Raymond Carver haunts the world of Canadian poetry criticism …

A lot of anticipation and expectation accompanied the arrival of the “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” panel at Ben McNally Books, presented by Biblioasis, Porcupine’s Quill, and Palimpsest Press.

Before the event, E Martin Nolan wondered if Jason Guriel, Anita Lahey, and Zachariah Wells would live up to the criteria for “considered dialogue” set out in Stewart Cole’s recent Puritan essay. The event’s Facebook page delineated the contours of the discussion very clearly: the authors were to launch their newest collections of non-fiction, discuss both celebrated and underrated Canadian poets, and comment on the role of the “skeptical review” and their feelings about the online maelstrom surrounding poetry criticism in Canada. In some ways the panel achieved its goals; in other ways, it did not live up to my expectations.

Much of my disappointment can be linked to the evening’s format. Half an hour, under any circumstances, is hardly enough time to attend to all of the aforementioned discussion points. Richard Greene guest-moderated the panel, and his questions to the authors about their critical tastes were illuminating and useful in terms of a survey of some contemporary critics’ methodologies.

Jason Guriel read from The Pig Headed Soul (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013) and noted that the critics and poets he admires are those who are able to write something difficult but make it look easy. The effortlessness lies largely in being able to entertain and, as a result, Kay Ryan stands out to Guriel as an exemplary poet capable of depending on the “power of her words” to carve out her own audience.

Anita Lahey read from The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (Palimpsest Press, 2013) and explained that when she was editing for Arc Magazine, she was mostly drawn to “reckless” reviews and was troubled by “smoke screens.” Lahey was interested in “exacting a true confession” from critics and disparaged writers’ attempts to hide their real feelings. Greene noted his enthusiasm for Lahey’s tendency to highlight underrated writers, but Lahey responded that she is “not so calculated” and that her reviews were often the result of sifting through piles of books.

Zachariah Wells, who read from Career Limiting Moves (Biblioasis, 2013), agreed with Lahey that he was in favour of people saying what they really think about a text whether it was positive or negative. While it’s “ill-advised” to bash someone’s first book, it troubles Wells to see that well-established authors are perceived as capable of “doing no wrong” despite a “consensus” otherwise.

Greene then went on to quote from Stewart Cole’s essay and invited the authors to respond to his distinction between a “scene” and a “community” in light of the recent online debates. Lahey agreed with Cole’s distinction between the two terms but admitted that she did not follow the controversies closely because she reserves computer time for writing and not for being social. While I admire Lahey’s discipline, I was surprised to hear that she wasn’t fully aware of the arguments that have erupted since late 2013. I can’t speak for the event’s organizers, but it appeared as though Guriel was invited to the panel due to his central position within the debates, Wells for his often-controversial critical habits, and Lahey because she’s an excellent critic and … a woman? I would hate to position Lahey’s point-of-view within a strictly gendered lens, but given the importance of the discourse surrounding contemporary criticism, it would seem that offering a broad(er) array of informed opinions is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, Lahey’s limited perspective on the social media sparring limited the extent to which the audience could hear at least one female critic’s perspective on the topical issues. It’s also worth noting that no writers of colour were invited to sit on the panel, which also contributed to the discussion’s circumscribed direction.

Guriel and Wells were far more skeptical about Cole’s use of the term “community” because, as Jason put it, writers “bandy about the term ‘community’ too much.” They identified social media as a particular culprit in de-legitimizing “community” due to the lack of an editing apparatus on Facebook and on Twitter. As Cole argues, social media gives free rein to immediacy and reactionary responses. Guriel described social media debates as an inevitable “spiral into Thunderdome.”

Lahey argued that it’s not the word “community” that’s the problem, but how it is used. I agree that social media may not be the most intellectually thorough medium for hashing out informed criticism. Nevertheless, the democratizing effect of social media cannot be ignored. Lahey argued that the “online fighting” has its root in real issues that exist in poetry: poetry has a small audience; reviewers are often poets, too; and therefore readers tend to be more suspicious. Again we return to the issue of representation.

