Friday, 27 January 2012
The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Tightrope Books) - A Review
For poetry enthusiasts across Canada and the globe, The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Tightrope Book, 2011) is one anthology that mustn’t go unread. Under the tutelage and guidance of esteemed poet and series editor, Molly Peacock, this year’s crop of the top 50 poems is impressive. As with each edition in the series, Peacock appoints a guest editor to "literally" read through the stacks of fifty different literary journals and magazines, which for the most part, publish multiple issues each year. To most, whittling down thousands of poems to a top list of fifty might seem like a monumental task.
This year’s guest editor, Priscila Uppal, admits her decision to take on the editorship for this project was a no-brainer from the very start, even though the project involved countless hours of reading, comprising a best fifty shortlist, then another fifty poems for the longlist, and then finally writing an introduction and trying to make sense of the entire experience.
Uppal was a bit perplexed as to what criteria she should use in choosing the “best” poetry of the year, but admits to not being able to get a certain song out of her head, "TV II," by 90’s industrial grunge band, Ministry (a band she readily admired throughout her teen years), which ultimately helped to clarify her dilemma of...how do I possible do this?. The songs lyrics screamed the kind of mantra that seemingly relates well to what constitutes a well-written poem.
Tell me something I don’t know
Show me something I can’t use
Push the button
Connect the goddamn dots
Although, Uppal acknowledges that our poetry publishing scene is exciting, healthy, and fascinating, but at the same time, she points out it is still a little too conservative for her tastes. She concludes that it might be due to an over-reliance on government funding and other financial support for journals, or that many journals are too attached to university Creative Writing programs, or that editorial boards frequently means editorial consensus. She quips that far too many poems are utterly forgettable, over-workshopped or imitations of poems already published in the thousands, poems demonstrating some poetic skill but rarely poetic life, they’re either indulging in uninteresting narcissism or resting on safe topics in a complacent manner, and fall into the category she calls “competent irrelevance.”
With that being said, Uppal doesn’t want to come across as being over-critical of Canadian poetry, and admits to reading these kinds of poems in journals from all over the world as well. She would simply like to challenge more journals to take more risk, be unafraid of engaging a more diverse audience, being more relevant, and pushing poetry to new levels.
Uppal’s choices for top 50 poems of 2011 are somewhat diverse, refreshing, and do flavour on the side of experimental and avant-garde in many ways. She has included visual poems from Derek Beaulieu “Untitled” and Christian Bok “Odalisques,” a form that Beaulieu best describes in this way, “With visual poems I concentrate on the smallest particles of language and how they can interact. Each poem allows the particles to dance with each other along the lines of design and shape instead of meaning and definitions. Visual poetry allows the reader to make their own meanings.”
I have included two of my personal favourites from Uppal’s top 50, the first coming from Ken Babstock, a poet described as a rising star, a supernova in the Candian poetry community. Babstock had this to say about his poem, “As Marginalia in John Claire’s ‘To the Rural Muse,” “My own poem contains its Redux or Coles Notes or EEG in the lines’ end-words, it now seems, after the fact, unhappily. So a wise reader could remain on the surface of the right margin and devote the time she’s saved to something worthwhile. The illness is a bout of blood poisoning from boyhood. So there! And “…with scars where its talons used to be.”
As Marginalia in John Claire’s ‘To the Rural Muse’
I wasn’t finished. From as far back
as I can recall having heard a voice in my skull
I’ve wanted to die, or change, or die
changing. Hexagonal window, the moon
penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking
up peonies. Heat off tar shingles
in June as the blood in one arm
blackened, thickened, went blearily toxic,
I exited earth up an IV tube.
The wall-mounted paper dispenser
narrating nightmares of scare, sores fell
from fingers – get well petals – and grew
back puce. Slug of little light, the bedrail
gleamed. Warmed yoghurt, a summons
button and visual aphasia. Now I’ve no spit,
no hospice and admit nothing, or
for long stretches, only that what happened
was all that ever could have happened.
Reeds curtain where land becomes lake,
if such a limit exists, and ducks aren’t
taken by pike mid-thought.
Michelle Barker’s poem “Black Sheep” is also quite impressive and is a theme poem written in answer to a call for submissions put out by Vallum. Barker describes her poem in this way, “I wanted to look behind the façade at the rebel in a quiet moment, the truth of what it feels like to be left out.”
In the end I can tell you
being the black sheep
of the family
is not what it promises
motorcycle bad boys
an enticing tattoo
whiskey straight up
an electric guitar
and of course
sideways looks from the family
that secretly you think
you would savour
but it isn’t like that
it is a door
closing on family gatherings
without you –
you get the details second hand
it is seeing the wedding photos
(they couldn’t invite you –
it would have caused a scene)
it is a bell ringing far away
and more specifically
it is your name
and so yet again you stiffen
your upper lip
take your stand
(for a worthy cause)
tell yourself that renegade
has a certain ring to it
and quietly draw the curtains
on the small window
There are many familiar names in this year’s top 50, from, Dionne Brand, Lorna Crozier, Barry Dempster, John Barton, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie, A.F. Moritz, and David Seymour, to poets who are not so well known, but quickly on the rise in the Canadian poetry scene like Jon Paul Fiorentino, Daniel Scott Tysdal, Sandy Pool, Onjana Yawnghwe to name just a few. In summation, this year’s edition of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 is an eclectic and diverse collection of Canadian poetry, and would make a wonderful addition to anyone’s bookshelf.
Bio – Priscila Uppal is a poet, novelist, and York University professor. Her publications include Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize), Traumatology, Successful Tragedies (Bloodaxe Books, UK), Winter Sport: Poems (written while acting as Canadian Athletes Now poet-in-residence for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games), the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern, and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy. Time Out London recently dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” Visit priscilauppal.ca
Bio – Molly Peacock is the author of six volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush, a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, and a one-woman show in poems, “The Shimmering Verge.” She is a contributing editor of the Literary Review of Canada and a faculty mentor at the Spalding MFA Program. Her latest work of nonfiction is The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72.