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Constructive Negativity

Constructive Negativity

Prize Culture, Evaluations, and Disability in Canadian Poetry
edition:Paperback
tagged : poetry, canadian
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Canon Confessions"Canon," as a concept, gets a bad rap in CanLit these days. The reasons for this are many, though the fallout from literary nationalism and a backlash against attempts at promoting diversity are chief amongst them. And yet the supposedly irrelevant canon is being systematically (and enthusiastically) replaced by something worse: the devil known as Prize Culture (PC). This phenomena obscures its vile power by inveigling smart young minds to discount the concept of canon whilst simultaneously doing everything they can to become a part of it. But before I unpack this idea and trace its history, I have a confession to make: I believe in the canon. Shall I make of this a Nicene Creed? Between the sheets, let me say my prayers: I believe in the one canon, the Canon Almighty, Maker of minor and major, and of all writers resentful and ungrateful . . .I'm exaggerating: I don't believe in "one" canon. I believe, rather, in canons, or what have been termed "countercanons" - niche canons based on geography, ethnicity, genre, and subject. As well as my favourite, the "personal canon" (aka a list of my favourite books). Until recently, I thought everyone professed the Nicene Creed. And why not profess? Those of us who are descendants of the British Mother Culture, that dictator of what constitutes "minor" and "major" in colonial Canada, have been conditioned to believe. For a very long time, the nation tasked our institutions with the business of canon-making. Much of this was done by the publishing industry through the production of anthologies to be taught in universities. The controversy around who's in and who's out is the cannon-fodder of the canon wars, and it happens with every anthology. It was partly the lack of a national literature, and thus of a canon, that spurred the Massey Report . The problem is we may have overcompensated. The twentieth century produced an impressive number of Canadian literary anthologies (at least two hundred). This is a vast output, especially given that we didn't seriously fire up our engines until the 1960s. Today, the English Academy even has a minor field called "canon studies." Its dean is Robert Lecker, who has published a couple of fantastic scholarly books documenting the development of Canada's English-language canon.To push back against the Big Ugly Static Canon (a white, Western heteronormative canon that, in the case of poetry, includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, etc.) the debate shifted, beginning in the eighties, from one around establishing a single, definitive canon to canons, plural. It's now commonplace, in literary circles, to talk about the "Alberta canon" or the "Asian-Canadian canon." This expansion of the canon concept to include not just marginalized writers but also genres and subjects once considered "ungentlemanly" was both necessary and welcome. I don't want to read any more Hugh Garner. EVER. Not when I've got Madeleine Thien. I routinely participate in the business of poetry canonization by focusing my critical practice on writers I believe are neglected by the culture. You could call this practice counter-canonical: when I see what PC valorizes, I also see what it doesn't, so I often sift through the latter to find work that seems unappreciated. I push against the canon and nominate members for entry by leveraging my personal taste as a critic. It rarely accomplishes much, but it's something. In the midst of one of these quixotic quests I learned, however, that the young refuse to acknowledge the value of canon because of its exclusionary history. The baby, in other words, is being thrown out with the bathwater. In the vacuum created by the loss of "great old" books, PC builds a disposable canon while everyone looks the other way. My analysis here is restricted to my area of expertise - Canadian poetry - although I think the deformations extend to fiction and beyond.

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Thicket
Excerpt

DIVINATION IBegin bawling bring forth phlegm in string- a-lings toilet hoverer thigh-blossoms of flimsy cotton making fugues breaking cocaine peeling couches strung with cat eyes chatoyant sternum jostles heart homeward skyward cloud forms your windows full of sycamore weeds run to the sky ledges of tidy journals suck air skin particles magical thinking. Clock ticks begin meaningful positions shivering cellulite dust bunnies drywall disintegrating right in front of you pre-phoenix queen of bitches broken arrows cuss me out right at the corner why don't you you guilt-ridden you know what tape fifty dollar bills to my door on days of crisis hang soft Portuguese bread and deli meats on my doorknob. Crucify me later

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A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl
Excerpt

LOOK HOW THE BIRDS ARE GATHERINGLook how the birds are gathering--the leaves have not yet turned.I had wanted to gather summer upand hold it, cherished, in my arms--but the winds are blowing,the winds are blowing.I want to go off with the gathering birds--along the grassy corridors:scrub forest, fields, and glimmering ponds--the lakes of the lunar ocular,the pastures of night,the stars--The winds are blowing, are blowing--I want to fly with the birds, the winds--as if there were no corners to the earth,no garbage sways,a huge Sargasso, in our seas--if nothing was lost, forgotten,failed--The birds are gathering on the wires--I want, I want to go off with them.

