Sharon Caseburg: A few years back you edited The Dominion of Love: An Anthology of Canadian Love Poems (Harbour Publishing, 2001). It proved immensely popular, necessitating a second print run soon after—what is it about love that draws people to write (and read) about it?
Tom Wayman: The Romantic era in English-language poetry— poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth put it in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads— casts a long shadow. People associate poetry with heightened emotions, and one of the main sources of heightened emotions in the course of a human life is the ups and downs of love. I believe this connection between poetry and intense emotions like love is enhanced by people’s experiences of turbulent feelings during adolescence— the time when most people scribble down their swirling thoughts and call the result poetry. My young poetry students call this kind of writing “emo”—“emo” for “emotional,” by which they mean teenage-type angst. Whatever the origin for why people link poetry and love, there’s no question that people turn to poetry to help them express the jumble of feelings brought on by an overwhelming attraction to another person.
This linkage in the popular mind between love and poetry is the origin for the Dominion of Love anthology. I was kidding around once with Michelle Benjamin, the publisher of Polestar Press, who had issued my book The Astonishing Weight of the Dead in 1994. We were musing about why people want to write poetry but don’t want to buy it. I mentioned Irving Layton’s best-selling 1962 anthology of Canadian love poems, Love Where The Nights Are Long. I suggested I put together an updated Canadian anthology, and she agreed. In keeping with Layton’s fabulously Canadian title, I wanted to call the anthology Frost on the Condom, but Michelle demurred.
SC: How did The Dominion of Love end up at Harbour if the idea was first conceived in a conversation with the publisher of Polestar?
TW: The book was duly assembled, a new title accepted, the contract signed, and preliminary advertising done, when Michelle hired a new editor. This person didn’t want an anthology of love poems, but demanded that the book be redone to be an anthology of love poets.
The book was deemed “unrepresentative.” The new editor had no problem with the book’s gender balance, but felt the contributors failed to measure up to some predetermined shopping list of other demographic criteria.
This insistence on making author biography rather than literary quality the criteria for inclusion in anthologies— or the literary canon— is one of the many unfortunate consequences of the set of beliefs known as “postmodernism.” Acolytes belonging to this sect have their self-confidence in their ability to respond to literature terminally undermined by the cant they’re forced to read by their catechism instructors. Graduates of this brain laundry emerge believing that although they no longer can defend their enjoyment of certain works of literature, and although they no longer can construct arguments to support their positive emotional response to a piece of writing, they can at least defend an identification of merit in authors based on the latest national (or international) census.
My counter-argument is that whereas poetry is very democratic in that anybody can write it, the quality of work that is produced is not necessarily spread out equally among all genders, sexual orientations, races, geographic locales, religious persuasions, hair color and food preferences. This is true of all the arts in all eras, really. During the Renaissance, exquisite painting and sculpture wasn’t produced equally by people from Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples. Elizabethan theatre critics didn’t insist that plays be put on written by people from York, Liverpool, Bristol and Dover as well as by those born in London.
But Michelle backed her new editor, so I took the anthology to my regular poetry publisher, Howard White of Harbour Publishing. On my first royalty cheque for The Dominion of Love— $3,000— Howie wrote: “Who says that poetry doesn’t sell?”