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Poetry without borders

English department speaker series brings creative writing to McGill

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“It’s either revealing the world to you, or it’s not,” Peter Gizzi says of poetry.

He’s one of four poets coming to speak at McGill this week, alongside poetry critic and scholar Marjorie Perloff, as part of the North American Poetry and the New Century event. Perloff’s lecture tonight, entitled Unoriginal Genius: Citationality in 21st Century Poetry, is expected to be the event’s main feature. Whatever can be inferred from the title is all that is known about this lecture; not even the poets have been informed as to what exactly Perloff has planned.

Two poetry readings will take place: the first, by Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis, takes place today at 12:30 p.m. in Birks 203, a small space that should lend itself to an intimate reading and discussion. The second, featuring Susan Howe and Erin Mouré, happens tomorrow at 12:00 p.m. in Arts 160.

Mouré, a Canadian through-and-through, was born and raised in Calgary, and now lives in Montreal. She is the only Canadian of the four poets, but thinks that her three American counterparts will add diversity to the event. When asked what advice she has for aspiring poets, she urged them learn another language and read as widely as possible.

Mouré has translated from French, Galician, Portuguese, and Spanish into English. Her own poetry is often lyrical and considered “experimental” and “difficult” by her contemporaries. It has been lumped into L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and post-langauge poetry, but reducing it to a category does not do her work justice.

Howe, who will share a stage with Mouré, experiences similar compartmentalization, and finds herself often lumped in with the avant-garde L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. She explains that she is sick of being branded and would prefer to be thought of simply as a poet. One major aspect of her work that this label elides is her fascination with the local history of New England and Upstate New York. “I feel deeply in a poetics of space,” she says. “In the local and the ordinary you will eventually find something perhaps universal.”

Gizzi, an extremely engaging conversationalist, offers advice to aspiring poets and writers at McGill. “The good news is [that] you don’t need a [university] program. I didn’t have a program when I was an undergrad.” Rather, he suggests that young poets get together with friends and share their work with one another.

He describes his work as “an example of simultaneity, a kind of rich relationship that people and landscapes and politics and machinery negotiate all the time.”

“My subject comes to me only through using my body as a kind of instrument of perception,” Gizzi said, explaining that he lets his subject find him as opposed to beginning with a subject.

Willis advises young McGill students: “Read! Read widely! Read outside your comfort zones – not just contemporary writers but whatever interests or excites you.” When I asked her about her poetry she said that she really considers herself a lyric poet. One unique aspect of her work is the prose style she often uses in her poetry. “I think it has always held that potential for interesting collisions between art and politics, opinion and advertising,” she said.

Without a creative writing program at McGill, many students often feel that poetry is not given enough attention. Though guest lecturers are commonplace, poetry readings are rare. Supporting this event and making these poets feel welcome and appreciated is the first step to building more of a creative writing community at McGill. They’re excited to be here, and hopefully we can show that we feel the same way.

Listen to excerpts from Livingston and Peter Gizzi’s interview by clicking on the audio files above. This Thursday selections from the four poet’s readings will be available on