The Next Wave: An anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry. Ed Jim Johnstone (Anstruther Books/Palimpsest Press, 2018)

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not fond of numbers. So I don’t much relish the fact that this poetry anthology is organized, not solely according to the criteria that no one represented here has been published in “book” form prior to 2001, but also in terms of the apparently laudable paucity of their titles (three or fewer), and how this number signifies that they are emerging rather than established when we are all aware that, in this country at least, what truly qualifies you as part of the establishment is not the number of trade books you’ve released (funnily enough, at times it seems the more you publish the more you are relegated to the back burner of indifference, witness say the case of Evelyn Lau) but the number of awards, prizes or other “gold star shortcuts” you rake in. In this literary climate, if you’ve only published one book but it wins the GG or the Griffin you are much more likely to be invited to hold writer in residence positions, for instance, than someone who has released say ten collections of poetry but who, for whatever nebulous and subjective vagaries, hasn’t garnered the big cheeses, even if that poet is a widely experienced creator on multiple fronts. It’s just easier to look at the list of award winners and pick from those to add momentary cachet to your institution than to actually read the writer’s work in question. It’s an odd world where even supposed lovers of literature don’t really like reading.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes if that’s what you’re thinking, as many tend to in Canada when a critic deigns to open their mouths to actually, um, critique anything. My eyes are just gapingly open after over twenty years writing and publishing. And in relation to Jim Johnstone’s poetry anthology, I had nil chance of being included anyway, having released my first book of poems in 1998 and having published well nigh a dozen titles since in three genres. I DO find it somewhat amusing I must say to see a name in this book from my distant past, back in the Burnaby Writers’ Society of the early 90s, still being included in the Emerging category, though we both released chapbooks way back when, and were even then included in a local list of poets “most likely to succeed under 25.” If I was nearly 50 and still in the Emerging category I would personally be wondering what I had been doing with my life all those years. But that’s just me and my non-popular perspective haha. Determining categories of accomplishment is always a dubious quest and possibly entirely besides the point. What I always want to know is – is this poetry truly strong, re-readable, haunting, a singing in the blood? Nothing else matters when one is deciding what poems – not poets – to include in any anthology.

To that end, I find it strange that an editor wouldn’t want to incorporate brief essays prior to each selection, or even a short paragraph, outlining why they think this poet worthy of anthologizing or, better yet, why these poems stand up to the proverbial test of time according to their musicalities, imagery, formal features and other prosodic aspects. I understand from looking at past anthologies that this is not common practice, but perhaps it should be. If you seek to be a taste (or even, gawd forbid, a canon) maker then you need to put your poetic perspectives on the line, not merely preface each selection with a copiously prize-dropping bio (of the 40 poets included, only 5 do not mention their awards), and not even, as with the Best Canadian/American anthology series, even offer author notes on their praxes, or mini-memoirs on origins and sources as does Rhea Tregebov’s Sudden Miracles: 8 Women Poets from 1991. Sure, many of these anthologies include a general preface on modes of selection, motivations for compilation or a castigation of other anthologists’ failed attempts at canonizations, ranging from Susan Musgrave’s quick sketch at the start of Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC  to Dennis Lee’s scholarly “schools of poetry” approach commingled with a strained tutelage on how to hear the “literate vernacular in The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985, to Carmine Starnino’s more “cold water” slam of camps in his fiercely erudite introduction to 2005’s The New Canon (weird too is how Suzanne Buffam, also in the 2004 edition of Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets, is said to be “emerging” in both this and Johnstone’s 2018 release. One definitely has more capital in Canada relentlessly emerging than ever supposedly-established). But none of them offer the editor’s particular engagement on each poet’s poems. I for one would like to know what they think and why, not feeling content to just ride on the prize slide into the warm splishy pool of obvious inclusion. How about not only selecting an author but articulating why you’ve done so?

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O yes I loathe numbers (and why do we need to know the year each poet was born as if, again, this number too has essential import for their poems)? But I did have to undertake a bit of curious counting when reading each poet’s bio. Of the 40 (along with only 5 not reeling off their award absolutions), at least 16 teach in an academic institution and/or possess MFAs and 27 live in or are from Ontario and mostly Toronto, though some now work in the US and one in the UK, with 8 represented from BC and only 1 each from AB, QB (Montreal), NB, NS and NL. Of course, we are used to Toronto being the dom of the literary scene, but this selection (especially in how the anthology introduction promises a focus on diversity) still seems (lazily?) unbalanced. Where’s Melanie Siebert, Catherine Greenwood, Sarah de Leeuw, or Aidan Chafe from BC at least? Chris Bailey from PEI, Clea Roberts from the Yukon, Jennifer Still of Winnipeg (and yes Cassidy McFadzean from Regina might have been selected instead of ONE of the ON poets), Gabe Foreman from Montreal, or Claire Kelly or Kelly Shepherd from Edmonton? The majority of names that Johnstone claims he had to omit due to consideration of space were also, not oddly, like Robin Richardson, from the Toronto area.