Ben McNally Books

Ben McNally Books: Scene of the Crime

Cole and the panelists appear to agree that the best way to discuss poetry is through formally composed, well thought-out analyses presented through peer-reviewed channels, apart from social media. Fine. Yet social media cannot account for the fact that before social media there were still fewer women and writers of colour being discussed in criticism and that white men were (and still are) doing most of the discussing. At this point my head gets lost in a maze and I want to implore the panelists for a way out!

To engage with poetry properly, the setting needs to be adjusted. Social media is too limiting, insofar as responses tend to be short, inflamed, and emotional. Journals, essays, and columns offer the room to expand analysis thoughtfully with clear evidence. But we return to the root of the problem again: who is being published in journals, newspapers, and in books, and why? If social media isn’t good enough, how else are marginalized readers and critics supposed to get a word in if established media outlets pay no attention to these ignored voices?

During the question period, one woman said that she saw the overuse of “community” stemming from the proliferation of identity politics. She admired Cole’s use of the term “civility” and the need to encourage it, agreeing that social media can prevent cordial conversation because of the tendency toward “knee-jerk reactions.”  She continued to say that contentious polarities occur when the heat around identity politics translates into one community being pitted against another. Critics believe in aesthetic autonomy, politics tries to usurp that, and the issue becomes compounded. The problem with the idea of “civility,” she argued, was that we aren’t answering the following question: “whose political position are we talking about when we discuss ‘civility’?” Wells responded that in his political household, arguing was encouraged and normal, but in the world of criticism he can forget that other people have different definitions of “civility.” Lahey noted that an argument in a review can be taken too personally as reviewers often forget about respecting authors as real people.

The second (and final) question led the panel away from identity politics and an audience member asked whether or not the debate over how to critique properly may stem from the lack of established poetical schools in Canada. The authors were somewhat ambivalent about the idea of “organizing” poetry, with one arguing that social media does the organizing for us, another arguing that camps feel restrictive.

Although time ran out before these questions could be pursued further, I was satisfied that the audience re-directed the issues in a problem-solving direction, something I believe the rest of the panel did not. I felt as though a lot of the time was spent in defending the critics’ own habits, lamenting the behaviours evident in social media, and arguing semantics. It is unfair to suggest that Guriel, Lahey, and Wells are responsible for “fixing” the “problem” of poetry reviewing. Yet, given their privileged positions as (white) established, well-known critics and authors, I would argue that they left something to be desired and that the panel fell short of impacting or at least reframing the debate in a way that hasn’t already been attempted.

*Note: The first publishing of this post wrongly indicated that poet Kay Ryan was Canadian. She is American.

12 Comments

Phoebe Wang

Thank you Zachariah for posting these mp3s of the “What we Talk about Poetry” event. Ryan Pratt alerted to me them last week, and they’re a valuable resource, and record of an important juncture in Canadian criticism. They’re also very funny, and I especially enjoy the whispered asides between the panelists.

I wonder, though, if you grasp the purpose and audience of the Town Crier blog and of Kyncl’s write-up when you wrote yesterday on your personal blog that you found her response “sloppy, tendentious” and that “earnest contributors need to work hard if they want to meet basic journalistic standards.”

Amongst other aims, Town Crier strives to inform a new generation of writers, or would-be writers, about ongoing critical conversations in Canadian writing. It is not for promotional purposes. It does not serve any single agenda, nor does it presume that our readers are tuned in to certain specialized kinds of knowledge. This doesn’t mean TC’s contributors are dumbing things down. But if our readers are not as well-informed as they could be, (or find 5 hours of recorded conversation too overwhelming and impenetrable with its myriad references to specific literary topics,) posts like Kyncl’s can spark interest, provide summaries and situate the event within a wider cultural context.

