Some Writing in Some of Our Time

Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy. Writing in Our Time: Canada’s Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003). Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005. 296pp.

Conceptually, Writing in our Time: Canada’s Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003) is a major event–a book which sets out to identify and contextualize Canada’s radical poetries of the last five decades, explore their interactions, and detail their relationships to Canada’s social imaginary. For by radical poetry “of our time” authors Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy don’t mean merely clever ‘experimental’ poetry but poetry whose innovations have been rooted in the local and communal social and political processes of that time–that is “our” time in contrast to media time, award-jury time, or academic anthologists’ time. A revealing moment in this meaning occurs when Butling is recounting Gary Geddes’ lame explanation for having dropped bpNichol’s concrete poems from the third edition of his anthology 20th Century Poetry & Poetics because “the poetic groups and movements of this century now seemed [to him] less important than the brilliance and performance of their best practitioners.” Butling comments, “He privileges individual taste and individual performance over community activity and historical context. His message is that if concrete poetry doesn’t fit with current “taste” (i.e. the normative) and/or it can’t be commoditized as individual production, forget it” (74).

Butling’s dismissal of the normative and her suspicion of idealizable individual achievement help create a book that focusses largely on writers that mainstream readers will have heard little of, and that implies that these writers of radical and oppositional poetries will be the ones who are ultimately remembered and culturally determinative rather than those currently celebrated. Although Butling and Rudy in their preface say that “they make no claim to comprehensiveness in the selection of poets,” their omissions can nevertheless signify. For example, when including House of Anansi in their “Chronology” list of significant sites that supported poetic innovation in Canada between 1957 and 1979, they describe Anansi as the press that published poetry by “Christopher Dewdney, Dennis Cooley, and Erin Mouré,” and not as the one that published poetry by Dennis Lee, Margaret [page 120] Atwood, Al Purdy and Michael Ondaatje. (Later Butling singles out Atwood and Purdy in a footnote as 1960s poets who are non-radical because they “have a … unified lyric self and use language to reflect or aestheticize rather than focus on how language constructs…” [101].) They omit from their list altogether Press Porcépic, founded 1973, and publisher of Eldon Garnet’s arguably radical anthology Where: the Other Canadian Poetry (1974), of my From There to Here: a Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960 (1974), and of my The Abbotsford Guide to India (1986)–possibly because Porcépic also published Tim Inkster, Marilyn Bowering, Doug Fetherling, Kristjana Gunnars, James Reaney, Eli Mandel, George Grant, and Harold Innis?

In short, Writing in Our Time is conceptually a salutary critical venture, one that offers to redress the attention which the mundane and individualist ‘mainstream’ Canadian poetries have received in this period in academic anthologies, jury short-lists, League of Canadian Poets promotions, and media journalism. But is it an achievable concept? I described the book a few days ago to a young critic, and she asked eagerly “What do they have to say about Anne Carson, Lynn Crosbie, George Elliott Clarke, Christian Bök?”

“Nothing. Maybe they read them as individualist,” I suggested, “and thus not radical” (I was relieved she hadn’t asked about Stu Ross, or McCaffery, or Lola Tostevin). She raised her eyebrows.
“Well, most of the writers they discuss are from the West,” I ventured, “Bowering, Wah, myself, Marlatt, Kroetsch, Kiyooka, Nichol, Derksen, Blaser, Rita Wong, Claire Harris, Lisa Robertson….”
“Do they talk about any writers from the East?” she interrupted.
“Erin Mouré,” I said. “And how about Kroetsch?–Winnipeg’s pretty far east.”
“Is this payback for Northrop Frye?” she asked, “for his defining Canada as Ontario?” I shrugged….
“How many pages is it?” she asked.
“About 250, plus bibliography.”

