Sonnet L'Abbé

Sonnet L’Abbé: “When calling this era the #post-truth era, they might ask themselves whose truth we are ‘post-.'”

What follows is a poem and an essay, appearing as part of the month-long series “Post-Truth Politics and the Creative Craft” on the blog, curated by guest editor Natalie Wee.

CVIII

Watch out for fake poetry. It plants ideas in the brain. It’s shape-think. It may fake the character of woo, so deep, but this phony speech hates the right knowledge. Its figury attitude to the correct mastery of true spirit whets stupid sympathies. Real news is for us to speak. Whinewashers don’t know how to register right what may be expressed. What dummy says love? Or says that daydreamers merit anything? Nothing, sweet boy, that them dharma bums try should get likes. Say prayers to divine right, for we must each day, over and over, assert truths every schoolchild has to memorize. Counting is a chore no one should worry their nodding little heads about. Only losers distrust chief officers or undermine their authorities. Fake sonnets, fake villanelles, even fake-ass uncreative writings threaten America first. I am hallowed by true poetry; it hails my fair name, so that I am eternal. In Loserville, in Loserville’s freakshow cantos, poets weigh words, trying to be great when they can’t. They don’t understand that real poems compliment power. No jury or fake judges can order gifted verse writers to tone down. They will not cease to mark the anniversary of this winner’s win. The fake poets’ little protests please the cucks and feminazis, but make no sane thinker quit glorifying fucking glory. The ayes have it, as they’re paid to. Great poetry gets financed for flattering the first lady’s company with great conceits. Fake poetry for losers never talks about my heart: it’s huge and big and red. Everyone knows my heart is sometimes so American it’s devastating. True poets show my heart steadfast. Only criminals would show it dead.

*

Seamus Heaney had “The Troubles,” Federico García Lorca had Franco’s nationalists, Anna Akhmatova had the Stalinist terror. Great poets, all of them, their greatnesses forged in adversity. It was unlikely, I thought, when I was younger and first reading these poets, that a Canadian poet could ever become great—because in Canada, in multicultural, inclusive, and democratic Canada, no one really risked anything by writing a poem. I mean, no one risked incarceration or loss of life, at least, not as far as I—with my settler education—knew.

When I first began writing about feeling excluded from national identity, or even about having been violently policed when trying to claim the entitlements that are supposed to be part of Canadian identity, I felt no physical or social risk in putting my thoughts on paper. No one seemed to want to suppress my words. Why suppress, when you can ignore? Governments of a happy majority, I realized, could safely ignore whatever truths their minorities tried to make heard. I wrote my heart out in unrequited love for the white boys I’d grown up with, knowing that I was writing about racialized hatred and white supremacy. My poems were praised for their craft and beauty.

I mean, no one risked incarceration or loss of life, at least, not as far as I—with my settler education—knew.

I eventually came to understand that white hostility to my body and my voice was hostility to elements perceived as “foreign.” There was room in Canadian hearts and in Canadian multicultural policies for “foreign” elements as long as they didn’t pose any threat: one brown girl in your class full of other white kids was okay, but one brown girl expecting you to be her boyfriend and be seen with her publicly, not so much. One black guy as a middle manager, okay, but when the composition of the executive team might dip below 50 percent white people? Not so much. In such a climate, what is poetry for? What is poetry when the writer has to be a certain colour in order for them to be allowed to speak about what is human?

For a long time, Canadian literary and news scenes embodied white cultural dominance: one “minority” person on a long list of awards, or on an editorial team, or on a list of invitees to a festival, was okay and staved off any real look at how white supremacy works in culture and politics. But it wasn’t okay. “Canadian” identity—that is unhyphenated Canadian identity—was founded as a white identity that depended on the presence of non-white people for its existence. For most of the history of CanLit, Canadian mythmaking was the role of white folk. Publishers acknowledged non-white writers by carefully choosing stories that depicted Canada as a promised land to suffering refugees. At the same time, editors have resisted (citing problems of craft or tone) the voices of indigenous and brown people born here who write to expose the hypocrisy of a Canadian multiculturalism based in white supremacy.

Recently social media and the Internet have made it impossible for traditional mainstream spaces of public representation, like literature and television, to keep the “foreign” elements out in the same ways that many executive teams, municipal councils, gated communities, and social circles continue to do. Social media facilitated and amplified women-led movements like #idlenomore and #blacklivesmatter. Through social media, the underlings have gained a voice, and the media, literary, and art worlds have been forced to acknowledge the suppression that was and is at work in maintaining mostly white public and professional spaces. This acknowledgement is a relatively recent shift in the literary scene, and we know that the battles over who occupies our power seats continue, and that those battles continue to be racialized and gendered. It is not only Trump supporters who have preferred that power structures remain dominated by white women and men.

Those white people who are suddenly wondering, for the first time, what to do when the white people who control the narrative at the very top want to tell a narrative that excludes them—demonizes and misrepresents them, steals their language and twists it to make themselves look victimized, and dismisses voices raised in protest—might ask themselves how black and indigenous people have survived in North America for the past centuries. When calling this era the #post-truth era, they might ask themselves whose truth we are “post-.” Perhaps the newly fearful will turn to literary spaces, like this one, to hear and learn from those of us who live in historically marginalized communities. We who have lived marginalization from whiteness have the skills of surviving assaults on truth. We have fought for media space; we have had to learn self-care in the face of a dismissive leadership’s deafness to our concerns.

We must understand that for indigenous people, Canada has always provided the truth-twisting conditions that painfully produce ‘great’ writers.

Racialized people have always had our truths. To resist through the conscious possession of individual truths, and of collective truths, is crucial, but on its own is often not enough when it comes to shaping our political realities. We must not only value truth, but we must also value the people, media, institutions, and processes that drive truth to speak to power. North American spaces where white and settler voices are not at the centre of the conversation have everything to offer. We must understand that for indigenous people, Canada has always provided the truth-twisting conditions that painfully produce “great” writers.

Harper’s government helped me stop worrying that Canadian politics were too benign to forge in its writers the fiery commitment to fellow human beings that youthful me understood as “great.” It was under Harper’s watch, in 2014, that poet Stephen Collis was sued by Kinder Morgan for opposing a pipeline project, and that the oil company’s lawyers read out one of Collis’ poems as evidence against him. It may have seemed, when Trudeau Jr. was elected on promises of electoral reform and nation-to-nation consultation with aboriginal peoples, for a brief moment, as though we might happily slip back into some mythic multicultural Canadianness, when some of us didn’t need art for refuge. But now, as I watch our prime minister renege on promises and engage with the US president in alpha-dog performances of power, I think even poetry and fiction will not be, cannot be, refuge. Let us all be great writers. The conditions are ripe. Let us make poetry and fiction that is, in coming years, the ground upon which North America reconciles itself with truths.

Sonnet L’Abbé is the author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe and was the guest editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014. She currently is a professor at Vancouver Island University. The poem above is a “colonization,” or overwriting, of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108, from L’Abbé’s project Sonnet’s Shakespeare, which will be out in April 2018.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

Absolutely wonderful. I write politically inspired poetry but find it is not well received by audiences or magazines in Canada although I have had some success in the U.S. There is a new reading series starting April 5 in Toronto called Slant. It will have a decidedly engaged focus. Let’s see if it lasts. Sharon Goodier

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