It’s unfortunate that Town Crier cannot afford “basic journalistic standards,” as the site also lacks basic journalistic funding, resources and other organizational infrastructure. Not having to adhere to certain rules and codes is liberating. Town Crier can take risks that national newspapers and media outlets cannot. Yet the site isn’t entirely without standards, though its yardstick may not be the norms of establishment. As Puritan’s Outreach Coordinator, I can’t begin to measure the weeks that it took to coordinate the posts, interviews and responses to the “What We Talk about Poetry” panel that will be appearing this month. Nor can I measure the hours editors Spencer Gordon and Tyler Willis spent on internal style guides and schedules, editing and proofreading each blog post, or the unpaid time contributors like Kyncl have spent, without a vested interest in poetry, in covering an astonishing array of Toronto’s literary events in a timely and relevant way.

I do think that Kyncl’s post could be better worded in places. I believe yourself, Guriel and Lahey were invited on the tour not for the reasons Kyncl infers, but simply because all three of you have books of criticism out. In any year, that’s notable. And welcome. That does not mean any of us should stop asking, “who gets invited and who doesn’t?” Lahey’s presence is notable because there are few books of literary criticism by women published in Canada at all, even fewer outside academic presses or by writers of colour. This is not a baseless accusation. It’s worth thinking about.

I’ve long urged Puritan’s to post staff bios so that readers are better informed about the contributors. Tracy impressed me with her earnest commitment long before I learned she holds an MA in English and was formerly editor of Hart House Review. Her pieces for the Town Crier have been praised and reposted widely on publishers’ and authors’ websites. She will probably continue to make mistakes. She will definitely continue to argue. She will continue to point out privilege when she believes she sees it. Indeed, privilege underlies all of us fortunate enough to have the time and space to write, to read, to review, to critique, to edit, to reflect and to ponder. She’ll probably continue to have her work disparaged online behind the wall of privacy settings. If only such remarks could serve as a useful critique of a young writers’ work. Instead, they seem intent on putting them in their place, discouraging their interest and participation at a time when a wider audience for criticism and poetry are so urgently needed. Eventually, though, it’s voices like hers that will drown out whispered asides.

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Zachariah Wells

Dear Ms. Wang,

I take the purpose and audience of the post to be the same as the purpose and audience of the panels: viz., to discuss poetry and literary criticism for the benefit of people who are interested in such discussions.

I’m afraid the assertion that your blog “can’t afford” to meet basic journalistic standards finds no sympathy with me. What I’m talking about is nothing more than a)accuracy and b)making use of readily available resources. When someone is covering a live event and makes no effort whatsoever to speak to the people participating in that event–before, during or afterwards–that is not a problem of resources. It is laziness. It is sloppiness. And it does nothing to counteract what I perceive to be a tendentious bias on Ms. Kyncl’s part.

When someone has access to publicly posted audio and does not make use of it to verify the accuracy of quotes and paraphrasing, that is also sloppiness. If Ms. Kyncl had time to attend the event, and time to write up her impressions, then she had time to do it with a modicum of rigour. She had time and opportunity to do a bit of research, to ask a few questions, to attempt to understand what it was she was talking about.

By consulting any one of us and/or our publishers, Ms. Kyncl might have learned that this panel was not convened by an institution seeking expert views, but jointly by three small press publishers seeking effective and engaging means of publicizing recently published books–books that do not lend themselves so well to the standard means of promotion. This would account for the composition of the panel and would make any assertion of would-be omissions subject to examination: i.e., if there were no visible minorities represented on the panel, it just might be because none of the three publishers had published a book in 2013 by an author meeting Ms. Kyncl’s criteria for diversity. She was not “asking a question about who gets invited”; she was making an assumption about it, and she studiously avoided any inconvenient facts that might have disturbed that assumption’s smug confidence.

Had she bothered to speak to me or Jason, she might have paused before snidely suggesting that Anita Lahey was included on the panel as a token female presence–a suggestion that I find repugnant, as I consider Anita, with whom I have worked on many things over many years, a valued peer. There are very few people who have made greater or more positive contributions than she has to literary culture in this country over the past decade. It does no service to feminism if women writers like Ms. Kyncl perpetuate the sins of the patriarchy in their writing.

