Review of Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood on the Town Crier

It was a damn pleasure to review Christine Leclerc’s bpNichol award-winning Oilywood for the Town Crier as part of its Feb.-long look at politics in/and/of literature, “Different Ways of Seeing.”

Oilywood… operates like a cut-up filmstrip of biographical and autobiographical reflections on coastal life in BC’s Burrard Inlet. The action is prompted by increasingly public and dubiously legal tar sand/oil industry incursions into the region. Spliced into this film strip’s em-dash cuts are a ticker tape of oil giant Kinder Morgan’s news releases and a scattering of terse, italic interjections—“hear something,” “fish on rocks,” “who gets to belong here,” “shifting baseline.”

Over sixteen sections, a modest 1–3 pages each, the focus oscillates between reflection and news release, suggesting a tug-of-war between community and corporate discourse.

OilywoodBW

Read the full review at the Town Crier, but first, if you will, a few notes that didn’t make it into the review:

Partially based on interviews and workshops with Burrard Inlet residents, Oilywood salmon-leaps out of the overtly communal Canadian documentary poetry tradition (inaugurated by Dorothy Livesay’s Call My People Home) rather than an Anglo-American Romantic biographical docupoetics (Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Crane’s The Bridge).

Leclerc also comments slyly on an avant-garde digital docupoetics, exemplified by Kenneth Goldsmith’s manifesto Uncreative Writing. In positioning the writer as selector/collagist/curator of the sublime quantity of extant texts, Goldsmith and other digital docupoets aren’t so much reinventing writing as they are adding yet another entry in a long line of uncreative poetics: Classical furor poeticus, Romantic madness (and the Aoelian Harp plucked by wind), Modernist automatic writing (and the mechanistic unconscious plucked by trauma).

Here’s one of Leclerc’s comments on documentary automatism. In the spirit of my review, I’ll leave it unpacked.

I wanted a picture. So I took one
with my phone and moved closer. No
one stopped me and no one cared.

I went closer, and the pipeline was
white. It jutted out beyond the edge
of the dock and it didn’t make a sound.
I wanted to take another shot as my
shorts wicked wave water.
[…]
And my phone was gone.

It was stupid to have dropped it. It fell
out of my pocket.

But the water crashed harder. My feet
went cloven and my eyes went like a
dog’s nose.
[…]
There was an orange light in the
shallows, by the woods, as the waves
tossed my phone in the sand, my
phone still taking pictures.

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“Mr Crow,” Jack Davis

I’ve come across a few poems in the last weeks that have both prompted me to reconsider academic curricula’s singular esteem for Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and left me wishing there were a global poetry anthology titled Inkbrains: several hundred years of being weirded by corvids. I post this poem because it appears unavailable elsewhere online. It appears availably in Jack Davis’s 1977 collection Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia.

Mr Crow, I have been occupied with the thought,
As to how and what I ought
To write of you for some considerable time.
You are detestably difficult to place into rhyme.
There's no symmetrics in your feathers
Or your white-rimmed eye,
Your croaks are akin to leather,
You are cowardly mean and sly.

But when Nature manufactured creatures,
Wise she thought of all the features.
Now if her realm should all be beauty,
Who then would master meaner duty
So when you cawed far back in time,
First struggled out of primeval slime,
Mother Nature paused and said:
From this moment I declare
You will fly and haunt the air
And help me desiccate the dead.

It reads perhaps too simply. But there’s a sonnetic construction (two quatrains and a sestet, with the addition of a terminal quatrain; the turn at “But”) that intersects nicely with the two stanzas’ parallel movements in rhyme (both transition from rhyming couplets to rhyming quatrains). The result, if you’ll make this leap with me, is two partial sonnets assembled into something more than one sonnet. And these two sonnetic conclusions sit juxtaposed without entering synthesis: Mr Crow, you’re ugly, and I’m trying to write a pretty thing; Mr Crow, you do Nature’s work, in which ugliness is necessary.

And the point? Davis’s collection deals with the legacy of colonialism in Australia (notably the early nineteenth-century British declaration that Australian Aboriginal peoples were ‘wards’ of the colonial state), so putting the ugly into a pretty thing without taking the ugliness out of the ugly would be of key concern to him. The social politics of racial stereotyping aren’t hidden far beneath Davis’s unflattering, essentializing, and dismissive description of the ‘crow’ (a common settlement-era Australian slur against Aboriginals), which is underwritten by the dominantly British medium of poetry and its conventions of beauty.

“Mother Nature,” which for those of us inheriting the British tradition has long been poetic cliche, then recuperates Mr Crow not as beautiful but as necessary. This puts me in a strange position as a critical reader: if Mr Crow is being raced as black, using familiar imperial rhetoric about ‘those natives,’ how content can we be with his relegation to custodianship of “the dead”? Or with the paradox that his recuperation-relegation is achieved through the very poetic medium that the Davis of the first stanza denies (however ironically)?

‘The problem is not that poetry can’t handle ugly things, but that poetry, as a discourse, makes things ugly’? That doesn’t seem far off the mark.

