Tim Bowling: You set out early on, back in the mid-’90s, to be a poet and a critic. You’ve maintained a place in both worlds when many poets opt out of the critical side of things. Have you been pleased with the way you’ve maintained that balance?
Carmine Starnino: For the most part, yes. But I can’t say that I’ve had any choice in the matter. I have no opt-out button when it comes to writing criticism. To quote Helen Vendler, I’m someone “incorrigibly unhappy without some text to dwell on.” Being a critic is also a huge part of my guild affiliation as a Montreal poet. Drummed into me from the start, by David Solway and others, was the idea that a poet needs to master critical prose. Not only is it his duty to explain the art in crisp and accessible ways — plowing his full intelligence into the act — but his very credibility depends on it. Part of what attracts me to prose is that it’s a very unforgiving medium. It can be easy for a poet to gull reviewers and juries into thinking that he or she is a great talent. But there’s no more effective method for exposing someone’s cliché-ridden thinking than to ask them to write in complete sentences. Prose almost always gives away the poseur; it’s the perfect bullshit-detector. So my identity as poet — the sense of myself as doing something honourable and non-fake — depends on producing the best criticism possible. If I can’t win converts to poetry maybe I’ll win them over to the cause of writing well about poetry. I’m happy that I’ve kept at it and grateful that editors have been willing to publish the results. But it’s come at a cost. For one, I’ve probably written fewer poems (Michael Hofmann describes his own reviews as “hindered poems”). It’s also, at times, infected my trust in poetry’s more mysterious aspects, introducing an unhealthy self-consciousness about my processes. Eugenio Montale had grave doubts about writing criticism, warning it risked shedding “too much light” on poems and robbing them of their secrets.
TB: Do you think there’s an abdication on the part of most of your peers when it comes to engaging critically in the poetic culture?
CS: Do I want to see more poets enter the fray? Absolutely. Especially since some of them would be superb at it. A few years ago, Jacob McArthur Mooney wrote a vigorous defense of Dennis Lee, though sadly he doesn’t appear to have made any big critical forays since. That said, a thriving crop of poet-critics are doing exceptional work. James Pollock, for instance, whose book of essays, You Are Here, appeared last year. Then there’s Jason Guriel, Zachariah Wells and Anita Lahey—all of whom, coincidently, will be releasing major critical collections this fall. I always love seeing what fresh dust Michael Lista kicks up. I also greatly admire the ambition behind the ample review-essays Stewart Cole doggedly posts on his blog every month. These critics often have very different ways of approaching poems and poets, but all of them write the kind of fluent, misconception-clearing criticism we so dearly need. It’s hard not to feel upbeat.
My peers, however, are guilty of a far more insidious abdication. You can spot it whenever two or more poets flock together over a beer: they rarely disagree. McKay’s latest? Amazing. Moritz’s new book? Brilliant. Zwicky, Carson, Brand—all masters. I now see this force-field of untouchability humming around Karen Solie, a gifted poet who suddenly can do no wrong and whose defects are never to be mentioned. Canadians have a propensity toward consent and are loath to break rank. As a result, you never know how anyone really feels about anything, so powerful is the self-monitoring. (There’s nothing more amusing than to watch a fan of McKay splutter when you ask him or her to point out where his poems fail. They can’t do it.) This became plain to me last October after I attended the Vancouver Poetry Conference. There was lots of sharp talk— thoughtful, illuminating conversations that went late into the night. But rarely was anyone off-message: no orneriness, no push-back, no flash of furor poeticus. I suspect we left there the same people as we were when we arrived. We were all diligent functionaries of our bland agreeableness. I remember how, during one of the hotel room parties, American poet Matthew Zapruder was holding court. He was discussing recent American poets — the good, the bad — bringing up books, citing poems, appraising careers. It was bracing to watch. Why? Because it was a display of an informed sensibility. And what demoralized me was that around Matthew sat some of the most interesting poets in the country, and I wondered if any of them were armed with enough acumen to match that performance. When withholding judgment becomes a way of life, independent thought can wither.
