Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Soughknot: The University

A nearly twelve-year-old poem reread by chance:  plus ça change…

The University,
medieval. Institutions
for hire, earnings.


, i.e.,  colleges and universities to perform
a function for tha plutocracy’s technocracy
, i.e., the formation of technicians in real time.

There won’t be monied enough
to send their kids to prep school?

(16:47 Montreal Tuesday 31 August 2004; Ladonian Magnitudes, 2006)

On the Road to Not-here

Twice recently concerning the on-going student protests here in Quebec I’ve heard two artists (Baby Boomers both) dismiss the students’ demands for tuition-free education as “utopian!”. Their one-word argument puzzled me, because these are reasonably intelligent, educated men, yet they seem ignorant of just what brow-furrowing complexities these four syllables hold.

I’m sure they know the word was coined by “Syr Thomas More knyght”, who published a book by that title in 1516, which he described as a “fruteful and pleasaunt Worke of the beste state of a publyque weale.” More’s fictional, “beste state” was quickly criticized by his more “realistic” contemporaries, for whom “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions” (OED 2.a) could only be “an impossibly ideal scheme” (OED 2.b).

However, if we reflect on More’s own description of his work,  one that imagines “the beste state of a publyque weale,” a “condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions” we might come to realize that all debate about the direction society should take is inescapably utopian. Whenever we question or debate how things—especially that “public thing,” the res publicashould be, we think counterfactually, positing states-of-affairs that in fact do not exist, but might or ought to. In this sense of the word, even the Harper government’s vision for Canada is utopian, since its efforts aim at bringing our present society into line with a merely projected one (Harper’s notion of “the beste state”) that has yet in fact to be realized. All “schemes” for how society should be are ideal in this sense, since they exist as ideas before they are actualized.  Indeed, their being conceived in the first place is the necessary condition for their eventual fruition. What is real now was only once imagined.

Such schemes for how society ought to be are ideal not only in the pragmatic sense of their being, in the first place, only imagined plans, but they are “impossibly ideal,” as well, and necessarily so. No plan ever realizes itself perfectly. This blog post, too,  falls short of my intentions. Knowing we must fail, however, doesn’t stop us from striving to bring about our vision of how things should be, moving  our here and now closer to that u-topos, that place that is not (yet) here.

Of course, the dismissiveness of our two artists isn’t one that will be persuaded by such fine conceptual discriminations. Their hard-nosed point is that the students’ demands are, in practical, fiscal terms, impossible. This thesis is debatable: at least eight different alternatives to the tuition hikes have been proposed, all consistent with the fiscal facts all parties agree on. But even this disagreement defined in these terms assumes that an appeal to facts and reason should be sufficient to decide the matter, an impossible ideal rarely met with in concrete political discourse or social struggle, but still one that underwrites any such debate in the first place, if not the very ideal of a democratic society.

So the artists are right:  the students’ demands are utopian, but then, so are the artists’ views of how things should be, and so is the democratic ideal  all parties play along with, that the matter can be hammered out, best without recourse to arbitrary fiat or truncheons. In this sense, whenever we take up the question of  how things ought to be and take the steps to get there, we’re on the road to utopia.

Notice: Norman Nawrocki’s Nightcap for Nihilists

One discouraging struggle of the writing life is getting one’s work noticed. One obstacle is that many of those who do engage in literary journalism hardly have the time for their own lives and writing, never mind wrighting a solid, sensitive review. Those with the time and energy to write intelligent criticism, something else again, have my undying respect. But, what one can do with relatively little effort is give notice of work that has appeared, like recommending a good movie to a friend, getting the word out just to share the pleasure.