And indeed, it is a relatively small book, especially in view of its ambitious title. But again, would a book fully appropriate to the title have been achievable–even if multi-authored rather than co-authored? The approach Butling and Rudy take requires them to locate each writer within the local cultural fields from which they emerge and which they in turn influence. In the most successful chapters–Butling’s “TISH: ‘The Problem of Margins,’” “bpNichol and a Gift Economy,” “Poetry and Landscape,” and [page 121] “Who Is She”–this approach results in persuasive arguments about what constitutes radicality and cultural significance in poetry. But it requires numerous historical details, which Butling in the case of the western Canadian writers usually has access to from her own experience. Her details about Eastern Canada, however, can be inaccurate, as when she states that Stan Bevington established Coach House Printing as a “specialty print shop” after Coach House Press had shifted “away from its original mandate” in the 1990s (253); Bevington has operated the commercial printing company Coach House Printing since the 1960s.

Butling and Rudy’s co-authoring of the book is consistent with their emphasis on community and cooperation and dislike of individualism and homogeneity. But Writing in Our Time is indeed co-authored, not co-written. They divide their book into two halves, one on poetries from 1957-1979 and one on poetries from 1980-2003. Nine of the book’s sixteen chapters are written by Butling and six by Rudy, in very different styles. Butling writes colloquially and in the first person, often inserting anecdotes about experiences she shared with the writers, repeatedly foregrounding the relationships–both conflicted and interested–that she has had with them. She emphasizes throughout her chapters her gender specificity, how that has often marginalized her as an potential agent of literary/cultural change, and how it has led her intuitively to identify more with women writers and with racialized and homosexual writers of both sexes than with the white male lower-class heterosexual writers with whom she has most closely associated. She devotes an entire chapter, “Who Is She,” to her personal experiences of masculinized literary norms. Although she writes most of her chapters for the 1957-79 half of the book, and writes most passionately about that period, she declares that her preference is for the poetries discussed in the 1980-2003 half. Rudy writes more formally, in sober academic language, usually refers to herself as “we,” and on at least one occasion as the impersonal “one” (214). She contributes four of her seven chapters to the second half, and in her three 1957-1979 chapters discusses mostly writing from after 1980.

It is Butling who develops the arguments that the radical poetries the two critics are addressing “produced systemic change that created the conditions whereby ‘new’ subjects could emerge” (32), that these poetries were parts of “radical poetics networks” (61), that they have helped create “seismic shifts in critical discourse” (72), that they are variously “a counter-discourse about structural discrimination,” “community-building,” “coalitional” and non-individualistic (235), and that they constitute “social intervention that contributes to cultural transformation” (237). [page 122] Rudy shows little interest in such cultural theorizations. Each of her seven chapters addresses an individual writer: Nicole Brossard, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Claire Harris, Jeff Derksen, Erin Mouré, and Lisa Robertson. She makes very little mention of coalitional poetics, and little attempt to connect what are for the most part excellent close readings to Butling’s cultural proposals. To some extent, Rudy’s emphasis on these poets’ achievements–“Robertson’s The Weather is another superb example” (226); “Mouré has posed increasingly complicated challenges to herself as a writer” (203)–subverts Butling’s arguments against assigning high value to spectacular individual production.

For me, Writing in Our Time is an instance in which collaboration doesn’t work. Butling and Rudy bring to the book different but incompatible strengths. However, a reader can read the Butling chapters consecutively as a single, provocative, and well-argued Marxist feminist book–one that does as much to open some radical Canadian poetries to an audience as Marjorie Perloff’s book’s have done for some similar American poetries. Then a reader can return–as I did–to the Rudy chapters and read them as constituting a small book that is not concerned with radical Canadian poetries, but with seven radical contemporary Canadian poets. Both ‘books’ are extremely useful, although Butling’s usefulness in (some would say ‘sacrilegiously’) destabilizing assumptions of value in contemporary Canadian poetry is for me the greater. Moreover the various components of all of the individual chapters–the cultural arguments about poetry, the histories of particular groups, magazines, or events, and the readings of various texts–are extremely well done.

