might think about Canadian poetry, the sonnet never went away." She does make reference to JB being "a beautiful book," so presumably she's at least seen it, but she seems to rely on Barbara Carey's review in her characterisation of the book as "backward looking." As I pointed out in my post linking to Ms. Carey's review, saying that the book relies heavily on the old and dead is factually inaccurate. As both Alex Good and Brian Campbell have observed in their reviews of Jailbreaks, it errs heavily towards the present, if anything. Further, Ms. Q. misrepresents Ms. Carey's observation as a response to "the sameness of the selection." It should be manifestly clear to anyone reading Ms. Carey's review that this is not what was meant. But it is the only significant qualm voiced in any of the reviews of Jailbreaks, so one can hardly blame Ms. Q. for trying to exploit it for all it's worth, and then some.

Ms. Q. then goes on to pose a couple of rhetorical questions (a favourite device of hers, conveniently saving her the trouble of coming up with anything resembling an answer): "but does it really represent either Canadian poetry or contemporary sonnets? The dynamic range of voices Canada offers in the sonnet form as other forms and formal investigations?" The answer to the first question is "no, it doesn't." Furthermore, it doesn't care to, nor does it pretend to. Frankly, it's a goddamn stupid--or at least bogglingly naive, especially coming from someone who has edited an anthology--question to ask, because no anthology can be representative of something so vastly amorphous as the poetry of an entire nation, even one as relatively small and young as Canada's. A better question to ask--and one that can more reasonably be answered--is: is this a good selection? If not, what has been included that shouldn't be? What left out? But these are questions that require work to answer adequately. The answer to the second question is, in my very biased opinion--and in the opinion of most of the book's reviewers, not to mention its contributors--is, I think it does a pretty good job showcasing a range of different approaches to this most protean form. It seems that Ms. Q. is objecting that I've left out some of the more soi-disant experimental poets. She mentions in her post Steve McCaffrey and BP Nichol. The Reality Street Book of Sonnets also includes work by Christian Bok and Jay Millar. None of these writers appears in JB. Intentionally so. Why? A couple of reasons. In the cases of Bok, Millar and McCaffrey, I didn't feel their work was a genuine engagement with the sonnet form. Millar has written a number of poems he calls sonnets, but the only real resemblance to the form is brevity. McCaffrey's poems are more deconstructions of sonnets than sonnets themselves. A suspicion to the form is a very healthy thing--a number of the poems in JB quarrel with the very idea of writing sonnets--but a hostility to it is merely jejune. As for Nichol, the only sonnet I came across was, far from being too out-there, dully conventional in its prosody. As for Seymour Mayne's word sonnet, quoted by Ms. Q., I have one word: haiku. It's even 17 syllables. The gimmick of 14 words doesn't make it remotely sonnet-like, tho I do think it's quite a lovely haiku. Ultimately, I excluded the poems Ms. Q. would have had me include for the same reasons I excluded many, many others: I found them either less interesting than the ones I kept, or I didn't find them to be sufficiently true to the spirit of the sonnet form, as such. Playing "fast and loose with the rules," as Brian Campbell says many contributors do, is one thing; ignoring them altogether or trying to re-invent them from the ground up is another. In editing the ms., the commentaries I wrote on each poem helped shape the final roster; if I couldn't come up with something interesting to say about a poem, it got cut. This helped me sort out the merely competent from the exceptionally praiseworthy, an important means of combatting what Carmine Starnino has called "anthology fatigue."

Ms. Q. goes on to say: "Fine to edit an anthology of poems of any kind, but "Canadian sonnets" conjures up a nationalistic gesture where clearly there isn't one." Actually, if one looks at EA Lacey's series "Canadian Sonnets," one of which is included in JB, as the precedent for the titular phrase, it conjures up no such thing, since there have been few poems written more damning of Canada. Otherwise, the phrase is merely descriptive shorthand for "sonnets written by Canadian authors."

"In the end," writes Ms. Q., "it's an argument (one you can appreciate or not), rather than a resource. Unless one wants to teach only one way of looking at a sonnet." In response to the first sentence, this is a book I put together for readers in general, not for teachers and students in particular. And yes, it is an argument. Quite a strong one, if I say so myself. In response to the second sentence, this is more than a little like looking at 99 Chinese people and saying they all look the same. There are 100 poets represented in JB and scarcely any two poems follow the same stanzaic structure, never mind content, rhythm, diction and all the other techniques that set each apart from the others. What an incredibly prejudiced, dismissive statement this is. Is there formal unity to the collection? Yes, there is. But there's incredible diversity within it. You don't have to take my word for it.


Matt said...


John Mutford said...

Clearly she hasn't even read the title.

"99 Canadian Sonnets"

Why even ask if "it really represent[s] either Canadian poetry or contemporary sonnets?" It's not called "99 Canadian Poems" or "99 Contemporary Sonnets."