Everyone says they want a healthy review culture, and everyone claims to mourn the loss of smart poetry punditry in general-interest magazines and newspapers. But then we turn — often viciously — against those who feel some responsibility toward building that culture. You don’t build a culture by publishing poetry. You don’t build a culture by handing a poet $75,000 every year. You don’t build a culture out of author websites, event pages, likes and retweets. You build a culture the hard way: debating which poems and poets matter, what’s good, what’s important. So when someone blasts Lista for his “arrogance,” or when someone demonizes Guriel as a “conservative,” it drives me round the bend. I mean, here are two poets assuming all the risk, and experiencing very little of the rewards. I can tell you from experience that, over the course of their careers, they will talk themselves out of prizes, grants, readings, festival invitations, and, ultimately, friendships. Their essays and reviews — into which they pour hours and hours of labour — deserve our respectful attention, and, if warranted, our furious disagreement. They don’t deserve our scorn. Adrienne Rich explained that Jarrell’s blistering critiques were rooted in distress that “if the poems of his own generation were not both exemplary and daring, the future of poetics and language itself was in question.” Every poet-critic will see themselves in that statement. But the poets? Do they feel that distress? Writing poetry is a critical as well as creative act, and value judgements are part of any good poet’s skill-set. Just as a literary culture is the sum of all our actions, a good poem is the sum of ruthless decisions toward every word in a draft. So here’s my question: if you keep lying to others about their work, how long before you start lying to yourself? We don’t need to implement de omnibus disputandum on a mass scale, but Christ, take a stand, marshall your opinions, come to your own conclusions. It’s not about what you like or hate, but what you believe. At the very least, poets have to stop saying things they don’t believe.
TB: From the beginning, you’ve attacked flabby, self-indulgent lyricism and called for a greater linguistic rigour in Canadian poetry. Lazy Bastardism argues that we now have that linguistic rigour, in spades. The mission’s accomplished — now what?
CS: Canadian poetry has always had — at least since Pratt, anyway — spadefuls of rigour. That was my major argument in A Lover’s Quarrel, one I layed out in the 20,000-word title essay where I claim that the Canadian poetry everyone knows bears only a glancing relationship to the real thing. Some of the best stuff has scarcely been seen, by us or by the world, because pro-Canadian generalizations and prescriptions rarely allowed it to circulate. I wasn’t so much calling for rigour, but that we should have the courage to point out where we believe it doesn’t exist — even if it means brutally reassessing our most beloved poets. And the mission is never accomplished. That’s what the title — Lazy Bastardism — is alluding to. We need to keep seeing what’s there, and not there.
TB: As a critic, you obviously believe that good poetry knows no borders, that a good poem transcends borders. And you define the younger generation of poets, those in the “steampunk zone,” as having cosmopolitan influences and ambitions based largely on technology’s eradication of such borders. Yet you’ve published an entire book of essays that deals almost entirely with poets from this country. Why?
CS: Why not? You would never ask Edna Longley why she writes exclusively about Irish poets, would you? And as far I know, Helen Vendler’s focus on American poetry has never been treated as evidence of isolationalism. I’ve written about Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Marilyn Hacker, Eavan Boland, Adam Kirsch, and Albert Goldbarth — often in non-Canadian magazines. But I feel that the best way to demonstrate that poetry is a border-shattering art is to apply to homegrown careers the very same concentration I bring to foreign poets. We may have come late to the game, but Canadian poetry is now a fully contemporary product, and deserves to be discussed as unapologetically as any other English-language tradition.
TB: In your essay on Irving Layton, you mention that you cried when you found out that he had died. Can you explain Layton’s importance for you, especially with regards to his lingering presence in Montreal?
