Nate Dorward recently encouraged the Lexiconjury listserv to post reactions to Shift & Switch‘s public reviews. Consider me encouraged, Nate!
“… and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations.” *
Early public reactions to the anthology have included frequent reference to the volume of visual poetry and graphic documentation of poetic projects. You’ll find Chris Fickling’s textual translations of found art, Jeremy McLeod’s printer poetry, and gustave morin’s treated found collage. There’s an excerpt from Matthew Hollett‘s digital poetry speechballoon, a still from the interactive Flash project (go play now!!); its font-play reminds me of Paul Chan experiments. Jamie Hilder’s photographic documentation of his highway performance writing (provocative phrases and short poems hung from overpasses) celebrates a non-traditional yet very public publishing venue.
The anthology also includes concrete and visual poetry homages by several contributors. While the theory behind these poems may not be “new” in the Pound “Make it new” sense, the sheer joy of playing and experimenting with language’s materiality comes through loud and clear for me. It reminds me that experimentation has its frustrations and joys — the epiphany of a new discovery, and the elation (or frustration, depending on your personality) when you find out your discovery actually has a tradition/history of its own.
The S&S contributors are on journeys. They may continue to create text prolifically, production may dwindle, or they may pursue non-literary activity. To document where these writers are, now, what’s recently new for them, excites me as a reader. Do you remember when you first asked yourself, “What happens if I don’t rhyme? If I create a poem only using nonsense? If I create a poem solely out of punctuation? If I create a poem with non-standard grammar, punctuation, syntax, capitalization? If I create a poem using two letters? Using no language materials? Perform a poem with multiple voices? Publish in a non-traditional format?” Do you remember your reaction, your peers’ reactions? Do you remember when you stumbled across something no one else was doing?
But I digress. As I mentioned, early public reaction has heavily referenced the visual work, which makes up around 20% of the creative work in the anthology. I can understand why reviewers are eager to discuss the visual: a) it’s the first thing you notice (graphic vs. fine print), b) it’s quick to digest, c) there are many styles represented, and d) it’s extremely unusual for visual poetry to be anthologized.
TRADITIONS AND DEFINITIONS
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was most certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said, as politely as she could. *
Natalee Caple recently lauded Shift & Switch as “the best book in 2005, … a brilliant anthology of young poets from across the country working in various avant-garde traditions.” The seeming oxymoron of avant-garde and tradition in this sentence strikes me as apt for quite a bit of work in the anthology. As I mentioned, some visual poetry could be homage, conjuring work published in the 20th century. Similarly, some text-based poems in the anthology are strongly surreal andor ‘pataphysical, playing within avant-gardism also from the previous century. Yes, experimentation has tradition, has history. Many writers are attracted to experimenting with what a poem may be, and often travel down similar paths of epiphany and aha-it’s-been-done-already. Do some contributions respond to, wrestle with, or break the mold of other experimental practitioners’ texts?
Perhaps we’ve encountered a fork in the road when it comes to definition. “New” has multiple interpretations (see paragraphs 3 and 4). What do we mean by “avant-garde”? “Experimental”? “Radical”? “Tradition”? “Anthology”? Do we speak the same language; are we interpreting it similarly? How do such terms’ ambiguity affect the reading (or multiple readings) of a book, when these terms are used as markers for the book? What are our expectations of an “experimental” “anthology” of “new” “Canadian” “poetry”? Where does the book deviate from our expectations, and how do we interpret that deviation?
Briefly, on “anthology”: Is it alive in its moment, representing “a slice of time” rather than a canonic musem or “a definitive statement for the ages” (quotes attributed to a recent awesome conversation with Bill Kennedy)? How could an anthology be “generative” or inviting instead of the last word on its subject (referencing Mark Truscott)?
GEOGRAPHY AND EDUCATION
Some recent and wildly inaccurate reader comments on Silliman’s blog (referring to Shift & Switch as a Calgary/Toronto cattle call showcase for MA students) have me musing on contributor geography and Canadian university programs. During the editorial process, derek, Jason, and I spoke about each of these (and a myriad of other extraliterary details), so it intrigues me to find them brought into dialogue around the anthology.
First, a bit about contributor geography.
- 10 contributors (25%) are current or former residents of British Columbia. 9 currently reside in Vancouver and area.
- 16 (40%) are current or former residents of the Prairies. 6 currently reside in Calgary.
- 22 (50%) are current or former residents of Ontario. 9 currently reside in Toronto.
- 4 (10%) are current or former residents of Quebec.
- 5 (13%) are current or former residents of the Maritimes.
- 8 (20%) are current or former residents of the States.
- 3 are current or former residents of England.
It’s nice to have a range of writers in the anthology who’ve lived in many rural and urban places, and whose texts often reflect the politics and values of their environments.
In Canada, there are currently 7 MA English programs offering a Creative Writing focus and 1 MFA in Creative Writing. Many universities and colleges also offer BAs and courses in Creative Writing, such as Simon Fraser University’s certificate in Creative Writing (part of their Writing and Publishing Program), University of Alberta’s BA Creative Writing minor, and York University’s BA major. My research dug up the following MA/MFA programs in Canada.
- University of New Brunswick offers an MA in English with a focus on Creative Writing.
- Concordia University offers an MA in English focusing on Creative Writing.
- University of Guelph offers an MA in English specializing in Creative Writing.
- University of Windsor offers an MA in English: Literature and Creative Writing.
- University of Toronto offers an MA in English in the field of Creative Writing.
- University of Manitoba offers an MA in English with an optional creative thesis.
- University of Calgary offers an MA in English with concentration on Creative Writing.
- University of British Columbia offers an MFA in Creative Writing.
Of the MAs listed, to my knowledge only UNB, UWindsor, and UCalgary have (had) faculty that encourage(d) and support(ed) experimental writing practices; most programs produce traditional lyric work. How does this compare with US MA programs? My rudimentary experience (AWP Conference 2004 and occasional conversations with States students and faculty) leads me to believe there are many more CW MAs in the States, but little support for experimental writing practices and poetics studies (just a smattering of schools).
As I mentioned, there are few creative writing MAs in Canada and fewer still that support experimentation. I only know a few writers who have graduated from Cdn MAs in experi-positive programs, and my familiarity with them comes through publication andor their engagement with writing communities (largely fostered outside or around school programs).
Only a few S&S contributors have pursued MAs in English (Creative Writing). The creative theses I’ve read that’ve blossomed during the programs include Jill Hartman‘s JA=NINE (aka Scraballah) and Jordan Scott‘s blert (some of blert is excerpted in S&S). Other contributors pursued Masters in English, Mathematics, Divinity, and Law. And then there are others who haven’t pursued graduate (or undergrad) studies for a variety of reasons, including disillusionment with academia, lack of interest, lack of appropriate program, and financial debt.
I’ve flirted with grad studies for the last few years, but often become ensnared in worries around the financial black hole such a degree would cause, as well as debate on why I’d want to do grad work. In 2001, I seriously considered applying for the MFA in Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts, but gave up that dream; it’s impossible financially. In 2004, i nearly applied for grad studies at U Hawai’i and SFSU, but several factors stopped me. This year, I’m excited about the MFA in Interdisciplinary Studies at SFU, but I may not have enough time to apply. As Wide slumber inches closer to publication, I’m turning my attention to interdis work that includes text, movement, and voice.
But enough about me. What are your thoughts on experiment, environment, definition, education?
* excerpted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.