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Nap-Away Motel, The
Excerpt

Sometimes I'm a girl and sometimes I'm a boy. Today's a girl-day, so it's Orianthi. Red skinnyjeans, my brother's old Blundstone boots, a black tee, no logo, purple hair chalk. It's a coolname, right? Rockin' guitarist and all. Back story on the boots--I was wearing them the dayCarter took off, three months after our seventeenth birthday. Otherwise they'd be gone too.They're awesome, all worn out and scuffed up and vintage-like.Carter ran away, and I followed. We're tethered, but I guess he forgot. I miss his quirky hyenalaugh, his tenderness, his viciousness. Raspberry pie at midnight, single fork. Ori, whispered,sing-song, reverent. All that science shit he used to teach me, trilobites, coprolites, dendrites.Ukulele punk--humble, badass. Whatever. Short story, he's gone.I'm kind of wondering how I ended up here, Room 11, Nap-Away Motel. Bed shaped like ahammock, stink of cigarette smoke and mouse piss, stain on the carpet that looks like blood,cracked mirror in the bathroom. Bleak. Dubious beginning for a lost-twin quest.I waited for Carter to come back, for seven hours and thirteen days. At first I wasdisbelieving. I sent him jokey texts with stupid emojis that I knew he would hate and waited forhim to respond. Then I got really pissed. Stopped texting him. But I kept looking for him at allthe places we hung out. Around the sixth day I spiralled down into a blacker place. Soundtrack"Cosmic Love", Florence + the Machine, all that darkness when the stars go out. On the seventhday I found his cell phone. Smashed open, all its robot-like innards exposed. The screen wasshattered into a million little pieces of cracked ice. I cradled it for a moment in my cupped palms.Like a dead baby rabbit. Then I hurled it at Carter's bed.A couple of months before he took off, he started acting weird. Cagey and nasty. Some kindof secret pulsed through his veins. No riffs on his uke. He muttered and scribbled in his3notebook. I'd looked inside it before--brain-eating amoebas, blue straggler stars, crap I didn'tunderstand--but when I snuck into his room to peek inside the notebook again, I saw crampeddark words multiplying and spilling over the pages, jagged fangs, disemboweled dogs. They sayterrible things will happen if I reveal anything, he had written. I've made a discovery though,about dendritic spines, about the connectivity of the interneurons. I thought it might help, butthey say I can't tell, not ever. Not even to Ori. They tell me things about Ori that I don't want tobelieve, horrible things about what--Carter caught me. His eyes were grey and wild, filled with snarling wolves. He ripped thenotebook from my hands."The proof is in here. About everything! Now they'll have to come and take me," he hissedvehemently."Who?" I asked.His lips curled back to form the words. "You're not who you say you are. They said youwould do this, that you would interfere!" My guts slithered and constricted into a tight coil. Hedropped the notebook and turned his head sharply to the right. "Shut up. SHUT UP! GOAWAY!" I skittered out of his room. In the morning he was gone.Here's the thing. Carter and I look out for each other, because no one else ever has, not really.Spent most of our childhood bounced around between our mom, our grandma, and foster care,which mostly sucked, except for foster home three. Big funky farmhouse on the edge of Oshawa,lots of fruit smoothies, two wiry grey dogs, and a foster mom who was into drumming-circlesand yoga. Stella. She bought Carter his first ukulele. I miss the dogs the most. Nancy and Grover.They both had those weird blue eyes that could pin you against a wall. She got sick though.Stella, I mean, not Nancy.4Foster home five was nothing like number three. No dogs, no smoothies, no yoga. Bunch oflittle kids with snotty noses, running around with dirty bare feet, wet diapers hanging down. Fishsticks and overcooked pasta with watery tomato sauce. Lots of beer-drinking and bad reality TV.Kathy was nonchalant about Carter's disappearance. Figured he was old enough now to be'starting out on his own.' Mr. Jepps didn't even notice Carter was gone.So the vigil of waiting for Carter's return was mine alone. Thirteen days and seven hours. Onthe eighth hour his postcard arrived. A touristy one, with a glossy Canadian beaver on the front,Toronto, written in large cursive script across the bottom. The back was crowded with the samedark cramped words from his notebook. My name, again and again. Ori, Ori, Ori, like he wascalling out to me. I'm at the edge of the universe, THE FUCKIN' EDGE, looking over. There's apencil in my heart, right here, right here, and it hurts, you can't imagine how much it hurts me,but they can't take it out, they can't get to it, but every time I breathe I can feel it impaling me,the slivers of wood piercing, fiercely, fiery, fury, flurry, there's a flurry of words slipping out ofmy brain. Someone has tampered with it. There were a few more sentences that I couldn'tdecipher, and then: I can only eat tacos now. Ori! I could hear his voice, pleading like he wasbeing held hostage. There was a sketch, small and detailed, of some kind of pointy-nosed rodent.Like an earless mouse. But with rows of sharp teeth. And circling the outer edge, like a frame:On earth we strive for earthly things and suffer sorrows daily. In heaven choirs of angels sing,while we play ukulele.I carried the postcard around in my back pocket for five days. Folding and unfolding it,slashing that beaver's pelt into four. Re-reading all the craziness, until it was embedded into mymind. The beaver was magical; I thought it was an amulet that would bring Carter back. Until I5realized that it wasn't bringing him back, it was calling me to him. A magnet, tugging at mymarrow, pulling me to my twin.Pulled on the Blundstones, threw my clothes and my notebook into a bag, scrounged aroundfor cash. I had a couple hundred stashed away. My life's savings. Carter had a Mason jar filledwith change that I emptied out. Stole a couple of twenties from Mr. Jepps' beer fund. Hitched aride with a neighbour to the city. Told him I was meeting Carter, like it was all planned. Big fattruck, driving fast along the 401, going west. On the drive he told me neighbourly stories. Thebowling alley fire. Mr. Marshall's dog. (Twenty stitches. And that cone of shame). Graffiti onthe war monument in the park. Eventually he turned on the radio. Soundtrack, his, not mine:"Sunglasses at Night," Corey Hart.

