Tuesday, August 02, 2005

It’s been some 34 years since Al Purdy’s collection Storm Warnings first appeared, introducing Canadian readers to such new poets as bill bissett, David McFadden, Barry McKinnon & Tom Wayman. Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets, co-edited by Lorna Crozier & Patrick Lane, is the third such attempt since then to update this fundamental concept, the newcomers’ collection, the first two being Purdy’s second volume & the Crozier-Lane team’s 1995 Breathing Fire.

The book reminds me of nothing so much as Michael Lally’s None of the Above, the one instance of the newcomers’ anthology in which I got to participate, way back in 1976. Like Breathing Fire 2, None of the Above was a grab bag – in Lally’s case, an amalgam of the third generation New York School (Maureen Owen, Joe Brainard, Phillip Lopate, Bernadette Mayer, Hilton Obenzinger, Tim Dlugos, Lorenzo Thomas, Paul Violi & Alice Notley), Actualism (Darrell Gray, Dave Morice, George Mattingly, Simon Schuchat, Lally himself & Jim Gustafson), Language Poetry (Bruce Andrews, yours truly, Mayer again, Ray Di Palma, Lynne Dreyer, P. Inman & Barbara Baracks), DC Poets (Ed Cox, Terence Winch, Dreyer, Lally, Inman) and some very independent others (Merrill Gilfillan, Joanne Kyger, Patti Smith (!), Joe Ribar, Nathan Whiting & Paula Novotnak). History has already shown that the NY School poets of that generation did quite well, as did Langpo, but that Actualism virtually disappeared. Patti Smith is famous, tho not for her poetry. Gilfillan & Kyger continue to be originals, tho each now has a much larger body of writing to show for it. And Nathan Whiting, who composed long slender poems in his head while training for marathons, still deserves to be far more widely known. I don’t know if he’s even alive, or still writing.

That same sort of mixed fate probably awaits the poets of Breathing Fire 2, if they’re lucky. I stress that latter phrase since, of the contributors to the first edition of Breathing Fire – Marisa Alps, Stephanie Bolster, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Thea Bowering, Tim Bowling, Sioux Browning, Suzanne Buffam, Alison Calder, Mark Cochrane, Karen Connelly, Michael Crummey, Carla Funk, Susan Goyette, Joelle Hahn, Sally Ito, Joy Kirstin, Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Barbara Klar, Evelyn Lau, Michael Londry, Judy MacInnes Jr., Heather MacLeod, Barbara Nickel, Kevin Paul, Michael Redhill, Jay Ruzesky, Gregory Scofield, Nadine Shelly, Karen Solie, Carmine Starnino and Shannon Stewart – only Goyette is known to me a decade after its publication. And I do read around.

So is that the old Canadian border thing, or is that a function of the selections? I can’t say for certain, but clearly there are many wonderful younger Canadian poets – Christian Bök, Jeff Derksen, Louis Cabri, Mark Truscott, Darren Wershler-Henry, Jonathan Wilcke, Todd Swift, Kevin Davies, Sonnet L’Abbe, just to pick a few off the top of my head. How many of these young lights are here? None. If I pick up Sina Queyras’ Open Field, which admittedly has a different focus, something akin to “the best” Canadian poetry, rather than the newest – the only overlap between the two volumes is the presence of editor Lorna Crozier in Field. So while the 33 poets included here have been publishing around – several have books – none has as yet emerged from the white noise of the mags . . . at least from my perspective.

So what have I been missing? What seems clear is that – in contrast with the diverse poetics of that list of younger Canadians in the last paragraph – these poets of Breathing Fire 2 all practice sort of a gentle post-New American Poetics, some of it quite good, but much less concerned with innovation or with the relationship of form to contemporary life than one might expect from something whose title suggests a dragon-like fierceness. In many ways, these poets, to think of them as a group, straddle that ambiguous ground that has one eye on a side of the New Americans & another on that side of the School of Quietude that followed Steve Berg & Phil Levine in their revolt against the old formalism, arriving at something like the APR Free Verse Format. Is this a Third Way – rather the way ellipticism has functioned south of the border – or is this how Canada reinvents its own School of Quietude?

