Candid and Curious
- Susan Rudy (Editor) and Pauline Butling (Author)
Poets Talk: Interviews with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouri, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen, and Fred Wah. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tanis Macdonald
The press release for Poets Talk calls the book “ a provocative compilation of candid interviews” that “reiterates the value of inspiration, imagination and poetic re-invention.” This is a tall order, indeed, especially considering how often collections of interviews with writers fall prey to a sense of self-importance, and editors assert that their book contains statements that are significantly more candid or more insightful than those in other collections. However, Poets Talk has the courage of its convictions, and perhaps more importantly, its interviewers/editors have the curiosity to pursue the slippery matters of poetics and politics in Canadian literature. Asserting that the volume “address[es] the challenges of reading ‘difficult’ poetry,” Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy have produced a book that satisfies with its wide-ranging interest in all poetic concerns, not the least because as editors and interviewers they ask the questions that need to be asked about Canadian poetics and its future. The poets included in Poets Talk have been chosen with an eye to providing a certain amount of coverage vis-à-vis generation, race, gender, and sexuality, but it is equally clear that the poets were chosen for inclusion based upon the combination of canonicity and challenge that their poetry represents to readers within and beyond the academy.
A book of conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, and Fred Wah seems to offer a line-up of the “usual suspects,” that is Canadian poets who are known for a certain degree of difficulty, encompassing demanding poetics and similarly rigorous politics of race, gender, and language. But Poets Talk offers a good deal of thoughtful rethinking, beginning with the inclusion of a three- to four-page biography for each poet, much longer than is usually included in a collection of interviews. Mapping out each poet’s career, publications, and political or literary concerns, Butling and Rudy create a comprehensive look at the poets’ formation and aesthetics. When the interviewers move into close readings of the poems, the foundational work on the poets’ background and aesthetics textures the ensuing dialogue about the subversive use of language. The collection is aptly titled; the text supplies plenty of the poets’ talk, often displayed in great, chunky, voluble paragraphs.
And some illuminating talk it is, particularly as Butling and Rudy consistently use the biographical information as a catalyst to discuss the size and scope of the poetry, rather than render it autobiographically narrow. Dionne Brand’s detailed iteration of the origins of her politics outlines the rich social history of Toronto’s black communities in the 1970s. Erin Mouré, who is always eloquent, is given the chance to discuss the necessity of the synaptic leap in the role of perception and memory. To read Daphne Marlatt musing (in mothertongue) about the development of her prose poem style is to read the style in process. Fred Wah links the continuing lure of “father” material to his project of “racing the lyric poetic.” And all the talk is not agreement. Butling and Rudy challenge Robert Kroetsch on his use of gender paradigms, and Kroetsch replies with a discussion of the problems of parody and ethics in poetry that shows his willingness to reconsider his old positions. In all cases, the poets’ joy at having their work intelligently read and closely considered is evident.
The inclusion of conversations with Marie Anneharte Baker and Jeff Derksen, two less studied and less canonical poets, is worth noting. Like her poems, Baker is witty and playful, though her subject matter (indigeneity, poverty, Aboriginal rights) is often dire; her conversation about the uses of humour and wordplay in First Nations cultures is one of the highlights of the book. Derksen’s account of the formation of the often controversial and always intriguing Kootenay School of Writing provides a contemporary history of the genesis of this influential branch of poetics in Canadian literature. Though Derksen constructs himself as international poet, his inclusion in this very Canadian collection is less ironic than he suggests, and more indicative of the need to think beyond rigid national and regional designations in poetry written by people with a Canadian passport.
The respect and attention that the poems receive in close readings will make Poets Talk of interest to those who are just beginning to explore the work of these poets, and renew the interest of those who are familiar with the work. By treating the poems as living texts and as canonical artifacts, Butling and Rudy do the poets the service of encouraging discussion about the material and cultural influences on the production of poetry in Canada.
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- Writing the Dispossessed by Adam Beardsworth
Books reviewed: Hundred Block Rock by Bud Osborn and Keys to Kingdoms by Bud Osborn
- Alone with the Memory of Everyday by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: The Baldwins by Serge Lamothe, Sleeping on the Moon by Sylvia Adams, and Moving Day by Terence Young
- "Unhinge yourself" by Hilary Clark
Books reviewed: Endgames by Andrew Stubbs, From Room to Room: The Poetry of Eli Mandel by Eli Mandel, and Gimp Crow by Ken Kowal
- In Praise of the Left Hand by Cedric May
Books reviewed: Le Visage des mots by Jean Royer, Nous sommes en alarme by Louise Cotnoir, and Nos Corps habitables by Jean Royer
MLA: Macdonald, Tanis. Candid and Curious. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 110 - 111)
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