If Ms. Kyncl truly has “no vested interest in poetry,” then she was probably an unfortunate choice of correspondent to cover our event. It does not appear that she has read any of the books or that she possesses much knowledge of their authors. Or of poetry in general. While I’m glad to see that you’ve corrected the error about Kay Ryan’s nationality, it has to be said that this is not an error that someone with basic knowledge of the topic of contemporary poetry would have made in the first place.

Someone armed with knowledge of the field might also have been less tempted to trade in stereotypes of white male privilege. As you say, just about anyone who has the time and resources to take part in such frivolous activities as fiction, poetry and criticism has more privilege than someone who does not. “Pointing out privilege” in such a context is therefore a pasttime analogous to pointing out silver hair in a seniors’ home. Nothing betrays a poor understanding of privilege and its sociodynamics more than an unnuanced portrayal of it.

There are many forms and grades of privilege and myriad means of acquiring and losing it. Whatever privilege I enjoy within the context of the literary world has been accumulated by writing often and well, in the judgment of editors and publishers. As an editor myself, I have taken note of well-argued, eloquent, stylish writing in more-or-less obscure venues and have rewarded such work by offering the writer another outlet. Had Ms. Kyncl generated such work for The Town Crier, I would have taken note, even if I did not agree with her arguments, and might have invited her to contribute work to Canadian Notes & Queries. I have not put Ms. Kyncl in her place, I have merely made an observation of the place she has chosen to occupy.

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andrea bennett

Wait a second. What? Are you saying that the act of reading, writing, and participating in the poetry criticism is some sort of great leveller? That participation assumes a baseline level of privilege, so any discussions of privilege that exist in the world outside poetry are moot, once you’ve scaled its walls?! Are you actually saying that whatever privilege you enjoy in the world of poetry has come solely from your own merit and hard work? You *earned* all you’ve got?! What’s it like back there in 1986? Should I sew the shoulder pads back into my power suit for this conversation?

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paorta

“As an editor myself, I have taken note of well-argued, eloquent, stylish writing in more-or-less obscure venues and have rewarded such work by offering the writer another outlet. Had Ms. Kyncl generated such work for The Town Crier, I would have taken note, even if I did not agree with her arguments, and might have invited her to contribute work to Canadian Notes & Queries.”

No offense, Zachariah, but this sounds disingenous. I’m not questioning whether you have actually done this—I’m sure you have—but the fact that you bring it up in this discussion is gross. Is there anything else that Tracy could have done for you to maybe get her work published in CNQ? Wash and wax your car, maybe?

Tracy had different expectations of the event that you participated in, expectations that seem at least a little bit in line with its billing. She wasn’t wrong for having those expectations. The moderator read from Cole’s essay and Jason Guriel was involved. The subject was reviewing Canadian poetry. Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to the “Canadian poetry scene” (whatever that is) would have had those expectations. That is one of the reasons the event was marketed the way it was, as you more-or-less say yourself. You were primarily promoting your books, fine. But does that innoculate you from criticism? It doesn’t. Her response is perfectly legitimate and it is not acceptable to wave away her pointing out the limitations of the event because, uh—well, “just because”?

Including the intentions of the event’s organizers or participants in her piece might have added complexity to the review, but then again, they might have only cloudied the water. To provide an imperfect analogy, should a music reviewer have to speak to the performers after a concert in order to produce an accurate review of their experience at the concert? Not everyone has that kind of access or is even interested in that kind of access. Why are the standards different at a literary event? Some familiarity with the writers would of course be preferred, but Tracy reviews events regularly and I’m sure that’s not always possible.

I mean, seriously, can you not see your personal bias in this? This is not an issue of Tracy not living up to your mythical standards of event reportage. You are implicitly telling writers that in order to be published by CNQ they have to positively review you. Isn’t that exactly the kind of disgusting croneyism that everyone involved in Canadian literature regularly deplores, and/or was purported to be a subject of the event that Tracy reviewed? Why would anyone want to be associated with an editor/journal that behaves that way? Maybe you should consider that the next time your Google Alert brings you a “more-or-less obscure” venue.