The Breathing Fire 2 poets include:

Tammy Armstrong
Sheri Benning
Amy Bespflug
Shane Book
Mark Callanan
Brad Cran
Joe Denham
Adam Dickinson
Triny Finlay
Adam Getty
warren heiti (who eschews caps in his name)
Jason Heroux
Ray Hsu
Chris Hutchinson
Gillian Jerome
Anita Lahey
Amanda Lamarche
Chandra Mayor
Steve McOrmond
Alayna Munce
George Murray
Jada-Gabrielle Pape
Alison Pick
Steven Price
Matt Rader
Shane Rhodes
matt robinson (another lower-caser)
Laisha Rosnau
David Seymour
Sue Sinclair
Nathalie Stephens
Sheryda Warrener
Zoe Whittall

If these poets aren’t a group, as such, there are at least three dynamics that are visible. One is that seven of them are or were students of Lane & Crozier’s at the University of Victoria. The second is that several have, or will have, books coming out from Nightwood Editions, the publisher of Breathing Fire 2. The third is that many appear to be “contest submitters,” which in poetry is almost always a bad sign. Take away John Ashbery’s Some Trees in the Yale Younger Poets contest many decades back (Auden asked Ashbery for the manuscript, but did make a contest out of it by asking Frank O’Hara for one also) & the number of major works produced in relationship to contests is exactly nil. That’s the dirty little secret even Foetry won’t tell you: “award-winning poetry” and significant poetry are mutually exclusive categories.

From what I gather, there were some 300 submissions to Breathing Fire 2. Of the 33 who made it, these are the ones who leapt forward during my reading as being, at the least, promising:

Shane Book has a poem entitled “Litost: A Style Manual,” that reads like very early Jorie Graham. He has at least the potential for some wildness that would give his work a depth these too tidy pieces have not yet gotten.

Brad Cran’s penchant for description & a clean line underscores a sense of craft that is always a good sign, whatever use it might be put to.

Joe Denham’s poems cry to be read out loud:

I etch ephemeral sketches in flat, black water,
swirling the pike pole like a sparkler wand,
the steel spear tip igniting fairy-dust krill
as we drift in to haul up our catch.

Hopefully he’ll never learn to tame that instinct.

warren heiti’s prose, as uncapitalized as he, has an over-the-top impulse behind it that has serious potential. So often, the best writing is that which takes one’s quirks and extends them, rather than reining them in.

Jason Heroux feels like a ready-made for the soft surrealist team (Simic, Tate, Knott, Edson). His work is deft, but immediately recognizable. Predictability is not an advantage here.

What I trust in Ray Hsu’s work is the intellectual ambition that lurks everywhere. I have an intuition that he may be a decade or more from his real work, but I’ll be interested to read it.

Gillian Jerome’s poems don’t hang together – and that’s what I like about them. The wildness in her work needs to be encouraged. She’s one of the very best writers in the whole book.

Anita Lahey’s poems have a wonderful sense of their line. One senses her being completely accomplished at what she’s doing. Hopefully she’ll want to stretch.

Chandra Mayor is the poet who made me use the phrase School of Quietude first when reading this book. Her piece here has the intense confessionalism one sensed in Anne Sexton, but that’s not a recommendation.

I like Steve McOrmond’s pacing. His work reminds me of some of the more serious sides of Actualism or of the uptown side of the NY School’s later generations.

I want to like Alayne Munce’s poetry – it has a liveliness under the surface that peeks out constantly, but these poems are so constrained I want to scream.

George Murray – another Actualist who probably has never heard of that term before.

Steven Price has serious writing chops – he’s not the most accomplished of the bunch (Book, Heroux & Lahey are), but he’s obviously going somewhere in a hurry. I like intellectual ambition – I say that repeatedly & it’s true. He may be on his way toward being the B.C. version of Paul Muldoon, but there are far worse fates.

matt robinson is all about the line. He & Book share that quality, tho their work otherwise is very different.

Nathalie Stephens is the wildest writer in the book. She clearly is going to be a major writer – in some ways, she already is. Consider all the turns & directions in this paragraph:

b produced Commodify me. How the Artists swooned! (They had forgotten irony.) Some heard Come modify me. They were doubly rapt. They dinned b’s unexpected turnaround! (Allowing this once for the minuscule; for hadn’t he too, enfin, capitulated?) Indeed he was spinning. With impatience no doubt as n was seeing him off. The city grew impatient for that departure.

You can’t fake this. As a reader, you either go with it, or you don’t. She’s obviously got the wisdom & commitment to go with it.

As a whole, the book suffers from the misconception that a poem is a Little Narrative in Lines. Breathing Fire has more of an APR feel than APR itself has had in some time. Still, there is real work amidst the exercises, especially Stephens & Jerome. I’ll be curious to see where heiti & Hsu take their writing over time. And, when I come across his poems, I’ll read Joe Denham aloud.