CS: Layton was one of the first Canadian poets who brought me to my writing senses. Partly it was a matter of diction and tone — the way he loaded every rift with attitude, a damn-I’m-good braggadocio. Many of his lines stay with me: “the last wave romping in / to throw its boyhood on the marble sand”; the butterflies with “tiny wristwatches on their wings”; “the inescapable lousiness of growing old.” He was also one of the first Canadian poets for whom I didn’t have to adjust my expectations, the way I needed to, say, with Dudek. Layton held his own with the major figures I was reading at the time — Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath. But then Layton never really considered himself a Canadian poet. “Milton, Shakespeare and I,” is how he established his bloodline. In Montreal, he’s still very much the big guy, very much “in.” Last October, I was commissioned by Blue Metropolis to adapt a selection of his letters and poems into a dramatic reading for local actor Arthur Holden. I spent many happy months reacquainting myself with his rhetoric, its cut and thrust (“I want poems to be like a steel dagger, unsheathed, and gripped for the plunging”). And on every page that unshakeable confidence — shared by few Canadian poets — that even if he failed he succeeded. “You’d be close to the mark if you thought of me as a cold-blooded scientist who deliberately injects a malevolent virus into himself to study its effects.” Something about me feels at home with him. He was a free-agent, a refuser; he lived a kind of Joycean non serviam.
TB: You’re obviously not a fan of Al Purdy’s poetry, or at least you’re convinced that his reputation is grossly inflated. In one of the essays in Lazy Bastardism, you refer to Purdy’s kind of nationalist project as not being “world-class.” I’m wondering how you apply the term “world-class” to poetry.
CS: World-class poetry is poetry that travels. Not only does it enjoy a broad readership in other countries, but it adds something unprecedented to the available registers of the tradition. A world-class poet demands the same weight of attention given to Heaney and Walcott— and a world-class Canadian poet would most certainly make our national poetry an international matter, as Les Murray has done with Australian verse. Does that describe Purdy? That would be a very hard argument to win. To call Purdy, as Dennis Lee does, “one of the substantial poets in English of the century” is Canadian self-adulation at its most delusional. While I’ve come to happy terms with poems like “The Country North of Belleville” and “Wilderness Gothic,” I think Purdy is nowhere as good as enthusiasts claim. I also don’t feel there’s any treason in saying so. Too often, Canadian poetry requires its readers to be “all in.” Disclose an objection and you’re branded an enemy of the state. I concede that the Heaney-Walcott-Murray axis has perhaps become a convenient shorthand, too easily drawn on by the critic of the underperforming, underdog nation. But when you have Sam Solecki declare that Purdy represents “a point at which Canadian poetry can enter without embarrassment the imaginary anthology of international contemporary poetry” you realize that “world-class” means nothing for us. The word is a special prize handed out by Canadianists — a placebo, a publicity-kit term, an illusion-enabler, a gift of our group loyalty. Mordecai Richler nailed it years ago when he mocked the locally fêted as being “world-famous in Canada.”
TB: Can a Canadian poet write about Canada the way Seamus Heaney writes about Ireland and be considered world-class?
CS: Depends on what you mean by “way.” If you mean musically, with a powerful binding element between words and surprising by fine excess, then yes, absolutely. For a Canadian to write like Heaney he or she would have to write poems that don’t resort to cadging: poems that fasten onto a reader immediately. Keep in mind that many around the planet who follow Heaney’s career probably don’t have the slightest clue about the Irish sectarian strife and rural ancestry that underlie his poems. I sure didn’t when I started reading him, almost zealously, at 17. I was drawn helplessly to the music: its strange verbal textures, durable sounds, exquisite precisions. Heaney doesn’t have a public because of his subject— lots of other Irish poets write with just as much insight about Ireland and with just as much fetishistic love for its place-names. Heaney is world-class because of his style. World-class poets usually require a major subject— Purdy certainly has that— but it’s the style that will tell you, fairly quickly, the poetry means business.