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We Are Not Avatars

We Are Not Avatars

Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

from "Queer Rose Country"For queer people who were raised in or find themselves in places like the Alberta ofmy youth, the known environment is overshadowed by straight, mainstreamhegemony whose answer to the question "who am I?" is, by design, quite limited. Formany gay men and lesbians, whether they are writers or pipefitters or vodkadrinkers, "Where is here?" must be restated as "Where is queer?" or at least as itsderivative: "Where is straight-acting?"And we go looking for it.Eventually.Here or elsewhere.Elsewhere and here.I grew up in Charleswood, near the university in Calgary's northwest. TheRockies formed an early western limit to my thoughts, and Highway 1A remains myfavourite approach. It veers downhill past Cochrane toward Ghost Lake and JumpingPound, then swerves archetypically into my flesh. Even as a child I would believe Icould stand on my bed, gaze out the window--and there they'd be, waiting.Mountains: distant and sentinel, but patient and reassuring. Each spring their dustyindigo insouciance was echoed by the windblown slopes of prairie crocus in thefoothills. The mauve chrysalides would poke through slowly browning grasses, shyheads bowing as they opened.I believe our first landscape imprints the porous and visceral inside us,shapes the nervous system's involuntary responses. Words rise through the body,which is geologic, stratified--layers of place, of family, silted over by subsequentfutures. The oldest words, as they well up, conjoin with others more recent.Meanings blur. After I grew up and moved beyond the provincial borders of myimagination, Alberta--or rather my Alberta and everything that occurredthere--continued to assert itself, imposed its template on all later geographies. Myanswer is always physical. I am comfortable in cities like Calgary where the landoverwhelmingly intrudes. In Ottawa, the Gatineau Hills across the Ottawa River,which in itself was exotic, for it has breadth no river should have, reassured me,though in late September the feverish maroon haze incandescing over their flanks,as the maples turned, both disoriented and delighted me. Something inside linkedthis purpled fluorescence with spring.From "We Are Not Avatars: How the Universal Disembodies Us"Imagine of how differently we would read "First Year" if Eavan Boland were a man,the love's queerness signaled to us as readers the moment we encountered "yourboyhood," our experience of this poem taking us in an entirely different direction.The present debate about gay marriage could not fail to impinge upon the line,"Where is the soul of a marriage?," which would elicit an interpretation that noheterosexual reading of it need contemplate, especially in California, where Bolandteaches at Stanford. Because "First Year" is the eighth poem in an eleven-partsequence of love poems in her ironically titled collection, Against Love Poetry, itsplacement in relation to what precedes and follows it further determines howreaders will understand what's meant. Once they learn that this marriage was"solemnized" over thirty years ago, they would immediately know that no churchwould have agreed to host, let alone sanction a marriage between two men in the1970s; nor would it have been legal. The couple would have instead appropriatedthe idea of "marriage" for their own purposes, the poem reading as a testament ofthe forbearance of "forbidden love" to rise above societal prohibition, its resilienceequal to heterosexual love's putative stability. The celebrants attending thisunrecognized marriage of alike bodies and two minds might even tender itscandidacy to be declared universal--but only in a subcultural way, to echo Collins'definition--and, depending on each reader's capacity for tolerance, privately viewedwrong or right. The poem's decorous tone might nonetheless let it fly under theradar, much like the love poems in [my book] Great Men did, for not once are theshibboleths against sexual explicitness violated. There's nothing juicy in Boland'spoem no matter how you choose to read or misread it.