—André

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The Puritan Editors

To provide a bit of context for why Tracy attended and commented on this event:

Jesse Eckerlin, Publicity Assistant for Biblioasis, contacted us directly with a request that someone from The Puritan (the online literary magazine that published the original Cole piece and runs The Town Crier) write about how she or he felt the panel went. Tracy thankfully volunteered.

This is how we were invited. Jesse wrote:

“a couple of the panelists are at the center of some of the most heated (vitriolic? downright nasty?) online exchanges we’ve seen in a long time. It’s commandeered the attention of almost all Canadian poets who are involved with social media in any way. Think CWILA, The Huffington Post, Vehicule Blog, etc. Having recently published Stewart Cole’s lucid and bold essay on these online skirmishes’ erosive effect on the community, I’m sure you have a sense of what I’m talking about.”

Later in Jesse’s email, he wrote: “[The panelists] will be talking about the controversies” and that he’d be happy to provide us with “some background info on the hot-button issues.”

We believe that the most important issues facing Canadian reviewing culture today are those of balance, representation, and privilege. Tracy touches on those subjects, and was disappointed in how she felt the panel didn’t thoroughly engage with them. Considering Jesse’s invitation (mentioning CWILA, mentioning the online skirmishes), considering who was speaking, and considering the gravity of these debates, one would logically assume that these issues would receive a greater allotment of time and attention from the panelists. That it wasn’t just an ordinary book tour. We feel this is a fair and accurate observation.

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E Martin Nolan

Hey Zach! I hope you don’t read this and waste any more of your time. You’ve claimed Phoebe’s making “excuses” for the piece. Maybe. I read it more as “dude, we’re running a free volunteer blog, on our limited free time, and we’re covering an event promoting your book. You should at least show some appreciation for the effort, before you stick your nose up. Be a decent person, for like a second, maybe.” Or stick your nose up, sure; you seem great at it. Great use of “tendentious.” SUPER impressed. I wonder if there’s anything “tendentious” lurking behind your very short blog post? Is there an assumption you’re making about how little time our “more or less obscure” operation is worth, or in your incredibly leading references to Ms. Kyncl as what you assume to be an “undergrad,” or her supposed responsibility to talk to you before publishing something about a public event. Should you have informed her of what to say, so she could get it right? Do you uphold the same “journalistic standards” when you shoot barbs from your own blog? I guess you can be proud of “saying shit you shouldn’t” but when someone says some shit you don’t like, that’s just OUT OF LINE! And that position of authority from which you speak, that can only have been earned in this literary meritocracy of ours. All is equal, I guess that’s why CWILA exists.

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Andy

Thanks to all the above for responding to Wells’s post in an effective range of pointed and informed ways. The only phrasing I might add (because the spirit of it has already been addressed) is this: Tracy is clearly interested in and responding to a general interest in representation and literary sociality, and so this ‘rebuttal’ that doesn’t take her politics seriously–i.e., a response that doesn’t acknowledge let alone recognize her terms, that confuses method for politics and dozes the latter in the former’s name–is flouting argumentative engagement.

‘Dear Mr Wells,’ you didn’t even try to avoid appearing reactionary, defensive, and gatekeeperish. What gives? You took the time to appear mad-but-I-don’t-even-care; why couldn’t you have taken the time to be thoughtful, or even to suggest the interpretive impacts of Tracy’s supposedly flagrant misquotations?

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Ryan

Interesting perspective, Tracy. A lot of quality questions raised, despite the panel’s slim duration. Community (and its flexible definitions) didn’t reemerge in the Hamilton talk but I agree it isn’t too late to ask about underrepresented voices in criticism moving forward.

I’ll be sure to take a listen as well. Thanks Zachariah, for recording these talks.

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