Norman Nawrocki has just published Nightcap for Nihilists (Les Pages Noirs, 2012), the fourth volume in his Brain Food series that includes Breakfast for Anarchists (2007), Lunch for Insurgents (2009), and Dinner for Dissidents (2009).  This latest volume and series are just the latest addition to a very long, impressively engaged body of work that includes cabaret, spoken word, musical collaboration, theatre, and even sex education!—just check out his biography. Like the man, the work is on the front line of the struggle for social justice:  rants, anecdotes, parables, and songs, all in that long tradition of imaginative, creative, eloquent engaged art that aspires to cheer the downtrodden and horrify despots.

Here’s his contribution to a recent memorial reading held for the late Andy Suknaski:  “Homestead, 1914 (SEC. 32. TP4, RGE2, W3RD, SASK.) 1. returning”

Andrew Suknaski Memorial Reading

Though Canadian poetry icon Andy Suknaski may have passed away earlier this month, his work survives strong as ever. To celebrate and honour his contribution to our poetry, local poets Mary di Michele, Erin Moure, Norman Nawrocki (virtually!), Bryan Sentes, and others will read from his work and say a few words in his honour. Join us in celebrating the memory and poetry of Andy Suknaski.

When?  Sunday 20 May, 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Where?  Monastiraki, 5478 Blvd St-Laurent, Montreal, Canada

Here’s Norman Nawrocki’s “virtual” contribution:  “Homestead, 1914 (SEC. 32. TP4, RGE2, W3RD, SASK.) 1. returning”

There is also now an Andrew Suknaski fan page on Facebook, for those who would like to keep up on and contribute to developments concerning his work, here.

A Review of Two New Philosophical Works

This past April has proven a politically tumultuous and illuminating month. In Quebec many college and university students have been on strike, protesting raises in tuition fees that will end a twenty-year freeze on said fees and that will bring the individual student’s cost of higher education more-or-less up to that of Canada’s other provinces. The students have been joined by labour and other groups, and the protests have broadened their target to include the neoliberal agenda of the current regime. (Information concerning the strike can be found here  and here). These protests have been going on for some weeks, with more than  200,000 students and their supporters marching through downtown Montreal on one occasion.

Thursday 19 April I attended a book launch for two philosophical works that probed the political implications of Spinoza and Hamann, respectively. The event was held at a bookstore whose show-windows look out on a major intersection in downtown Montreal. As the authors and audience arrived and settled in for the launch, outside could be seen police and a large group of students gathering for what turned out to be a sit-down protest in front of a bank across the street from the bookstore. The launch was introduced by the Chair of McGill University’s Political Science Department, a member of  the Research Group on Constitutional Studies (well-represented in the audience) spoke before each author, and another scholar of political theory introduced the work on Spinoza. Not one speaker, including the authors, expended so much as a syllable  on  the concrete, sociopolitical phenomenon unfolding outside the window.

March End Prill reviewed in The Pacific Rim Review

James Edward Reid provides a sensitive appreciation of March End Prill. Just scroll down to page 36…

RE: On ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’

Carmine Starnino has graciously and with characteristic gusto posted a reply to my more-or-less articulate, offhand gripe on ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’. To facilitate conversation I have perhaps imprudently replied in the comment thread to Starnino’s reply. Interested parties are therefore, to satisfy their curiosity or chip in their own two cents, referred to the post on the Véhicule Press blog here.

Parting words for my creative writing students May 2012

As a poet, I earn my living teaching English at Dawson College Cegep in Montreal. Aside from the core courses I give, I also teach the Literature Profile students in our Creative Arts, Literature, and Language program. Students in such arts programs  have been consistently “dissed” as they might say for a long time, but especially so in reaction to the student strikes underway in Quebec right now (a strike the Dawson student body voted against joining). A particularly mean-spirited dismissal is Margaret Wente’s commentary in the The Globe and Mail, deliciously demolished by Mike Spry  It was in this context that I had to bring this semester’s creative writing workshop to a resolution. These words are as easily applicable to all the literature students I’ve shepherded through Poetics, Literary Criticism, and Creative Writing, and it is to them they are primarily addressed. I make my little speech public here at their urging.  All the reader need know is that the text for our class was Clive Matson’s Let the Crazy Child Write! (New World Library, 1998). What I said went roughly as follows…

We’ve spent this past semester culturing our Negative Capability (the capacity “to live in doubt and uncertainty without an irritable reaching after fact and reason”)—a capacity arts students surely need!—, nurturing and indulging our Crazy Child, what’s creative in each of us, that source of impulse, fantasy, and imagination, a source that’s always at work (or play). Even when the world is too much for us and we retreat into sleep (Freud tells us sleep is an escape from the demands of survival), the Crazy Child is active, dreaming.