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Mean Game, The
Excerpt

This This is the EndAnd when and when my snaggletooth wifeBacks out of the driveway beside a grinning foolI think this this is the endI drive all night I run over a catHer kitten clawing scrabbling blind in the dirtI scoop her up she purrsIn the hook of my arm for a yearAnd when and whenMy mother my impossibly kind motherHolds an X-ray of her skullHer finger upon a crabapple lumpAnd she no longer talks and she humsThat is no song I say and her eyes are stonesI think this this must be the endI speak to the ocean at duskI say dear ocean am I not the worst thingThe spinning world has ever madeThe waves drink my hairThe waves urge me like a leaf to my bedAnd when and when I am kissed by a busThe crystal bowl of my ribcageBursts and the ripened fruit within itBurns to fossil and to ashMy father stands in a forest a Vicodin moon aboveAnd my few close ones hold handsAnd when and when a war eruptsFor the water of my countryAnd survivors decamp in the ruins of mallsThawing their souls at bonfires of booksStill the women walk slowTo the virulent river the rapturous riverTo wash their hair at dawnAnd when and when the last bird shuts its eyesAnd the flesh of the last whaleDrifts like pollen in turquoise inkAnd dust devils are lords of the squaresAnd trees reclaim the stairsStill the stars glister like sparklersAloft in the hand of a girlStill the earth our grave hurdles with grace in the darkUtøyaYou have sung us down.Middle of the island you whisperedthe treasure-bearing goblin song, then howled it.To escape the lines, some held their ears,some gnashed their teeth, some ran,some drowned swimming out of earshot.There are nightmares a human enactswhich are the work of gods. Hatred swirls in the earthlike the polluted sea gyres. Some jötunn,lonely demon craving an ally,slid a thorn in your side deep below the ribs,a death-in-life wound. Pawn,you were implanted in a uterus.Out of the Navel of Heaven you emerged,kid with a fucked-up plan in his overalls,scrawled by a god of war.You were a virgin pharaoh limping the desertin a coat of snarling dogs;a grim princess crushing a serpentbetween your fingers, gathering venomin a bowl; a physicist hauntedby an atom humming in a microscope.You fled to the bawds of the valley.You appealed to the progenies of chaos.None could remove the thorn.One day you woke singing the hemorrhaging song,as if it were yours; the Mein Kampf song;the scratching-at-the-door-at-3-a.m.song; the sandman-over-your-bed songof the tongue-tied wound in your rib,which choked the kid with the deaf sisterat five in the afternoon. Your song suffocatedthe kid with head lice; smotheredthe pumpkin pie eater; asphyxiatedthe kid with the ham radio;strangled the kid with the potty mouth;throttled the cigarette-smoker put back a yearwhose mother keeps ending upyou-know-where; gagged the girlstoo young to kiss who had never kissed.You sang us down in the sunlit forestwhile golden plovers sang. You sang us downin the fresh cut grass. Time is a bleachedjawbone wind howls through, yawning a melody.Bodies were hauled out by searchlight.I cannot look at the white sheets laid across them.A few stumbled from caves, shivering,humming the tune, petrified.I would like to sing your magic backwards.

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After Birth
Excerpt

DaguerreotypeShe asks for water six times,cries inside the silveredcrib-edges, duck-linedmirror reflectingour struggle in the moonlightthat persists through blackoutdrapes I couldn't afford.She needs to knowI'm with her. I lieon the carpet and holdher hand through the bars,stare into the cavity underher mattress. Togetherour breath slows, the dayblankets us: I could sleeplike the dead. Her grip loosensbut I can't tell if she'sasleep, rise from the carpetand peer down, Nosferatu.As a child I wokewith a ghost's face suspendedover mine, eyes curtainedin funeral parlour velourbehind which the tenor quavered -Feeding Iris StrawberriesI chopped them so she wouldn't choke.Tiny organs prepped for transplant,tumbled together in a smash-proof container. She stuck her fingers inand muddled the juice into her knuckleslike a lazy surgeon. I rubbed a wedgebetween her lips; her tongueunfurled from its anesthesiaof saliva. The tongue chewed, her teethghostly white. Possessed,she was strawberries, vocalcords lit in pulpy psalm.My fingertips - her lips - red!I felt then all her firsts - reflexto my breast, to bloodythe word, to stumble and then cry outat not falling, balancevaulted like a gothic arch. I felt the mouthof the personshe will one day lovefed strawberries.

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