Monday, January 02, 2006

One way to start the new year is to take a look at an anthology that promises to be the newest of the new. This year, that book is clearly Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry, edited jointly by derek beaulieu, Jason Christie & Angela Rawlings. Containing 41 poets, the three editors included, in a space of just 188 pages, the volume is a gathering quick hits – you may not get a sense of any individual’s overall project, but should get enough of a hit to sense whether or not you would like to investigate further.

Some of the poets should be familiar to readers here, either because I’ve discussed their work directly (Jonathon Wilcke, Rob Read, Mark Truscott), through their work as bloggers (Jason Christie, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rawlings, Truscott), or because they’re very visibly publishing (beaulieu, Sharon Harris, Read). But more are new to me, which is terrific, especially when the work itself is likewise terrific. One whose writing literally jumped out at me is Jamie Hilder, a Vancouver poet who is represented here by a series of photos of large banners hung in guerilla graffiti mode from freeway overpasses – “TO DIE, THAT’S EASY,” “PRAXIS MAKES PERFECT” & “FREEDOM THROUGH WORK” read three of the banners, all in caps. I wonder how many drivers recognized the slogan of Nazi concentration camps in that last banner.

Other times, tho, I’m not sure that this compact format works to the poet’s advantage. Gregory Betts, for example, has snippets of what appear to be complicated formal experiments in a post-Oulipo mode, but excerpted in instances of one, it’s difficult if not impossible to see what the project might add up to, or at least toward. The overall impression given is of a peripatetic experimentalist, sort of a Canadian Richard Kostelanetz, but I have no confidence that this is a fair or even remotely accurate comparison.

The work ranges from straightforward poetry – texts that could easily have appeared in Patrick Lane’s conventionalist convocation, Breathing Fire 2 – all the way to the latest in vispo. In some instances, as with Chris Fickling’s line drawing copies of famous paintings (Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, DalĂ­’s Persistence of Memory, Escher’s Drawing Hands) with letters of the alphabet added, it’s not clear what recommends this work either as poetry or as visual art. Yet in Rob Read’s case, four visual poems from Hieroglyphs dramatically expand what I know of a writer whose previous work I’ve seen has only been his email daily treated spam texts. His visual works are superbly crafted, compelling & filled with humor.

I find visual poetry particularly difficult to get on the page – it often works better on screen – so I sometimes find myself wondering if, as with gustave morin’s work, these are glimpses into a major new practitioner or pretty predictable rehashings of earlier work by the likes of Joe Brainard or Trevor Winkfield. At least morin makes me want to see more, to know whether he’s the real deal or not.

I am, as readers of this blog must know, generally suspicious of visual poetry & this volume has a lot. Is it really characteristic of new Canadian poetry or a by-product of experimentalism for experimentalism’s sake? It’s difficult to tell here, tho at times the anthology reminded me of a reaction I had recently to a series of altered books. There is a real & deeply creative altered book movement in this world, but when I see a project where every single participant appears to be imitating Tom Phillips, it just fills me with despair. The experimentalism of the surface so graphically apparent in Shift & Switch similarly suggests that Canadian post-avant writing is weaker than is actually the case.

The work in Shift & Switch is broader than that, happily. Reg Johanson, Glen Lowry & Nathalie Stephens are all poets new to me whose work I now know I have to seek out. But, combined with some of the dicier side-effects of computer typesetting – the names of poets in both the table of contents & contributors’ notes are difficult to read, having been printed in a pixilated gray, AND combined with the anthology’s weakest element – three uncoordinated, repetitious introductions by its editors – the heavy sprinkling of vispo gives the overall project a haphazard, makeshift air that does a disservice to the book as a whole.

The sum of all this is that I’d recommend buying Shift & Switch – there are too many fine poets herein not to – but I’d also recommend treating the volume the way its Mercury Press editors should have, as a first draft proposal for a collection perhaps three times this size (tho with no more poets, perhaps even fewer than we have here), a volume that still would require a good deal of editing & collaboration on the part of its editors. It’s a shame that this book is not that.