Nevertheless, I wish both authors had–separately or together–attempted more. I too would like to read (like the person I mentioned earlier) how Butling and Rudy view the poetries of Crosbie, Bök, Carson, Nourbese Philip, and George Elliott Clarke, plus perhaps those of jwcurrie, McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Toronto’s ‘Queen Street’ writing communities, Tostevin, Jason Dewinetz…. Another gap in the book that I’d have liked to have seen addressed occurs in Butling and Rudy’s readings of the poets who began writing in they call the 1957-1979 period–something I will try to get back to.

But to get there I will first have to detour through Butling’s first chapter, “(Re)Defining Radical Poetics,” in which she takes on the perplexed question of what to call poetries that use formal innovation in order to be culturally revisionary–poetries which at the beginning of the twentieth century were termed “avant garde”–and tries to rationalize her choice of the term “radical.” She spends several pages here trying to discredit “avant [page 123] garde”–implying that it was in serious use in the 1960s among the writers she is discussing (my recollection is that it was at best used in default of another term, or perhaps sous rature), and that it wasn’t discarded until the 1980s and 1990s and the arrival of racially conscious, feminist, and lesbian writing–“[b]y the 1980s and ’90s then,” Butling writes, “radicality could no longer be adequately described within the discourse of avant-gardism” (26). This critique of ‘avant-garde’ is part of a narrative Butling is creating in which the TISH-group and other writers of the 1960s and 70s are radical in terms of class and form, but not in terms of gender, race, sexuality, or ethnicity and thus not in terms of her overall conceptualizing of the radical.

‘Avant-garde,’ however, was criticized almost as soon the term came into use in the 1890s, by Baudelaire in mockingly ironic terms for its militarism, and near the end of the modernist period by Wyndham Lewis (in his The Demon of Progress in the Arts, 1954) for its complicity with commercial novelty. The Black Mountain writers known to the TISH group in the 1960s had tended to replace “avant garde” with “the open” or “the outside” (the very idea of an avant-garde linear advance is difficult within Olson and Duncan’s field theories of culture). The model for creativity in my From There to Here in 1974 was, as Butling notes in her second chapter (31-2), one of simultaneous multiples rather than of linear progress.1 Nichol in the 1970s disliked the term “experimental” as well as “avant-garde”–preferring as early as 1974 to use the term “research.” (Butling mentions this concept of Nichol’s obliquely (32) but does not connect it to her history of ‘avant-garde’). So against exactly whose Canadian usage of ‘avant-garde’ Butling is making her arguably belated argument is not clear. She mentions the usages of Ray Souster, and several recent U.S. anthologists and critics, before going on to praise Fred Wah’s use of “Re” in his 1995 essay “Poetics of the Potent” for countering “the single line and forward thrust of avant-gardism” (21). Perhaps ‘avant-garde’ persisted in her time and local community until 1995 (I find that hard to believe) but not in bpNichol’s and not in mine. It seems more likely that she believed she needed the term as a ‘straw man’ to underpin her distinguishing of different 1970s and 1980s poetries.

This vague implication that avant-gardism was not repudiated in radical Canadian poetry until the 1980s or 90s–“[b]y the 1980s and ’90s then, radicality could no longer be adequately described within the discourse of avant-gardism,” Butling writes (26)–is part of a general strategy in Writing in Our Time of dealing only partially with most of the poets who began writing in the 1960s and 70s. The book gives the impression that for the most part the 1960s poets stopped writing in the early 1970s, or at least [page 124] stopped writing ‘radically.’ The most recent George Bowering book discussed is Rocky Mountain Foot of 1968. The most recent book of mine is The Clallam, 1973. The most recent Roy Kiyooka book quoted is Kyoto Airs of 1964. Nichol is presented mainly through his theory and his editing and his pioneering concrete and sound poetry work of the 1960s and 70s. The major exceptions are Daphne Marlatt, who is presented as having two radical careers, one in the 1970s (chapter 6) through a phenomenological poetics of place, and another since the mid 1980s (in chapter 12) through a writing “in lesbian,” and Fred Wah, who is presented by Rudy as writing a radical poetry of “suspended signification” (104) in the 1970s and that of a “racialized, hybrid subject” (105) in the 1980s and 90s. Another exception is Robert Kroetsch, whose early poems are scarcely mentioned, and who is discussed mainly through his The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001). One impression that this creates is that the 1960s and more recent poets have not been contemporaries–that the Language poets of the 1980s did not influence some of the TISH poets, or that the later discourses of racialization, sexuality, and postcoloniality did not also become part of the fields, and the formal/ethical challenges, of most of the poets the book considers. Another impression that it creates is of temporal linearity–TISH and the 1960s are succeeded by bpNichol, sound poetry, concrete, and early deconstruction, who are in turn succeeded by racialized, feminist, sexuality-inflected, and Language poetries. TISH, the 1960s, Nichol and Kroetsch in fact are addressed only in the “1957-79” half of the book; racialized, feminist, sexuality-inflected, and Language poetries in the “1980-2003” half. It’s hard not to see the shadow here of Lewis’s “demon of progress,” or a move by Butling not only to define but also to narrowly assign radicality.