TB: Many of the essays in Lazy Bastardism attempt to reassess established poetic careers. I was particularly interested in your praise of Earle Birney, which surprised me, since he is rather forgotten these days. How did you come to Birney’s work?
CS: It’s funny how much reaction that piece generates. I never would have anticipated so many closet Birney fans! His poetry first hove into view in a survey class. We dwelled mostly on “David.” I discovered the rest of it on my own: “Our Lack of Ghosts,” “Can. Lit.,” “The Bear on the Delhi Road,” especially “Bushed” with its amazing ending: “And now he could only / bar himself in and wait / for the great flint to come singing into his heart.” Birney died in 1995, but had an amazing run. He began writing poems when Robert Service was a bestselling author, and his life spans almost all of modern Canadian poetry. He founded Canada’s first creative writing program. He experimented with concrete poems and sound poems before it was cool. He had a higher profile abroad than almost any Canadian poet of his generation, except maybe Gustafson. He was something of a display item, and now seems stuck in the canonical doldrums. I’m bullish on Birney, but he’s never really been a influence: more of a point of reference when making the case for our poetry as an international achievement, and in that role, a poet to be grateful for. Also, like many of those old-timers — Layton, Acorn, Glassco — he has that quality I love: of being unashamed to try for the higher dictions, the vernacular that espouses grandeur.
TB: All of the current reviewers of Canadian poetry you mention admiringly in Lazy Bastardism (Shane Neilsen, Zach Wells, etc.) are men. Why do you think there’s such a dearth of female reviewers when so many women read, write and publish poetry?
CS: It’s a real problem. What’s vexing is that Canada actually has a deep bench of female academics and critics who’ve never shied away from a fight: along them Rosemary Sullivan, Linda Hutcheon, and, of course, Margaret Atwood. Anita Lahey— who edited Arc Magazine for seven years — is one of our most trenchant poet-critics. Three of our most outspoken newspaper pundits are women— Christie Blatchford, Margaret Wente, Tabatha Southey. So there are plenty of smart dissenters and assayers that an ambitious young writer could model herself after. Why, then, are female reviewers so thin on the ground? It seems very wrong that more young women aren’t rating, parsing, contesting, championing. And I say that because, notwithstanding the male poet-critics I praise in Lazy Bastardism, women feature hugely in my own identity as a polemicist. I cut my teeth on Helen Vendler’s essays. Louise Bogan’s A Poet’s Alphabet was a seminal book for me, as was Mary Kinzie’s The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose. Edna Longley is one of my literary heroes — I’ve reread her collections to the point where the spines are disintegrating. As well, it was the late Wynne Francis, the pioneering CanLit academic at Concordia, who first encouraged me to write criticism (I once handed in a paper on Layton which she utterly disagreed with, but she gave me an A- for style — which is maybe my career in a nutshell). For me, literary fearlessness has often worn a female face.
Solving the problem sounds easy enough: sign up more women. But as most editors — male and female — will tell you, there’s an ambivalence in place that can be hard to melt away. When I was editing Books in Canada, I had an impossible time finding female reviewers — I cajoled, wooed, flattered. I was relentless, sometimes sending a poet three or four batches of books in quick succession, hoping something would catch her attention. A few just weren’t interested in reviewing, and fair enough. Some were clearly attracted to the idea, but didn’t see themselves as qualified, and couldn’t be talked out of that self-assessment. The rest— the majority, I’d say— believed they were too opinionated to survive the experience. The funny part is that I would get these incisively worded emails explaining why they disliked such and such a book. Unfortunately for me, they also felt deeply uncomfortable putting that judgment in print. Why? Because the act would expose them, leave them open to attack. The best way around it, I found, was to set up a group review where I brought together a couple of poets around a book. In one instance, I invited Elise Patridge and Barbara Nickel to talk about Avison’s Collected Poems. That tactic worked marvellously, mostly because it was collaborative, which gave them the sense their thinking was larger, less self-centred. I think that’s why the Lemon Hound site is so successful. Female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover.
