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: 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.