So this second gap that I wish Butling and Rudy had addressed is the impact that the developing discourses of racialization, gender, sexuality, and postcoloniality had on the poets of their communities who did not have an obvious personal stake–unlike Wah, Marlatt, Mouré, and Wong–in such discourses. I think there is evidence–much of it provided indirectly by Butling and Rudy here in what they mention in their “Chronology” lists–that writers such as Bowering, Kroetsch, Nichol, Kiyooka, and myself remained part of these communities and their evolving discourses. Are Bowering’s 1980s novels with their aboriginal characters, or the title character of his novel Caprice, parts of such shifting discursive currents? Nichol’s prose poem “The Vagina” in his Organ Music? His critiques of conventional masculinity in the songs of his musical Group? (I could of course mention other works such as The Abbotsford Guide to India, Popular Narratives, and Cultural Mischief, but I won’t.) And then there is Roy [page 125] Kiyooka’s 1987 book Pear Tree Pomes–a direct engagement with changing discourses of female sexuality.

One missed opportunity to explore such a response to changing discursive and cultural practices occurs in Susan Rudy’s chapter “‘The Desperate Love Story That Poetry Is,’” on Robert Kroetsch’s 2001 The Hornbooks of Rita K. This chapter is located by Butling and Rudy in the 1957-79 half of the book despite its focus on a text written in the 1990s. However, Kroetsch’s highly influential poetry of the 1970s–The Ledger, Seed Catalogue–are not discussed, and so whether or not Butling and Rudy consider it radically communal or community-building a reader never learns. Rudy’s reading of The Hornbooks is dutifully explicatory, and explores at some length how the book, in which Kroetsch invents a woman poet who has the same initials as he does, constitutes an attempt by him “to imagine himself otherwise ... as a poet who was not just a man” (115). But Rudy makes no attempt to link this fascinating gambit to the cultural issues with which she and Butling have framed Writing in Our Time overall. What, for example, is the significance of a male poet’s inventing and assuming the voice of a woman poet during a period in which ‘appropriation of voice’ has become a major literary/cultural issue? What is the significance of a male poet’s wishing to “imagine himself otherwise” in terms of gender in a period in which women’s writing is arguably attracting more critical attention than that of men? The Hornbook poems, in which Rita K. travels and becomes lost in the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, and in which her lover and editor, Raymond K (a second ‘RK’ persona in the poems), waits for her in her ranch house, re-inscribe in reverse the “horse/house” binary of Kroetsch’s well-known 1970s essay “Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction,” as well as the Hazard LePage/Martha Proudfoot relationship of his 1969 novel The Studhorse Man. What does his reversal of a stereotypical gender binary he has employed before say about the impact of feminism on Kroetsch between the 1970s and 2001? Is his imagining of a writing female alter ego, and a non-writing male alter ego, radical in its seeming to de-privilege masculinity, or is it defensive in its seeming to be an attempt by a male writer to affiliate himself with the newly self-empowered? This a question that has already been raised in another context about Kroetsch by Lynette Hunter in her widely known essay-performance “Can a Man Be a Woman?: Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer” (which Rudy would have seen in Strasbourg in 1994 and Calgary in 1995). One of the strengths of Writing in Our Time is that it implicitly raises such questions and encourages readers to ask them. But it will also cause some readers, myself at least, to wish it had addressed more of them, and more consistently. [page 126]

Butling and Rudy do not openly develop a rationale for the 1957-78/1980-2003 structure of their book apart from their opening disclaimer of comprehensiveness and a statement that they have responded to the “urgencies” in texts (presumably there are more urgencies for them in the earlier than the later work of some writers). Butling, however, does make this extended comment after her long analysis of the innovations of the TISH poets.