TB: What do you feel about CWILA [Canadian Women in the Literary Arts]?
CS: They’ve done a lot of good — and the numbers (both for books reviewed by women, and reviews of books by women) appear to be on the rise this year. They should feel proud to be have played a role in that. But, for me, the real work is much larger than an annual “count” and the panicky responses around it. We need to embolden young women. They need to be given permission to feel that writing criticism isn’t a creative and moral betrayal. This is why I was so mortified when CWILA posted Jan Zwicky’s essay against negative reviews where she states that “in public, we keep our mouths shut.” Why would an organization whose mandate is to encourage female reviewing publish a piece that actively discourages speaking one’s mind? And yet CWILA clearly believes in the piece, and has turned itself into the proselytizing wing for Zwicky’s ideas. In that way, it risks becoming an outfit that celebrates passivity and professional fear — and turns it into act of moral courage.
TB: Lazy Bastardism argues repeatedly that there’s been a big sea-change in Canadian poetry over the past decade, that our poets are finding new ways to express new realities. Yet so many of these ways seem similarly self-conscious in their efforts to be new, and are therefore as cookie-cutter as anything Tish ever trafficked in. You appear to recognize this truth in your introduction to the Best Canadian poetry anthology, yet your essays as a whole repeatedly champion this “new” direction. Can you clarify your position briefly?
CS: The sea-change is indisputable, and well underway. It’s part of a shake-up that began in the late ’90s when the pendulum swung from what Longley calls “overfree-verse” to more shaped and sonorous forms. I tracked some of this in my anthology, but I now see the New Canon poets as the first draft, so to speak, of that shift, and my feeling is that the next iteration has emerged. There’s something distinctive about this group: they’ve moved an inch or two past the old traditional-experimental divide, and are trying to give poetic expression to a different idea of selfhood, one influenced by social networking, media-speak and digital idioms. I don’t disagree that they sometimes strive too hard to be new. And it’s true my essay — where I use the term “steampunk” to describe how they thrust together wildly contrasting modes — expresses serious reservations. My chief complaint is that, by putting their talent into their idiosyncrasies, their poems suffer an erosion of interiority, leaving them empty. That said, I think you’re much too hard on them. They are worlds apart from Tish. Tish was about anti-poems, idea-snippets, undescription. These latter-day poems, however, include tightly nested meanings, baroque affectations of whimsy and down-the-rabbit-hole shifts in perspective. I admit: I’m charmed, sometimes excited, by much of what I read. But then, I’ve always been fascinated by generational course-corrections. And frankly I can think of worse things than a country bursting at the seams with word-happy, form-shifting poets on the look-out for what Auden called “new rhetoric.” Do I champion it? I recognize it. I try to be open to it. But my crusade lies elsewhere. I don’t know if you watch Mad Men, but I’m always rooting for the square ad-guys as opposed to the beatniks. You might say that Lazy Bastardism stumps for squares like Michael Harris, John Glassco, Peter Trower and Eric Ormsby.
TB: Don Coles is an exceptional poet. And he is obviously cosmopolitan, in no way an embarrassment to those who prefer to look outside Canada to where real poetry happens. Given the non-nationalist flavour of the age, why do you think Don Coles isn’t more celebrated here?
CS: He’s widely anthologized. He’s won the G.G. and the Trillium. He’s highly regarded by many academics, writers and critics, both here and abroad. He’s been a superb mentor to scores of young poets and you see his influence in the work of David O’Meara and Stephanie Bolster. So you can’t really say he’s been overlooked. But as someone who has published three of his most recent books, and been disappointed by the tepid reaction, I know what you mean. A couple of years ago Richard Sanger came to me with the idea of petitioning the Griffin Trust to award Don with its lifetime achievement award. We gathered 50 names — a who’s who of CanLit. Who did they give it too? Seamus Heaney. A complete failure of imagination — especially since I’d put a couple of Don’s books, Little Bird and Forests of the Medieval World, against anything by Heaney. But Don has a bit of the “poet’s poet’s poet” remoteness to him. I also think that just as critics and editors might be too old to assess new poetry, some critics might be too young. They don’t see how devastating Coles’ wisdom is, how hard-won, how brilliantly he’s been able to invent idiomatic lines that move in ways that reflect what he’s trying to get across.
