Tuesday, June 2, 2009


There's an incisively critical review of the Rocksalt anthology up at The Danforth Review (which, sadly, will be closing shop indefinitely). The review's by Catherine Owen and is written from the perspective of someone arbitrarily excluded from the book because she'd moved to Alberta from her home province of BC a couple of years previously. She mentions me as a contributor who benefitted from the eligibility criteria, since I'd moved to BC shortly after she'd moved away. The argument is, and I think it's totally legitimate, that she has more business being in the book than I do. She does go on to say that my poem is one of the strongest in the anthology, and I'm one of the 33 contributors--by her count--whose poem is squarely located in a specific BC locale. Catherine thinks this is how the book should be oriented, but I'm not so sure. Tilting an anthology towards site-specific poems usually results in a) a lot of second-rate poems being included because they're thematically appropriate (tho, as she points out, insisting on new, unpublished poems is at least as likely to dilute the brew) and b) an overall picture of the culture of a place that is misleadingly provincial because it excludes poets who don't give a hoot about birds, bears, mountains or forests.

Speaking from the anthologist's side of the fence, I sympathise with the editors because some kind of arbitrary criteria simply have to imposed if you're going to make your job a manageable one. Figuring out what those criteria are--and how flexible you're going to be about them--is a crucial task, on which the aesthetic success or failure of the anthology depends. My anthology had one very obvious pre-set limit: each poem had to be a sonnet. This is trickier than it might seem at a glance, since the sonnet in the 21st century is not necessarily a 14-line poem in a set rhyme scheme (nor has it been in past centuries, but the exceptions to the rule are far more normal now than when Milton was caudating or Hopkins was curtailing). A second limit I set myself was that all the poems had to have been published in book form--essentially the opposite of the Rocksalt rule. Rhenisch and Fertig didn't want to deal with permissions, I didn't want to deal with an open call; in retrospect, sifting thru a pile of submissions would have been much easier than the countless hours I spent spelunking in the Special Collections at the Killam Library, but I highly doubt I'd have received many, if any, poems to supercede those I'd found in my digs. So the work would have been easier, but the yield much lower; I think Catherine's right to criticize the Rocksalt editors on that score.

I did exercise my judgment in making a few exceptions to the book-published rule, pace the criticism of Sarah Neville that I ignored literary journals; for example, I included Catherine Owen's collaboration with Joe Rosenblatt, which I first encountered in an issue of Prairie Fire, before they had secured a deal for the book in which it now appears. As far as nationality goes, a number of the poets in the book are ambiguously--or perhaps amphibiously--Canadian. My rule on this was to err on the side of inclusiveness, which Owen is--correctly, I think--arguing Rhenisch and Fertig should have. As readers of Jailbreaks are aware, I was frustrated by the close-minded refusal of Elizabeth Bishop's publisher to let me consider her as a Canadian poet.

It's hard to imagine editors of a PEI anthology excluding me or, say, Steve McOrmond or David Hickey on the basis of present-day non-residence; this would be no more reasonable than excluding Richard Lemm for being born in the US or John Smith, PEI's former laureate, because he's from Ontario. I think maybe British Columbians take it more for granted that if someone has defected from their most sublime of provinces, it's because they don't want to be there--instead of because it's a prohibitively expensive place to live, especially if you prefer the sort of lifestyle most writers do.


peter darbyshire said...

I don't know how anyone can afford to live in B.C.

The strange thing is most people I know in Vancouver think it's more expensive — and more dangerous — in other Canadian cities.

People need to travel more, I guess.

Zachariah Wells said...

I think you can file it under "reduction of cognitive dissonance," Peter. Call it the Pangloss effect.

Finn Harvor said...

That's a pity-cum-drag about the closing of The Danforth Review..... Here's to hoping that more Cdn lit magazines will take up the challenge of going online.

(Speaking of reduction of cognitive dissonance, btw, I remember viewing when I was still back home promotional TV show thingies about the degree to which Canada was in the forefront of communications technology. Well, these days perhaps Canada is in the forefront of *Canadian* communications technology. But it's lagging in terms of the online scene internationally. Not saying this as a chastisement; just hoping to see more CanCon on the net.)

daniela elza said...

Yes, Zack,
good point about the site-specific. And we can all agree that putting together anthologies is a tricky job, which someone has to do.

Hmmm. Out of the 13 paragraphs of this "review", half are about the grievances the reviewer has for not being in the book, sprinkled with some self-promotion for good measure. Talking about blind spots. The reviewer brings assumptions and conditions to the book that were never set in the first place. And in the intro to the anthology the editors bare the considerations that went into the unthemed volume.

It is an interesting issue that she raises, but this may not have been the place to go on and at length about it, considering that the center of attention of a review is not the reviewer but the book under review. Maybe it would have been better saved for a paper on a panel somewhere.

Oh, and I really wanted to be in that "Writing the Land: Alberta through its Poets" because I did travel there, and I did write some neat poems about it, and I felt deeply connected to the land. So much so, that I want to keep going back. But darn, I guess I am not Alberta's poet. Or am I? From the sound of it I am not even a BC poet.

Oh, and "Rhenisch" is misspelled at the beginning of the 6th paragraph.