Taking a peek at the bios for the 1985 Lee anthology, the ways in which the literary landscape has shifted becomes immediately (and a little shockingly) apparent. 32 of the 44 selected authors were not university/college educators (most listing jobs from fruit pickers to cab drivers to periodical editors), and not ONE mentions a prize even when they had certain accolades to gush about. A revealing contrast of priorities. Ok, to Johnstone’s preface. A few irks. First of all, describing prior poetry anthologies as taking “the country’s poetry to commercial heights” is more than a bit absurd, given how all presses are supported by government grants, not a plethora (alas) of monied readers. Also, noting that “as of 2016, a greater number of poetry books are being published on a yearly basis” than at any other time without directly tying this proliferation to an excess of MFA programs and the mode in which they function according to “first book frenzy” is irresponsible. Once more, the number means little, if not nil, in relation to a real readership. If every poet this country produces bought even one book a year, we poets might even make a tiny living off just publishing our works, but sadly that is not the case. Additionally, dubbing these poets members of the “selfie generation” is both insulting to my ear and misleading, given that a proportion represented here were born in the 60s or 70s and weren’t raised in that era. Last I heard, the selfie generation represents those who seek to “receive validation from others, and to be seen in a superficial sense,” (Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2018), those both narcissistic and generally lacking in self-esteem, and certainly not those are are “self-possessed and self-styled” as Johnstone states. Given such nasty implications, selfie isn’t a neologism I would toss around lightly.

I DO appreciate Johnstone’s emphasis on fluidities and multiplicities of form, voicings, and other approaches to the disorienting, ecstatic realms that Canadian poetry can inhabit. However, whether these poets, by supposedly detaching themselves from any particular adherence to place (and is this wise in our ecologically damaged times?) now travel “on [their] own terms” is debatable. Being anchored to social media modalities is likely even more constricting than remaining in the confines of a small town in the end. And the image of a “dance floor” full of a “flood of poets” determined to usher in a “new poetic consciousness” is nothing short of terrifying.

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But now to the poems (which presumably is why one would want to read a poetry anthology in the first place). Johnstone asserts that in the three years he spent compiling these poems that his selection altered frequently and that, eventually, only “half of [his] initial picks remained.”  I believe this attests to the speedy discarding we undertake in this literary culture, one that isn’t predicated on much lasting as legacy, and that poets craft their work less and less to be re-readable years on. So I’ll mention some poems I especially enjoyed and will almost certainly re-enter for a variety of reasons: Linda Besner’s Mornings with the Ove Glove for its irreverent, cheeky word play, Dani Couture’s Contact just for that initial wow line: “cloud cover like a badly made bed, ruched in sections, rushed,” followed by its staccato assertions of loneliness, Joe Denham’s luminously lucid Windstorm excerpts, The Goodnight Skirt by Raoul Fernandes, a gorgeous riposte poem between two poets for the dubious rights to inspirations from snowballs to love birds, Liz Howard’s masterfully solid stanzas in Euro – Anishinaabekwe – Noli Turbare that twist between history, science and emotion (“office plants all broad-leafed repositories for cognition’s patent heart. I’ve gone and been abominable”), pretty much all the Anne Wilkinson/Louise Bogan-esque lyrics Amanda Jernigan writes for their cadential tendernesses, Canisia Lubrin’s mysterious monologue Keepers of Paradise with its sublime last line: “Her ghostly algorithms translate these nights to bloom,” I Declared my Ethnicity by Nyla Matuk, a brilliant piece on identity, context and the sonorities of “in the dry-down…what a beautiful falsetto,” Sonya Peerbaye’s fantastic nightmares of the gorge/la gorge in Gorge Waterway in which court testimonies and sensual horrors mix with the variant lingual interpretations of one key word, James Pollocks’ deceptively simple Conditional, as resonant with memorable rhythms as Tennyson, and the superbly internally rhymed pseudo-reviews that constitute Catriona Wright’s hilarious Yelp Help. Eleven plus poems that stunned me in a range of ways. That I will undoubtedly return to. Others also of course. There are no utter duds in this anthology though definitely a few snoozers. But these pieces alone are worth the purchase price of The Next Wave. And it gave me a wish list for future poetry anthologies. In sum: a deeper justification for selection than mostly numbers and dates; a wider geographical net; briefer, less puffed-up bios; and please, please, little introductory essays that say something about why the editor believes these poems matter, not just for the seasonal now of the release, but onwards, into our lyrical future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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