     But that’s not the whole story. If we follow the TISH group into the 1970s, we discover that within ten years from the start of the magazine, they had all published at least a couple of books, had acquired significant cultural capital as the exemplars of cutting-edge, radical poetics in English Canada, and most had jobs teaching at universities or colleges. I don’t think this rapid shift from margin to centre can be fully explained by the capacity of the nationalist cultural agenda to quickly absorb all forms of cultural production….
     Their success also relates to the relatively high level of social capital as young white able-bodied men…. Their proximity to the centre also meant that they unwittingly perpetuated the “legitimate symbolic violence” by which the patrimony maintains itself. That is, despite the innovative nature of their poetics and their democratizing social goals (based on their geographic and social positions), the subject they were liberating was a mainstream male subject. (55-56)

I have suggested in a recent issue of Open Letter (12:3, 107-9) that this construction of power as margin versus centre, and this narrative of the male TISH poets moving quickly “from margin to centre,” greatly oversimplify the structures of power in both Canadian society and the Canadian academy. The construction seems to me to rest much more on Butling’s desire to restrict ‘margin’ to writers identified through race, sexuality, and gender than it does on an analysis of actual Canadian power relations. As a concept, ‘margin-centre’ belongs in the same historical dustbin as ‘avant-garde,’ and for similar reasons. In the most recent issue of Open Letter, Karl Siegler, in interview with Lori Emerson, remarks on how Toronto-centrism can a drastically marginalize an ostensibly ‘established’ British Columbia publisher such as Talonbooks from national chainstore distribution (12:4, 22-3). In my earlier remarks I suggested that there are hierarchies of power among Canadian universities and colleges–that in Ontario, for example, a position at Centennial College offers less ‘power’ or status than one at Nippissing University, which in turn offers less than one at York University, which offers less than one at the University of Toronto. I suggested that in such an analysis few of the TISH poets had reached positions [page 127] of effective ‘centrist’ power. One could add that these differentials of power can be themselves be complicated (not necessarily in predictable ways) by gender, race, class, age, sexuality, specialization. Interestingly, to her remarks about male Tish poets and universities and colleges Butling adds this footnote “The two women in the group [she presumably means Daphne Marlatt and Gladys Hindmarch] were equally successful in getting teaching jobs and getting published, perhaps in part because of the cultural capital they acquired by association with a male-dominated group” (60). However, they weren’t “equally successful in getting teaching jobs”–they were differentially successful, both getting teaching jobs in a community college (much like Fred Wah in the early part of his career).

One difficulty in this part of Butling’s account is that she mixes terms from Bourdieu’s extremely complex and relentlessly scientific sociology of art and cultural production (“dominant pole,” “cultural capital,” “cultural production,” “legitimate symbolic violence”) with terms from less complex and more ideologically interventionist and polarized sociologies (“margin-centre”, “mainstream”), and thus treats his terms as if they were similarly one-dimensional. Bourdieu, however, as well as being non-sympathetic toward any category of writer, offers an elaborately relational account of cultural power. He locates fields within fields, and assigns to each a dominant and a dominated pole. He locates the “literary and artistic field” within the larger “field of power” near its dominated pole; he locates the field of power in turn within the even larger “field of class relations,” near its dominant pole. He locates poetry within the literary and artistic field but near its dominated pole. He identifies different sorts of “capital” which can have more or less value in different social contexts (FCP 37-38). Without recognition of this complexity–of degrees of marginality within dominated fields which are themselves parts of variably empowered dominant fields– marginality and radicalism become in Butling simple you’re-in-or-you’re-out sites, with the resulting unseemly pushing and shoving for their possession that characterized the closing session of the 1991 Interventing the Text conference (see my remarks in Canadian Literary Power, 284-5) and which at times this book enacts. Implicit claims such as ‘his marginality invalidates her marginality,’ or ‘their marginality has expired,’ also seem to belie the impressive arguments about community with which the Writing in Our Time begins. As well, as David L. Clark has remarked in another context, to so characterize marginality as desirable and enviable can deflect attention from the actual injustice of exclusion, and render one “complicitous with the forces that marginalize” (66). [page 128]