TB: All poets know that there is very little to gain in a material sense from publishing poems. What there is to gain — grants, prizes, attention — depends a great deal on personal politics. I think this is why people in their twenties and thirties, many of them students, many of them not raising children, are the most active participants in the poetry scene. As a result, fashion and self-image, the preoccupations of youth, become the poetic norm. How would you take issue with that assessment?
CS: I don’t think you’re wrong. And in fact, the preening is likely getting worse. While social networking is an excellent way of promoting your writing, it also requires you to keep feeding your own cult of personality. But come on: trendiness, insularity? Has there ever been a generation without those faults? You could make an argument that even Purdy — with his rolled-up sleeves, cigars and untended hair — was consumed by self-image.
TB: It is not easy to find a publisher willing to publish a book of essays devoted to poetry. Can you comment on working with Gaspereau Press?
CS: They’re unlike any publisher I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve done three titles with them now, and the relationship has transformed my sense of what a small press can be. It’s not just the level of passion they bring to their operation — we’re pretty passionate people at Vehicule, where I edit the poetry line — but the outsized integrity. They’ve thought hard about what they call the “ecology” of publishing and have opted to go a different way. Andrew Steeves and his partner Gary Dunsfield design, print and bind their own books. It doesn’t hit you how amazing and revolutionary that is until you visit their warehouse-sized wunderkammer in Kentville, Nova Scotia. The brimming trays of metal type, the cast iron hand presses, the table-top presses, the hulking monotype casters — it makes quite an impression. Talking shop is something these guys take literally. The whole setup feels solid, grounded. Gaspereau’s modus operandi — with its emphasis on a less mechanized way of producing books — also puts a check on any careerist anxieties you might have. Andrew and Gary aren’t trendspotters. I mean, they’re pretty clued-in; they understand the cross-currents, who’s up, who’s down, etc. But they’re quite content where they are, far from the centre of the publishing world. They’ve made a decision to devote their days to making beautiful objects by hand. And really, that’s all they care about. It’s not that they’re indifferent to selling books, they’re just not interested in cutting corners and selling cheap goods. (This can put them in a head-on clash with publishing protocol, as happened in 2011 when they balked at cranking out more copies of their Giller-winning novel The Sentimentalists to keep up with demand.) And as personalities go, Andrew’s pretty remarkable. When he isn’t setting poems in his shop, he’s tramping around the woods near his home. He’s a gentleman publisher, a Thoreauesque naturalist. He moved his wife and two boys off-grid into a modest home he built on land he cleared himself. He lives off-grid intellectually as well. What impressed me most about his decision to take Lazy Bastardism was that some of my most barbed essays are directed at poets who publish with him. He knew, in other words, that my book would likely endanger his relationship with his own authors and their friends and followers. He wrote me a long email explaining that he was “on the side of honest and passionate engagement” and that “the day I stop feeling that way is the day I sell my presses.” It nearly reduced me to tears.
TB: Did they play a role in helping to shape the contents of Lazy Bastardism?