The American novelist William Burroughs observed that the Europeans who colonized the Americas conquered the  peoples they found here by stealing their dreams. They stole their languages, told them their dreams—their stories, myths, beliefs—were false, and replaced them with their own. Today there is a group of people out to steal your dreams and aspirations and replace them with their vision, their dream (or nightmare). They’ve been at it since 1980, before you were born, but not before I was born. I can remember a different time.

They’ll tell you that what you are studying, what you are doing is useless, worthless, and the excuse they’ll use to cut you off goes by one word these days, ‘austerity’. But I tell you it’s a lie, a myth, a lie made up by a small group of people to serve their interests at the expense of most other people’s. There’s a group of economists in Missouri who have developed an economic theory that pops the hot air austerity balloon and shows it up for the self-serving lie it is. And here in Quebec, there’s money for million dollar golden handshakes for university presidents at Concordia every few years, and money for tax breaks and electricity rebates for corporations that costs the province money for the jobs they’re supposed to create.

They tell you you’re useless, that the engineering and business and science students aren’t the ones striking (another lie). But the corporations are finding out that it’s the graduates from the business schools that are useless, because they’ve learned to do only one thing, and now they’re more and more eager to hire an arts student, because you’re flexible, you’ve learned how to learn, you know how to work together, and you can communicate. And most importantly you’re creative and imaginative.

But at an even more practical level:  the great poet William Blake said, “What is real now was once only imagined.”  Everything we see around us here was made by somebody, somebody had to come up with the idea of it, develop that idea and make it real. Because everything human beings make and do ultimately springs from the imagination in this way, William Carlos Williams said, “Only the imagination is real.” And because the imagination is what shows us what’s possible, it’s also the source of human freedom; it gives us the power to see how things might be different.

And most seriously:  the world is heading into a time when it will need—not people good at sitting in cubicles or good at making numbers on computers into bigger numbers—but people with imagination, creative people to face situations and solve problems that no one has ever had to face before.

So when they tell you that what you’re studying is useless, that you’re worthless, tell them that they’re just plain wrong. They’re the ones who don’t know what’s valuable or worthwhile, because they’re the ones without any imagination! You’re the ones with a future, because you can imagine one!

On ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’

I wasn’t going to comment. I don’t have the time (too busy keeping my head above the term’s end grading tsunami), and I don’t want to tempt the trolls out from under their bridges. And I know despite my most strenuous attempts at clarity I’m going to be maliciously or innocently misunderstood or dismissed. So I’m just going to speak my peace and leave it at that, for now.

The Véhicule Press blog posted an excerpt from Michael Lista’s recent review of Tim Lilburn’s most recent book of poetry (all necessary, contextualizing links can be found on/at the original post). Even the charitable reader at this point has already discerned the proportions of this controversy’s teacup. Now, my point is neither to agree or disagree with Lista nor to damn or defend Lilburn’s book. Rather, I want to take exception to Starnino’s contention that Lista’s review rises from literary journalism to the level of criticism.

I imagine Starnino so approves of Lista’s review because it is articulate, high-spirited, and, most importantly, evaluatively  polemical. That the literary values that underwrite the review are those shared by Starnino likely also plays a role in his recommendation. But the point here is not what aesthetic values one holds, but what should count as criticism.

