A friend and I recently had a conversation about Canadian poetry. We didn’t get very far. Literature inevitably represents the place and time from which it emerges. But it’s always difficult to define the age you’re in. We can point to Alice Munro or A.J.M. Smith as representative of their time periods, but what are we pointing to now?
Of course, this is not a question I can answer; even an attempt suggests naïveté. But to be sure, there are many parallels between notions of what it means to be a Canadian and what means to say “contemporary Canadian literature”: both point to vastness, space, and a multi-this and multi-that response – multilingual, multicultural, multidimensional. And in the case of poetry it seems to point to a multiplicity of voices, speaking from different milieus and natural environments.
The poetry reading at Green Room on November 12 attested to this sentiment. Canadian poets Erin Mouré, Stephen Collis, and Norma Cole each presented some of their material to a warm and utterly attentive crowd. Green Room offered a snug and relaxed setting; its smallness fit the crowd, who sat mostly on the purple velvet couches along the exposed brick walls, on which a selection of oil-based paintings was on display. The bar, across from the couches, sold mainly beer. And near the back, faint Christmas lights hanging from an air vent somehow added a quaint appeal.
Cole, born in Toronto and now teaching at the University of San Francisco, was introduced as “a poet who enters the body of expectation.” Indeed, her poetry offered the sense of being led somewhere. According to Mouré, Cole’s poetry “keeps us awake, as insomnia does – by repetitions and jags of perspective, shifts. It lights gardens.” Cole seemed to playfully yoke startling and fragmented images together into a sinuous whole, all the while evoking a sense of sprightliness through her terse, nuanced language. A reading from “Natural Light” exemplified this: “music was/ playing, heavy/ breathing said/ hello, concrete/ proof, treeless/ space, nothing/ but sand.”
Collis’s poetry, on the other hand, was replete with Anglo-Saxon rhythms and tough, pounding sounds. At times echoing the style of “sprung rhythm,” invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, his poetry affected a sense of uplifting, of tugging onward as if moving one’s feet with one’s hands. His latest book, The Commons, depicts contrasting tensions and freedoms in urban landscapes through the eyes of the “mad-peasant poet,” John Clare. We are lead on a search for commonalities between people and places in the privatized terrain of capitalist society, particularly in Vancouver where “colonialism is still rawly present.” “Blackberries,” one of Collis’s longer poems, follows Clare as he partakes in the urban berry-picking tradition in Vancouver, where – using whatever they can – locals collect berries as if picking apples in the countryside. Often droll and witty, Collis’s poetry was at once critical and sensitive: “Commodity, filling itself up/ just able to mute ‘oil can, oil can’/ through tin lips.” Mouré discussed body, mind, sex, poetry, and censorship by reading excerpts from a collection of her essays. Borrowing terms from Spinoza, she rendered the body as something made of “velocities and relationalities,” and discussed porn – “an expression of sex” – in relation with this image. But, she conceded, how much does the censorship of poetry in Canada even matter, if poetry is so unattended to? As Mouré said, “How far a fall is it, from the sidewalk to the gutter?” Overall, though, her stance on poetry was critical, funny, and inquisitive.
What we are pointing to in Canadian poetry at the moment, then, is a diversity of voices, not linked by any particular means of poetic expression, but by a general freedom – which, of course, is difficult to define. And the poetry readings at the Green Room offered direct access to a few poets who epitomized this diversity, each writing in their own particularly captivating voices.