Butling’s use of Bourdieu’s term “legitimate symbolic violence,” in her suggestion that white male ‘radical’ writers unwittingly perpetuate such violence in freeing themselves as “mainstream male subjects,” is also highly problematical, both in its relationship to “mainstream” (and the limited ‘you’re either regrettably mainstream or conscientiously marginal’ possibilities it implies) and in the slipperiness of the word “violence.” I am writing this on December 6, an anniversary date on which almost all Canadians understand the extremes of symbolic and actual violence against women. But what is the threshold where action begins to become constructable as violence? Is Kroetsch’s invention of Rita K an unwitting act of symbolic violence against women? Is this review of Butling and Rudy’s book? Are the noting, by myself and others, of the utopian gestures in Marlatt’s How Hug a Stone and Ana Historic?–as some responses, such as Julie Beddoes’ article “Mastering the Mother Tongue” (my violent italics) have implied? Is stepping forward to found a magazine?–such as the mostly male Vancouver ’zine Tads, with its “dads”? Community and community-building are not merely idylls of agreement and consensus, something Butling and Rudy often seem close to suggesting. Community requires debate, dissent, qualification, negotiation, contestation, whether by TISH editors voting down Bowering’s “Meatgrinder” poems or Tessera editors putting arguments forward among themselves for a choice between signed individual editorials and homogeneous consensus ones. Would Marlatt’s second novel Taken have as carefully and lengthily negotiated questions of political and social responsibility if the ‘community’ debates about Ana Historic and its relation to the social had not occurred? Or is that, in Butling’s understanding, a symbolically violent question?

Bourdieu himself would term all the above questions AND Butling and Rudy’s book to be exercises of symbolic violence. For him there is no innocent non-violent cultural space–as Butling appears to imply there may be. All artists belong to a dominated fraction of the dominant class, and within that fraction struggle to dominate each other. Classes and parts of classes merely compete to legitimate their particular modes of symbolic violence. In the section of The Field of Cultural Production from which Butling takes the phrase “legitimate symbolic violence,” Bourdieu writes that “intellectual and artistic position takings are … always semi-conscious strategies in a game in which the conquest of cultural legitimacy and the concomitant legitimate symbolic violence are at stake.” That is, Butling’s ‘position takings’ would be for Bourdieu attempts to acquire “cultural legitimacy” and the power to wield legitimate symbolic violence. In the essay in which he first developed the concept of legitimate symbolic violence [page 129] (“On Symbolic Power,” delivered as a lecture in 1973 and later included in his Language and Symbolic Power [1991]), Bourdieu argued that “different classes and class fractions are engaged in a symbolic struggle ... over the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence” (167-8). In a slightly later essay he argued that the exercise of legitimate symbolic violence depended on a network of relations in which there is complicity and “misrecognition, encouraged by denial … by those on whom that violence is exercised” (LSP 210)–that is, that the legitimacy of symbolic violence is granted by those to which it is done. Bourdieu’s theories overall are remarkably unsuitable to Butling’s purposes. He studies power relations, but is disinterested in precisely who holds power; his relationship to “liberation” is little more than the Marxian one that increased understanding of power relationships can lead to more distributed access to power. Butling, however, cares about who holds power, has what often seem to be romance notions of good and bad power–of “activist” power wielded for “liberation” and “dominant” power wielded for “oppression.” These are notions that Bourdieu in his scientism attempted to demystify.