What is lacking in Lista’s polemic is what would make it criticism, namely an autocritical moment. An illuminating literary criticism would—should, to my mind—always relativize itself, openly acknowledging the aesthetic grounds from which it makes its judgements and, as importantly, articulating the aesthetic grounds that orient the practice that it would evaluate. Anyone who understands me will also see, I think, that the kind of discourse I characterize here is inconsistent, shall we say, with the agonistic, but ultimately futile, kind of literary journalistic debate that so exhilarates a certain kind of critic, futile because it only ever sharpens divisions (not, necessarily, an exercise without value) but, worse, congeals and hardens positions, instead of opening them up to the inescapable limitations of their respective perspectives and, most importantly, expanding and quickening literary awareness. Said fault is shared by every camp I know, classicist, mainstream, or avant-garde.

But what I—and I will speak only for myself here—find tiresomely irritating about the passage Starnino quotes from Lista is how Lista’s literary aesthetics is, arguably, snugly (if not smugly) ensconced somewhere in the middle of the Eighteenth century. He would seem to argue against Lilburn that poetry is representational, “anthropomorphizing nature by transubstantiating it into the most human elements—language and metaphor” as he puts it. Well,—and here I write for “the present knowers”—such a  philosophically ignorant thesis can only make me shake my head and shudder at the length of the bibliography of suggested, or, in Starnino’s words, “required” reading needed to bring Lista and those of like opinion into even the early Nineteenth century…

Andy Suknaski, 30 July 1942 – 3 May 2012

I was very sad to learn today of the death of Andy Suknaski.

Suknaski was a profoundly important and influential—though not influential enough—poet of the Canadian prairies. His Wood Mountain Poems (1976, reprinted in 2006) is a Canlit classic;  Montage for an Interstellar Cry (1982) and Silk Trail (Nightwood, 1985) are vital extensions of the poetics of the long poem that engage the contemporary world and the story of Chinese immigration to Canada, respectively; his East of Myloona (Thistledown, 1979), among other works, gives voice to the inhabitants of Canada’s North. At present, the single most generous collection of his work is the new and selected poems edited by Stephen Scobie The Land They Gave Away (NeWest Press, 1982). Since most of his poetry, including his selected, is out of print, perhaps his passing will prompt Chaudiere Books to issue its long-awaited volume of selected poems.

So much one can gather from the various reference sites online, but I was lucky enough to have met the man. John Newlove, then patiently indulging and guiding my first, faltering poetic attempts in his role as the public library’s writer-in-residence, introduced us. I was young, younger than either of them guessed, still in high school, but Suknaski greeted me warmly in his small, cluttered Regina home one summer afternoon, offered me a coffee, and deepened my initiation into the art of poetry. The walls were covered in notes and artwork and ideograms that would compose, I guess, Montage or Silk Trail. All I can remember of that first conversation, besides his soft, respectful voice and pipe, was his asking which poets I was reading and, when I answered Pound, he remarked he’d read the Cantos three times. At that first meeting, he also learned my father’s mother-tongue was Hungarian, and from that time on, whenever we met over the years, he called me simply “Magyar”.

The last time I saw him must have been in 1989-90 when I was the administrative assistant for Grain in Regina. It was soon after, at the age of 49,   he dramatically quite Canlit, poetry and art. If any further poetry would come out of him, he said, it would come out only “as voice or to sing a song for friends around a campfire, or wedding, or a ranch party in Wood Mountain.”  And voice was the breath of his art, for Suknaski was the Projective poet par excellence, whose ear attended carefully “40 hours a day” to the talk around and whose intelligence showed in the dance of the syllables as they stepped down his pages measuring the syntagmata of what he called “normal human language” in all its infinitely various accents and cadences. But, unlike Olson’s Projective verse, that scores “the breathing of the man who writes,” Suknaski’s poems give voice not only to himself but much more, and at no small cost to himself, to those too many—Metis, immigrant farmers, Chinese coolies, and others—whose voices and very lives go unheard and unacknowledged. At this, he was and will remain an undisputed master.

photo:  University of Manitoba archives