This week's featured books explore what it means to be creative. These collections break the rules, rewrite their own ideas, and even question their own existence. Most importantly, they do what poetry does best by twisting and avoiding what some of the best poetry has done.
Our Days in Vaudeville
Our Days in Vaudeville makes for the perfect transition from last week’s Snapshots because of its emphasis on collaboration. The poetry collection is comprised of collaborative poems by Stuart Ross and 29 other poets (both old and new) who have paired up with him over the years. Ross’ voice is always present, but sometimes it blurs together with that of his collaborators. Sometimes the pieces are conversational, sometimes almost contradictory, and other times completely unified. Our Days in Vaudeville is a fascinating experiment in constraints and, as rob mclennan argues in his review of the book, it puts collaboration up there with what can be considered more “serious literature” (however that might be defined.) Our Days in Vaudeville is funny and creative; it breaks the rules and our prescribed ideas the way poetry does best. As Ross says in his collaboration with Gary Barwin, “do not list me / i wish to remain unlisted / listless.” Our days in Vaudeville finds the poetry between the poets: “First I caress me, then you, / then all that space / between the clouds” (with Jay MillAr.)
Old Hat is the sort of poetry collection we might refer to as “serious literature” because of its strong roots in poetic history and its brilliant use of clichéd forms to create an original statement. That being said, if Rob Winger heard us, he would probably disagree. As he said in his interview with The Toronto Quarterly “what [he] admire[s] least about criticism[…] is seeking affirmation for some limited concept of what a poem is, what work can do, what languages it can speak and why, then judging any particular poem according to such pre-determined criteria.” Old Hat, like Our Days in Vaudeville, resists lists by deliberately deconstructing the familiar, the accepted, and the everyday: “Every time I ride my bike into town, / the sky presents itself in mystery-novel prose.” Winger ironically sets up our expectations when he begins his poem “Re/covering Champlain Trails” with the line, “all poems must include the following”, before refusing his own advice: “screw blueprints, we say, going off the board.” Old Hat is both self-referential and self-aware, taking into its hands the curious relation between originality in relation to its originals: “Through the window, / the fictional world takes stock, / I haven’t built it any more than you have.”
Rua Da Felicidade
New Star Books
Ken Norris’ Rua Da Felicidade is a lonesome travelogue that explores loss, place, and poetic form. As Norris writes about his past experiences, he finds himself trapped in his writing, in sentimentalism and nostalgia, regurgitating clichés. But his awareness is what makes this collection shine: “We were always at our best / when we were pushing against the form.” He addresses the ever complicatedness of form, “even now, I keep on / tangling with these wires”, and fights against it, “when we pushed against the form / it pushed back. So we pushed / again and again / until it yielded.” Rua Da Felicidade is a formal and thematic battle against (and growing understanding of) a postmodern world. Like Stuart Ross’ collaborations, we hear the voices of the many, as opposed to just the one. And all of them are shouting out for creation.
This week's Snapshots feature a wide array of poetry. For those of you who don't know which poet to read next, the following collections will either be your saving grace or your worst nightmare. But don't get weighed down; let these voices wash over you and drift off with all of their poetic possibilities. There is something here for everyone.
The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014
House of Anansi Press
This anthology provides a sampling of poetry from the 2014 shortlists for The Griffin Poetry Prize. The Griffin Poetry Prize is awarded each year to the most outstanding volumes of poetry (published both internationally and in Canada) and recognizes works written in English as well as translations. This year's anthology features international writers such as Rachael Boast, Brenda Hillman, Carl Phillips and Tomasz Różycki, as well as Canadian writers Anne Carson, Sue Goyette and Anne Michaels. Before each poetry sample, editor Robert Bringhurst has included the judges' citations as an introduction. The anthology is a wonderful read if you don't know which Griffin Prize finalist to start with, but unfortunately many of the shortlisted collections lose power in being removed from their original context. Robert Bringhurst brings up this issue in his introduction, but the question remains open to the reader: is this something worth anthologizing or is it better to read the books independent from one another?
Theseus: A Collaboration
Unlike The Griffin Poetry Prize 2014 Anthology and Force Field, Theseus is not an anthology, however it does feature the voices of more than one writer. Theseus tells a story through its creation as well as its narrative. Writing began in the autumn of 1966 and it took bpNichol and Wayne Clifford more than twenty years to write the first two parts of the work. It wasn't completed until after Nichol's death, when Clifford added Part Three using elements of Nichol's Martyrology, as a means of tribute, eulogy, acceptance and lie. It's a fascinating read, in the way the two voices play off each other and how it allows Nichol's writing to live on beyond him: "voice doubled,/ a man & a woman/ speaking years apart/ We speak her speaking of his heart."
Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia
Force Field introduces itself as the first anthology of BC women poets in 34 years. It features four poems from seventy-seven different women poets who currently live and write in British Columbia. Each poet is introduced with a photo and a bio which offers some context for the readers. Edited by British Columbian poet and children's writer Susan Musgrave, the anthology does a wonderful job of providing readers with an easily accessible sampling of writing by BC women. By bringing these poets together like this, one can only hope that Musgrave is making their work more accessible and recognizable to the world. However, as Heather Jessup asks in her review for The Malahat Review, does classifying poetry as "women's poetry" make us more aware of women or does it further the gender divide?
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This week's Snapshots focus on books that tie the world up in knots. Whether writing about our cultural roots, global dilemmas, or the fluency of Lake Ontario, all three of these authors illustrate a beautiful subjectivity of being. The more complex your readings become, the more coherent the poetry seems.
Jennica Harper's Wood plays with pop culture and parenthood. Divided into six different sections, Wood explores the feminist struggle of Mad Men's Sally Draper, the boyhood temptations that Pinocchio faces, and the illustration of a father as seen through comparisons to famous male celebrities. Harper approaches the topic of romanticism by deconstructing the romance of popular culture and addresses the issues of modern communication by acknowledging the double standards they enforce: "I hear what you're saying. / But not what you're meaning." In Wood everything comes back to our roots, whether familial, cultural or societal, the past is intertwined to create a poetic representation of the complexity and multiplicity of identity: "We are older now. Have / filled our skins. / Have filled our lives with / others' lives, and living."
New Star Books
Sybil Unrest was originally released in 2008 by LINEBooks but was recently re-released by New Star Books. Despite its older original release day, the collection still feels modern due to its avant-garde and subjective examination of humanity as a global species. Lai and Wong reappropriate 20th century Steinian wordplay in order to create a new poetic language of the 21st century, one with a strong feminist voice and sharp personal-political edge: "the fearsome chasm / spasms / vengeance / of the dispossessed / flash angry breasts / fossil fuels erotic offer / venous on the half shell."
Arguments with the Lake
Wolsak & Wynn
Tanis Rideout's Arguments with the Lake tells the story of two teen swimmers, Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell, who try to conquer Lake Ontario. The water becomes a metaphor for the fluency of events and relationships, as well as the way in which our actions affect every other: "always turning, clockwise. By love, by sex. By want. So simple to be a fish. / I'm always giving it away. With each stroke, flutter, catch kick and the surging need to inhale, inhale, like I've never taken a breath before." Arguments with the Lake is a coming of age story with a similar feminist edge to Wood and Sybil Unrest: "She says nothing. Just as she's told. Just smiles." Rideout's poetry illustrates the painful limitations of the human body by focalizing on the beauty and trauma of failure: "O, the lake. The only thing that kept me afloat / was what I thought was on the other side."
Looking for some quick Summer reads? Check out our free poetry eBook samplers.