Jacob McArthur Mooney introduces The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015
This fall, Tightrope Books will bring out The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015, edited by Jacob McArthur Mooney. The anthology, which seeks to curate the best Canadian poems that appeared in magazines the previous year, is overseen by series editors Molly Peacock and Anita Lahey. Today, Partisan is pleased to publish Mooney's introduction to the new edition, which launches formally at the International Festival of Authors on October 30. (Yesterday, we published Lahey's intro.) And for something a little different, here's William Logan's bracing review of David Lehman's various forewords to The Best American Poetry books, which Partisan published a few weeks back. All of these pieces, we hope you'll agree, are thoughtful, passionate, and partisan.
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, the poetry reading series I curate in Toronto's west end ran biweekly out of a bar the approximate size of a one-bedroom apartment. The bar fronted on Dundas West, probably the least romantic and strictly functional of the downtown’s major streets. Dundas breaks Toronto’s military grid by winding a bit; I once overheard a tour guide say it actually matches the city’s original shoreline from when the Europeans first found it and took it for their own. Even though Lake Ontario now sits about a mile and a half to the south, we liked to think of the old venue as lakefront property.
I’m proud of the series, of the small claim to culture it’s carved out for itself and its regular listeners. The old stage’s best feature was a large picture window facing south towards the former shoreline. I find myself missing the view. I had gotten used to watching poets and authors read their work framed by the passing TTC vehicles, spelunking club kids, and slouch-shouldered locals. The whole city and the country beyond us.
The picture window played host to a kind of public theatre I had grown to love. It was possible to pay adequate attention to the readers while also spying walkers as they crossed our line of sight and evaluated. These wary visitors would pause in front of the picture window, glance down at the sandwich board advertising poems, look up, glance nervously at their friends or the door. Sometimes they’d spot the standing-room audience, stride blindly past the sandwich board, and find themselves a foot and a half away from a reader mid-way through some elegy or joke. Silence and focused listening all around them. They’d idle at the door, avoiding eye contact, eventually staying out of politeness or the power of our charm. Or they’d escape back out through the front door and stand in the clear gaze of the window, puzzled.
The window became the central articulation point between what I’ve come to understand as my world and the world: between my friends with our shared eccentricities and the rest of Canada. On one side of the picture window, poetry struggled to be known as something more than a historical curiosity or a collection of logic puzzles aimed at students. On our side of the window, it was the central organizing problem of modern life. Few borders are more pronounced.
The picture window as border has proven to be a sticky idea for me, and I feel it is a suitable starting image for this anthology, which has a tradition—unlike much poetry and certain poetry anthologies---of being read by non-poets as well as poets. The Best Canadian Poetry in English series stands at the same frontier as the window. It is made by those on our side as a kind of yearbook, summarizing and specifying changes in our culture, holding new voices up against the established. But, unlike a yearbook, it plugs into a broader access and is read by those on the other side of the window, too, those whose interest in poetry is more transient. For people who spend great amounts of their time, as I do, trying to coax people through the door and into the poetry-centric side of the glass, the lead concerns I bring to the task of guest editing this year’s version are: What is welcoming, exactly? What opens that door and keeps it open?
Much energy has been spent trying to make poetry more welcoming, and much of the terrible poetry of the last, say, two generations has been published to an ethic of accessibility and ease-of-use. I am happy to report that there are no Accessible Poems in this anthology. There are as many as fifty welcoming poems, I think, but the poems’ paths to being welcoming have been cleared more honestly and by more sophisticated tactics than by simply flattening their vocabulary or dumbing-down their ideas. I think (and this is an ethic I’ve tried to maintain both as the host of a reading series and as the guest editor of this anthology) that a key to presenting a welcoming docket of poems is to remain as variable in your picks as possible. But even this is fraught. There exists a kind of absolutism that can sneak up on inclusiveness, one that sheds the benefits of curation like it’s some trap, and frankly I’ve worked too hard to carry that belief to its extreme. What I have done is try to include poems that are difficult, but in a variety of ways. Difficult, in the end, is reader-loving. Accessible, in the end, is a restraint. I have a great deal of faith in anyone who has crossed the ocean of legal entertainments and picked this specific book out of the crowd, and I want very deeply to repay that unusual trust. An accessible poem is just an advertisement for a poem, while a good difficult one is a proof, a demonstration of the wildness available within the domesticated urges of our language.
