Poetry Can Only Be Made Out of Other Poems

My new book of poems, Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them, takes one of its epigraphs from Northrop Frye: “poetry can only be made out of other poems.” The acknowledged use of other texts in composing poems is something my book does a lot of (there are some centos, for instance), although I’ve made use of texts from many genres, not just poetry. But Frye’s (point is less about poetic content than about poetic conventions (and he makes this point in the context of a discussion of the commodification of literature by intellectual property laws that equate originality with ownership). So what follows is a selective list of some key source works for my book of poems: some are titles the book cites, while others are titles that have incited me to write a poetry book.

This post about source reading thus complements a mix I’ve made of the book’s source music, streamable at Mixcloud.com/sonicfiction.

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No Language Is Neutral, by Dionne Brand

No list or collection of Canada’s best poetry that omits Brand, Toronto’s former poet laureate, can be trusted. No Language Is Neutral introduced me to Brand’s writing, which I’ve avidly followed since. Her poetry—coolly musical and unflinchingly interrogative—excels in the precision-tooled articulation of intersectional experiences, complex states of being, and radical ideas; and it astonishes in its dialectical concatenation of the microscopic and the cosmic. Brand has a particular talent for penning lines memorable enough to re-frame how I think of the things they depict (how Portuguese sounds; what sirens signify; what governments are for). This is writing that enactspraxis: it models and urges mental decolonization and social transformation. In 1997, Brand won the Governor General’s Award forLand to Light On, and my personal favourite volume is 2002’s thirsty, but No Language Is Neutral (which Shape Your Eyes and my prior book both quote) remains an essential introduction to Brand’s poetic virtuosity.

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Illicit Sonnets, by George Elliott Clarke

In Illicit Sonnets, Clarke (Canada’s former parliamentary poet laureate) liberally adapts Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) in a sequence of sonnets framed as a conversation between lovers Salim and Laila. And it’s a conversation held in bold, frank language that juxtaposes sacred and obscene, ancient and modern, urgency and irony. As lyrically assured with four-letter words as with learned references to Eden, Keats, and the Kama Sutra, Clarke deploys such variegated, vigorous, and vulgar vocabulary to transform poetry into a rarefied (and non-exploitative) kind of pornography. (I wouldn’t dare compare my work to Clarke’s, but it does pursue such transformation too.) In the process, Illicit Sonnets makes a lot of other love poetry seem, well, downright Victorian by comparison. “Romance goes wrong unless ripe and raunchy—,” says Laila in “Boudoir Couplets,” “Risqué as a curse, musky like whiskey”  Just try to read these poems (or those of his 2015 follow-up, Extra Illicit Sonnets) without blushing.

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The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen

It would seem neither right nor even possible not to acknowledge here a towering poet whose late passing Canada is still very much mourning. Cohen’s work reverberates throughout a good deal of contemporary poetry, and my book’s no exception (one poem takes its title from Stranger Music, a 1994 selection of Cohen’s poetry and song lyrics that I consult compulsively and often). I’ve long thought of Beautiful Losers as one of the all-time Great Canadian Novels (for its pointedly offensive obscenity, its uninhibited experimentation, and its satire on Canadian nationalism), but I came to The Favourite Game, his Kunstlerroman of a first novel, much later, reading it for the first time while I was starting to conceptualize a poetry book of my own. There’s so much in this story that resonates with and supports the efforts of emerging Canadian writers; and it’s a story woven with a weirdly relatable combination of compassion and alienation, empathy and detachment. Now that my own literary work’s been published, I especially appreciate how the protagonist Breavman describes what it feels like to release expressions of one’s private life into the wild of public reception. But I won’t repeat that description here; go read the book, which has aged almost as gracefully as its author did.

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Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online, by Rosemary Coombe et al, editors

The Notes section of Shape Your Eyes takes an epigraph from law scholar Bita Amani’s chapter on “Copyright and freedom of expression” in this collection of essays curated by Rosemary Coombe, one of Canada’s foremost scholars of critical copyright studies, and her colleagues. Dynamic Fair Dealing presents a wealth of research and critiques on the state of Canadian copyright law as it pertains to that law’s statutory rights to quote or otherwise reuse extant works, for certain purposes, without permission. As such, the book provides a useful resource not just for readers and consumers, but also for creators who work with intertextual and appropriation-based forms (as Shape Your Eyes does in its centos and other sampling practices)—authors need fair dealing no less than users. Some of the highlights, for me, are as follows: Carys Craig’s analysis of the public domain (the total corpus of works whose copyright terms have expired) to explain the value of this corpus to the creation of new works; the sections on Open Access digital publishing and on the poetics of parody, reproduction, and remixing; and Amani’s compelling argument for adopting a more American style of jurisprudence to deciding copyright cases: jurisprudence, that is, which would better balance considerations of users’ and creators’ constitutionally protected expressive rights against considerations of rights holders’ interests (in whose favour Canadian copyright law now remains deeply skewed).

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Hooking, by Mary Dalton

Dalton’s Hooking is an incredible, intertextual feat: a whole book of centos, poems composed only of lines culled from a centuries-spanning archive of poetry. With meticulous attention to formal detail and assiduous acknowledgment of her sources, Dalton composes poems characterized by unsettling images and surprising tonal consistency, like this opening stanza from “Ravel”: “Your flag is public over granite. Gulls fly over it, / see the victim’s face become their own: / she stitched a cloud to a quilt.” (This stanza quotes Charles Donnelly, Louis MacNeice, and Srikanth Reddy, respectively.) In the process, Dalton’s writing documents a particular experience of reading. Between Dalton’s book and Jordan Abel’s more recent, Griffin-winning Injun, which is composed wholly of excerpts from 91 pulp Western novels, I’m encouraged to see such radically intertextual poetry flourishing; it shows just how transformative and creative quotation can be, when exercised critically in the pursuit of producing new work.

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About Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them:

In this inventive collection of poems, McCutcheon engages in sophisticated literary play and deploys the Surrealist practices of juxtaposition, cut-up, and defamiliarization. Moving from eroticism to the macabre and from transformative quotation to the individual idiom, Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them explores intertextuality in poetry by challenging the cultural tradition of seeing quotation as derivative.

January 30, 2020
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