Butling and Rudy do not write a conclusion. Their final chapter, “Literary Activism,” concerning the activism of literary editors, is written by Butling, who begins by arguing that the importance of such work rests on the fact that “new [writing] subjects do not birth themselves, fully formed by their individual talent and energy alone, as the restricted economy of capitalism would have us believe. They enter the social imaginary via the material spaces of little magazines and small presses and by the virtue of the work of editors who changed the discursive terms within those sites” (229). (The fact that within Bourdieu’s theories these sites would be sites of symbolic violence and of contestation to legitimate particular violences she does not mention.) The various editorial sites she explores here are the Writing Thru Race conference of 1994, the anthology Many-Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians of 1991, the Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English of 1992, the Native Poetry in Canada anthology of 2002, the “Colour: an Issue” number of West Coast Line, 1994, the Writing Class: the Kootenay School of Writing Anthology of 1999, Coach House Books, founded 1996, and various organizations and collectives that Rita Wong participated in before publishing her first book, monkeypuzzle, in 1998. The national reach of many of these goes some way toward meeting the “Canada’s radical poetries in English” promise of the book’s title by allowing an implicit argument to develop that all marginal writing subjects, wherever located in Canada, require an enabling communal/institutional structure for their emergence. Butling’s [page 130] treatment of these editorial sites is mostly descriptive, except for the insertion of remarks near the end of each–extensive remarks in the case of Writing Thru Race–about the site’s role in facilitating cultural transformations.
Of course only the Native Poetry in Canada anthology is a site specifically dedicated to poetry. There is a somewhat uneasy fit in this chapter between the mostly genre-blind activism of the assorted sites and the “links between poetry and politics”(236) that Butling continues to argue for. It is true that most of the ‘activists’ involved here are poets–Roy Miki and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias of Writing Thru Race, Jim Wong-Chu of Many-Mouthed Birds, Daniel David Moses and Jeannette Armstrong of the Native anthologies, Roy Miki and Fred Wah, editors of “Colour: An Issue,” Darren-Wershler-Henry and Damian Lopes of Coach House Books. Is poetry, then, more closely linked to politics than other genres? Are other genres more often complicit with capitalist ‘individualist’ production? Is Butling making a special ethical claim in this chapter, and in the book, for poetry that she can’t make for other genres? How should we negotiate the apparent gap between her chapter title “literary activism” (my italics) and the focus on “poetry and poetics” in the chapter’s opening sentence (229) and on “poems” and “radical poetics” in its concluding one (250)? I am again left wanting more, wondering whether Butling and Rudy are aware of all of the provocative implications they have created, and wishing they had offered explicit arguments about them.

“Leave them wanting more”–spoken with self-irony and humour–was one of bpNichol’s favourite mottos, in the 1980s as well as the 70s. [page 131]



  1. In 1982 I gave a guest lecture at McGill University, titled “A Canadian Avant-Garde?” in which I cited both Baudelaire and Lewis while dismantling “avant-garde” as a term that was too militarist and masculinist to be usable. F.R. Scott was in the audience, and somewhat scandalized, but I never bothered to publish the paper because of my sense that it addressed a long-dead issue. The manuscript is now in Simon Fraser’s Special Collections. [back]


Works Cited

Beddoes. Julie. “"Mastering the Mother Tongue: Reading Frank Davey Reading Daphne Marlatt's How Hug a Stone." Canadian Literature 155 (1997): 75-87.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

——. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

Clark, David L. “Forget Heidegger; or Why I Am Such a Clever Postmodernist.” Canadian Poetry 29 (Fall/Winter 1991): 59-70.

Davey, Frank. Canadian Literary Power. Edmonton: NeWest, 1994.

——, and Fred Wah. “Meandering Interview.” Open Letter 12:3 (Summer 2004): 98-122.

Emerson, Lori. “Excavating the ‘Real Story”: an Interview with Karl Siegler.” Open Letter 12:4 (Fall 2004): 19-26.

Frank Davey