The good ones can pose all kinds of questions, and elect to answer only a subset, while still leaving us satisfied on the exit. Within the anthology, I’d like to think that the wild Wikipedia-divers like Matt Rader’s “SN1987AZT” and Brecken Hancock’s “Evil Brecken” help express that specific wish the clearest. On the other hand, a good, hard, poem can present itself as almost too self-contained, too solved to be serious, and the riddle-inspired pieces like Julie Bruck’s “Two Fish” and Troy Jollimore’s “Some Men” stick in the brain as totems of a kind of apparent finished-ness that doesn’t quite square with how much they keep moving in the brain after reading. There are difficult poems that arrive breathless with ambition (Lucas Crawford’s tragicomic elegy; George Elliott Clarke’s blazing historiographical account). There are difficult poems that politely hand you only half of their selves and withhold the rest for a lonely moment, like Elena Johnson’s “I Don’t Bother Canning Peaches” with its confident civic escapists. There are poems that use the structural possibilities of a poem for leverage, as with Amanda Jernigan’s heavily enjambed mythic stitchback or Alexandra Oliver’s subtle rhyme. And, of course, there are the poems that are so note-perfect, so polished and complete, that the difficulty comes from trying to imagine them as human-built creations, as former works-in-progress. I’m thinking here of Richard Greene’s loving remembrance of the late poet Kildare Dobbs, or Brenda Schmidt’s novelistic sonnet sequence.
But such examples won’t get us to an accounting of all fifty poems in the book, and it’s the in-between pieces that might be as close as I can take you to a sense of my own aesthetic (read: biases) as a reader and editor. I would propose that both Leah Horlick’s “The Tower” and Susan Elmslie’s “Gift Horse” are welcoming, difficult poems. Surely they are readable and friendly. In the picture window metaphor, they are the ones pressed up against the glass, waving in the walkers-by. Their difficulty lies in knowing all you can about them, while their welcoming makes that an exquisite form of recreation. If we say that the product of a great poem is the adoption of disparate or even opposite simultaneous reactions in the head of a reader, if you come to experience joy and shame or umbrage and optimism all at once, if you come to understand the window as both fronting and not fronting on the lake, then this may be the most difficult and transcendent game poetry can play, and it’s one that Elmslie and Horlick (and Cara-Lyn Morgan, and Barry Dempster, and many others) have done with simple grace in these pages. I’ve tried to include, and in this I’ve been helped dramatically by series editors Molly Peacock and Anita Lahey, as many different kinds of difficulty as I can, to bring in poets who play against and even confront one another on aesthetics, politics, and place.
Another energy waste in recent years, to my eye as a citizen of the picture window’s north side, has been the denouement of Canadian literature’s fifty-year attempt at defining Canadianness for Canadians. This is the great public works project of post-war Canadian poetry, and many of the best books we’ve produced have been written to its edict. I would argue that returns, however, are dwindling. Decades on, I don’t know if the poets ever came up with a conception of Canadianness that felt right for more than an archaic racial and political centre. Maybe they were never going to get there, and the best we could have hoped for were a few good books. We got our good books (Lee’s Civil Elegies, Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, McKay’s Birding, or desire, and others) but ended up with a new problem of “Canadianness” as genre: a kind of practiced, searchful, easily-awed poetry that, stripped of the political urgency of its birth, haunts us like bad maxims, forever offering easy ways out of lines and ideas using the well-trod paths of past generations.
There are poets who still find wonder in these corners, but for my dollar most of the great work is being done in a post-Canadian moment. By post-Canadian, I want to dismiss not national themes but rather national mechanics, an idea of poetry and place that treats the nation, its environment and people, as some kind of perfectible vessel made whole by myth and wisdom. As antidote, Lesley Battler’s found dialogue is unrecognizable to the ecopoetry from our little magazines of the seventies. Likewise, Jeff Blackman’s brief graffiti has the benefit of its nihilism: his speaker doesn’t really have an alternate Canada to suggest, and so he snipes cathartically at the culture presented. The Disco Nationalists would have hated him. As counterpoint, Shane Neilson’s poem is awash in Canadiana but is all the stronger for its refusal to escape through the emergency hatches offered by the last fifty years of Canadian lyric. From now on, if we are going to present the varied metaphor-machines of our urban spaces, let us do so with Lise Gaston’s protest chants in our ears. If we are going to raid the newspapers for content, let it not just be The Globe and Mail but The New York Times, The Guardian, and whatever else Amber McMillan dug through for “Listen, Junebug.” If we are to be crushed by the weight of our inherited canons, let us understand, as Robert Currie does, that this would at least be a whimsical death. Let’s have our embossed national animal be John Wall Barger’s unicorn. Let’s have our work songs ding with Sadie McCarney’s cash register, and if we, as Jan Zwicky did, come across an abandoned grain elevator set against a prairie sky, let’s be both taken by its beauty and mad at its condition. Let’s embrace our disparate reactions. Let’s be patriotic post-Canadians together.