CS: The alphabetical-by-author running order— which I love — was Andrew’s idea. He also provided many line-edits, all of which I gratefully accepted. (The pieces had already been thoroughly edited for their original magazine appearances. Anything that still nagged, such as the Avison essay, I revised in the months leading up to publication.) But in a way, Andrew’s most important editorial contribution is building the container for it all. There’s nothing nostalgic about this process. Andrew considers the book an outstanding piece of technology, and is always tinkering with its parts. I consider him the Steve Jobs of book design. His imaginative leaps are unexpected and often ingenious. And as an author, you’re involved in every step of his decision making: paper stock, font, jacket design, book size. All of these elements are meant to sync up and fuse with the subject and style of the book. As a result, the book’s physical shape feels strangely familiar, as if it sprung directly from your pleasure principles. But what’s cool is how your prose, in its sensual new garb, quickens. Words grow sculptural. Sentences take on surprising textures and resonances. It dawns on you how shoddily publishers treat text. With the surge of e-readers and tablets, Gaspereau made the decision to head in the opposite direction— to double-down on the ends and means of book making. They are insanely meticulous: magnitudes of care go into every book that most readers will never notice. The other aspect of working with Andrew is that your book is often the correction to a only-visible-to-him mistake in previous design. It’s all part of his unrelenting push for perfection.
TB: If you could choose some other time and place to be living and working as a poet-critic, when and where would that be?
CS: I don’t believe in golden ages, but if I were given a time machine I’d punch in “Montreal 1947,” and hopefully arrive just in time to pick up a copy of the Northern Review issue that includes John Sutherland’s incendiary review of Robert Finch’s G.G.-winning Poems — a review that caused the entire scandalized editorial board (which included Page, Scott and Klein) to jump ship. Our concerns seem small-souled when you consider the ideas circulating then. What does it mean to be a Canadian poet? How do you define that? What’s our place in the tradition? The extraordinary exasperation that poets like Sutherland provoked in asking these question has been nearly forgotten. His body of thinking was comprised of irritants that now subsist as academic dicta. For me, Montreal poetry offers a legacy that still bristles with grouses and grudges, defined by the intellectual impatience that nourished it.
TB: When you started out as a poet and critic, social media did not exist as a daily fact of life. How has the online world changed the landscape of poetry. Has it been a boon to dialogue?
CS: It’s been a boon and a calamity. I always recall Clay Shirky’s great title to his 2008 treatise on the destabilizing effect of the internet on institutions, Here Comes Everybody. The breakdown of the taste-making apparatus has helped enthusiasts of every stripe gain a foothold. Arbiters abound. I hear about books — previously-unknown-to-me books — more quickly. And I now rely on Facebook and Twitter to point me in the direction of essays, scuttlebutt, controversies and trends. The problem is that social media runs on what one blogger has called the “affirmation engine.” The retweeting, liking, favouriting and following turns literary circles into factions of enthusiasm. Worse, the very friendliness that makes social media useful— connecting with people who share the same interests as you — can be auto-lobotomizing, with everyone seemingly desperate for online approbation. Yet I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the literary squalls that blow through Facebook and Twitter. They can be interesting and instructive. Unfortunately — and here’s the calamity — those same debates become ephemeral, overrun almost immediately by new postings which push the conversation further and further back into your feed. The internet may remember everything, but it’s always telling you to move on. Criticism needs a slightly slower medium to stew in.
TB: I won’t ask you to pick the greatest Canadian poem, since I don’t believe in such hierarchies. But I will ask you to mention one Canadian poem that you often return to with delight.
CS: Can’t do one. Too many poems are too deeply lodged to choose favourites. Michael Harris “Turning Out the Light” goes with me everywhere. I still get powerful rewards from A.M. Klein’s “The Rocking Chair.” Then there’s David Solway’s “Stones in Water,” Irving Layton’s “The Fertile Muck,” Milton Acorn’s “Elephants,” P.K. Page’s “The Stenographers,” Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” Eric Ormsby’s “Florida Bay,” Robyn Sarah’s “Splinter,” Peter Van Toorn’s “Dragonflies, Those Bluejays of the Water.” I love these poems for their sonic built-upness, lines and stanzas that click shut like little boxes, to echo Yeats. Yet there’s also witchery in the workmanship: they don’t let go of you.