A few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox”

Thank you to everyone who sent congratulations regarding my recent Descant prize win. A few of you generously mentioned that you ‘enjoyed’ my interview on the Descant blog. I’m convinced that (through no fault of the interviewer) I sound like an ingénue, so to compensate I’ve posted here a few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox,” my only other anything-winning poem. They were originally hosted on the Echolocation blog but didn’t survive a recent content cull. Evidently, I refuse to take that as a hint.

Page’s glosa “Inebriate” (which you can listen to her read here) pissed me off. From there, “Olbers’s Paradox” very quickly began to write itself. Many of its images respond directly to Page’s and are traceable through the rhyme scheme, which I annoyingly had to preserve in order to write a glosa from the same cabeza. And I wanted the same cabeza because I thought I could use the same source material to produce something more interesting. That admitted, I haven’t done much to advance the glosa form. Maybe I’ve brought in dramatic monologue, or dramatic lyric, but that’s a bit like adding whisky to bitters: what you get is still (an) old fashioned. Advancing the form wasn’t my interest. If I had to name one difference, it’s that Page wanted glosas to be celebratory and I want them to be quietly or loudly belligerent. Characters are pretty good at quiet belligerence; poets can be good at being loud.

With “Stars / beyond stars unfold for me and shine,” Page practically handed me the paradox that the historical Heinrich Olbers posed: the universe can’t be both infinite and eternal (eternally static, that is) because if it were the night sky would be completely chocked with starlight. Being high on Anxiety of Influence at the time of composition, I evidently connected the potential frying of the Earth’s surface by stellar radiation with the woe of the contemporary writer. But the Earth doesn’t fry, they say, because space is expanding and the stars are moving away from us. That’s a simplification. Here’s another: time expands outward, pushing the past and its precedents away from us. The gradual departure of their lights is what allows and requires that we keep writing.

I traced Page back to Cohen, both back to Keats, and he too back to Elgin, incidentally Olbers’s contemporary but more importantly the one who ‘rescued’ the Parthenon Marbles from those crazy, statue-burning Greeks. Each of the four handled influence in a different way—lauder, renouncer, neurotic, and thief—but I have more fondness for Olbers’s patient, the character whose voice cohered quite suddenly out of this mess. The patient is my antidote to Page’s transcendently happy, ironically healthy, spring water-swilling septuagenarian. There’s something admirable, I think, in a younger person terminally ill but thermodynamically happy. You heard me, Keats.

Sonneteering: Billy Collins’s “Sonnet”

Billy Collins

Billy Collins. How you gonna say ‘no’ to that face?

“I’m going to post about Billy Collins today. And I had written out a post, and that took some time, and so I hope you’re going to read it. But I’m going to interrupt your reading to talk about Collins a little bit. And before you actually read the post, I wanted to say a couple of less premeditated things about Collins.”

That’s how Billy Collins might write a post about Billy Collins. But you can be damn sure if he did people would laugh uproariously. Apparently, I don’t particularly care for him or his sonnet “Sonnet.” It’s probably jealousy.

Read the poem below and my grouching on The Town Crier.

Sonnet
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Sonneteering: Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide”

Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon

The Town Crier has officially relaunched with a renewed focus on regular content, and I’ve sneaked in the door with a biweekly (or thereabouts) series on sonnets. I may never amble around to writing on why Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is the best sonnet in English, but I’ve started with sweeping claims anyway: popular criticism on poetry, especially in Canada, has an acute case of ‘kitchensinkism.’

Read my slightly more specific thoughts on Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide” (from his exceptional collection The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea) over at The Town Crier. But first, catch up on the plot:

A Rough Guide
Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed in the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did
at a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine, but there is ice-cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.

DIY Poetry Brothel

or, How I Became a Poetry Pimp (and You Can Too!)

The Toronto Fringe Festival is the city’s great theatrical equalizer, meting out stage space by lottery to established performers and companies as well as to those new and break-seeking. This year’s festival, held in early July, saw the expansion of the Visual Fringe, an outdoor gallery space originally launched to host visual artists, providing tents in which to hawk their wares.

A few weeks before the festival, I fell in with a bad crowd: WORKhouse Theatre, a company who’d lost the stage lottery but devised a plan to pack a Visual Fringe tent to its PVC rafters with performers, visual artists, and writers. The tent, dubbed Fort Awesome, would be a site of collaboration across the arts and of playful interaction between artists and visitors. It would be your childhood clubhouse among so many market stalls. And the WORKhouse producers were open to event suggestions.

I stumbled on the Poetry Society of New York’s Poetry Brothel the way you might stumble over a small end table as it waits on the sidewalk for garbage collection and—you being six pints deep and the night demanding minor larceny—drag it home only for the morning to complain that you’ve nowhere to put it. Well screw you, morning, I found somewhere to put it. Giving full credit for the idea to the PSNY, I suggested hosting our own poetry brothel, I offered to issue a call and edit submissions, and (although I forget exactly when this happened, I like to think it did almost immediately) I earned the name Madame Andy.

Four Steps to a Brothel You

I initially conceived this post as a reflection on our brothel, an opportunity not only to record the event (and so resist its transience as performance) but also to theorize the correlations among sex work, performance, and poetry that it might foreground. While I will offer some reflection, I believe there’s more value in simply relating a process that worked for us and encouraging other small art collectives or collaborators to adapt it for their own purposes.

. . .

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