There are things I hope our late-night passers-by didn’t think we got up to on our side of the window: accessibility, social studies, nation-building, and the like. But I don’t control that. I spend so much time thinking about how they presented to us inside the bar that I keep forgetting about the fact that the mirror goes both ways: we are, for them, a kind of theatre, too. We can be the stage for all their assumptions and uncertainties about poetry, about Canadian art, about art itself. Borders act on all of us.
Another good border zone is the Canadian Poetry section of our country’s chain bookstores. Of course, as a steadfast member of the literati, I buy all my books at Indies and carry them home in hand-stitched wicker baskets, but I am often responsible for an infant who needs his diaper changed when on long walks, so the neighbourhood Indigo has become a regular stop. The big box stores have the arbitrariness of scale; they aren’t assembled lovingly by a knowing hand and are instead the product of shipping patterns and stock overruns. In their own blunt way, they are a public. I like to go find their short Canadian poetry shelves, look on the bright neon covers (now suddenly as common as plaid in CanLit book design), and try to guess what I might pick up and leaf through if I didn’t know anything about the authors. Most often, I find myself swayed by the implied curatorial safety of the anthology, and the big stores tend to have a Best Canadian Poetry in English of at least a somewhat recent vintage. I tell you this story as a way to express why I think this anthology is important.
Maybe you are reading these words right now in the Canadian poetry grotto of a Chapters or a Coles, considering where to spend your Art Dollar. I wonder how many of these poems you, individual reader, will like. What’s a good number? Surely if you read through the book and say “All fifty” I’ll know you’re either lying or I’ve failed to make an adequately varied, adequately conflicted contribution as guest editor. But if you read them and say “None”, I won’t believe you either. Maybe your early opinion of the volume will reflect which poem you first flipped to. Will it be Jonathan Bennett’s vocally distinct dramatic monologue? Kayla Czaga’s slow turn to sweetness? Any of the poems that concern early parenthood? There are a lot of those, and while this can be read as a symptom of my own early parenthood, I would argue that the trend exists beyond this book, and beyond this country. Parents are spilling out into magazines, clutching poems. They have new ironies and joys and the worst, most unspeakable terrors. It’s important to present all these propositions close to one another to allow for easy movement between them. You will like a certain fraction of these poems and, if we’re all very lucky, hate a certain fraction of them, too.
The owner of the bar with the south-facing window has sold it, and it will now close for renovation. So, I am in the middle of a venue search, the first for the reading series since we opened seven years ago. This has sent me out the door, down the street, and into the vast unconcerned country to try and describe to bar and restaurant owners what exactly a reading series is and why they might want to house one. Thrown into Lake Ontario and told to swim. This is a rare practical test for my ideas about being welcoming. It is a challenge not just to consider the picture window, but to try and construct a new one. Luckily, I feel ready for the coming rebuild in large part because of my time spent guest editing this anthology. Best Canadian Poetry in English was also a practical test of these ideas, a way to solidify an ethic and fess up to my own bullshit. I would like to thank Molly Peacock and Anita Lahey for reading alongside me, Heather Wood and Jim Nason for keeping the machine running at Tightrope, and the several hundred poets we read this year. Not only the ones who made the anthology or the longlist, but all of them: for suffering my biases, my misreadings, and my curatorial agendas, none of which mattered at all to their writing or the accomplishment of their publication. This anthology is a real gift to a guest editor, and I’m happy to have learned so much about my peers.
I hope you find a topography in these pages: something to love, something to consider, something to be taken in by and either embrace or throw back. I want you to see how beautiful and various the view is from the north side of the window, looking out onto the world, the micro and the macro, the streetcar stop, the lake. So please, come inside. There are lights on in every corner.
JACOB MCARTHUR MOONEY's latest book is Folk (2011).