From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 12:00AM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 11:18AM EST
If a major Canadian literary event occurs, and hardly a single Canadian is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?
This question crackled in the air last Wednesday night in Manchester, when 70-odd mostly British writers, readers, poets and poetry fanatics, gathered at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, around the corner from the warehouse where Coronation Street is filmed, to launch the most exhaustive and important anthology of Canadian poetry in two decades.
Modern Canadian Poets: An Anthology is published by Carcanet – a respected literary press in the North of England, best known for rehabilitating British poetry when Oxford University Press dropped their imprint over a decade ago. The publisher’s new challenge: rescuing Canuck verse from the international obscurity in which it has largely languished since Robert Service cremated Sam McGee. And it plans to do so without including such well-known Canadian names as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.
On a stage beside the late Tony Burgess’s piano, co-editor and poet Todd Swift read A.M. Klein’s Portrait of the Poet as Landscape, a poem in which the author meditates on his own obscurity: “Fame, the adrenalin: to be talked about; to be a verb … to see one’s name like a song upon the marquees played.”
Swift and his co-editor, fellow ex-pat and poet Evan Jones, are on a personal mission to change the way the world sees Canadian poetry – bluntly speaking, they want to combat the notion that it’s boring and second-rate. As crusades go, attempting to spearhead an international renaissance in Canadian small-press verse in the era of Kindle and iPad might seem quixotic, but it’s one Swift and Jones have taken on with gusto. The genus of the book occurred over a decade ago, when Swift, then a young poet living with his girlfriend in Budapest, wrote a defensive letter to Michael Schmidt, Carcanet head and author of Lives of the Poets, in response to his assertion, in print, that Canadian poetry was “a short street not worth going down.”
At the time Schmidt, a respected Mexican-born Brit who studied at Harvard and Oxford, responded by snail mail that he “simply wasn’t inclined” toward our Nordic bards and that was that – until Swift tracked him down again at a conference in Norwich in 2004. Once again the young poet put it to literary lion, this time in front of a crowded lecture hall: Did the eminent scholar, known for promoting internationalism in literature, still really dismiss Canadian poetry out of hand?
This time Swift got quite a different response. In front of the assembled audience Schmidt said he had since reconsidered his position and that it was time Carcanet did an anthology of Canadian poetry – with Swift as editor. The poet chuckles remembering. “It was my Flashdance moment,” he says.
Swift later teamed up with Jones, and the two of them set about selecting an exhaustive, refreshing – and some argue rather curious – compendium of modern Canadian poets in the hopes of appealing to a British audience. (The book will also be published in Canada, but not until next year.)
The first of their criteria was getting past the much vaunted “garrison mentality” which, according Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye, has characterized our literature for decades. “You get the sense looking through previous anthologies of Canadian poetry that we’re all obsessed with landscape themes,” says Jones, “but the truth is there are many writers who aren’t, and they just aren’t discussed.”
The point of Modern Canadian Poets is not to beat the drum of Canadian poetry for Canadians, but to offer up our rhythms to the world. The garrison mentality, say Swift and Jones, is not something to be protected and appreciated but escaped and then burnt to the ground. For too long Canadian poetry has been looking inward when it should have been reaching out.
“We wanted to ask a very big questions: Why are there no Canadian poets known outside of Canada? Why has no Canadian poet ever won the Nobel Prize for poetry? Why are our poets not being discussed abroad? Is it because we’re sending the wrong hockey team over? If so, let’s try another one.”
The book is most controversial in its omissions. Readers will find no Ondaatje, no Atwood, no Cohen, no Dennis Lee and no Al Purdy. “We were rejecting that whole 1960s nationalistic hippie vision,” Swift explains, “Also, we didn’t want to include poems just because they’re famous. They had to be good.”
Also notable are the absence of the prize-winning young turks such as Christian Bok and Ken Babstock, though they are warmly mentioned in the introduction.
There are many familiar names such as Anne Carson, Klein, Margaret Avison and P.K. Page, and others less so, such as so-called “diaspora poets” such as Eric Ormsby and Daryl Hine – a nod to the Canadian ex-pat experience.
It’s a courageous collection, but will it draw criticism?
After the readings on Wednesday, an elderly lady raised her hand, and tutted in a prim English accent, “Margaret Atwood’s going to be very cross with you two boys!”
Swift just stood there silently, blinking in the spotlight. “I didn’t know quite what to say to that,” he admitted later. “It was a very strange moment.”
FONTE: Globe and Mail