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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Sexual Sources and Influential Erotics

  • Stephen Guy-Bray (Author)
    Loving in Verse: Poetic Influence as Erotic. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Billeh Nickerson (Editor) and John Barton (Editor)
    Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Richard Cavell (Editor) and Peter Dickinson (Editor)
    Sexing the Maple: A Canadian Sourcebook. Broadview Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Andrew Lesk

Cavell and Dickinson begin their very fine anthology with a quote from Steven Maynard, who asserts that “nations require particular sentiments of attachment, ones that often rest at lest in part on the erotic.” The discourse of nationalism depends on constructions of identity, the editors add, and that identity itself is deeply fraught with (often unresolved or unexplored) questions about sexuality.

Because sexuality has often had its norms, people in Canada often find their identity through adhering to or eschewing them. National institutions, tightly woven into the fabric of normative identities, regulate, explicitly or otherwise, all sorts of behaviours that, in the end, lead to an overarching and often overweening vision of what the Canadian state should look like.

In closely examining such machinations, Cavell and Dickinson use the lens of family, media, medicine, gender, race, religion, and law, to map out how categories of sexual identity have shifted over the years, and how such shifts do not necessarily neatly parallel changes in the arenas of socio-political awareness or national policy (to name a few). Rather than present ostensibly representative selections that may play to those very norms being interrogated, the editors instead attempt to offer suggestive directions that students of Canadian cultural productions may wish to further investigate.

Aside from the book’s compelling introductory essay, each section is further prefaced with a brief contextualization of the materials contained therein. The literature selections range from authors otherwise considered mainstream—Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood—to deliciously contrary voices—Trish Salah, Derek McCormack, Ivan E. Coyote. Sociological, historical, and political entries are as diverse as the authors: Michael Bliss, Mariana Valverde, Martin Cannon, Gary Kinsman, Stan Persky, to name but a few. The book, then, is not aimed at engaging any one discipline; it would be equally at home in any university classroom (or home, for that matter).

The success of the project is all too evident; the editors have clearly made very judicious and thoughtful choices, and the care shows. What happens, inadvertently perhaps, with anthologies, is that the limits imposed by publishers (usually in the form of book length) mean abbreviated discussions. “Sex and Race” is wonderfully representative, though it, in contrast with the subsequent “Sex and Religion” section, looks like a ghetto; that is to say, the selections for “Sex and Religion” appear to embrace white Christianity and nothing else, while the social makeup of the authors in “Sex and Race” doesn’t really appear elsewhere at all. For example, could SKY Lee’s excerpt from Disappearing Moon Café have appeared in “Sex and the Family”? Why is there nothing thoroughgoing on HIV/AIDS in “Sex and Medicine”? And so on. Yet perhaps this is part of the exercise that any reader, presented with another’s ideas, inevitably faces. Cavell and Dickinson have, at the very least, re-started a sadly neglected conversation, and their work here presents a challenge for us to think and rethink the ease of categories, in addition to the elusiveness of identity.

John Barton and Billeh Nickerson, also editors, provoke not necessarily with the content of their anthology but with its title: it is the, not an, anthology of Canadian gay male poets. Yet in so far as no other such anthology exists, the editors are quite right to state that Seminal is “the first historically comprehensive compendium of gay male poetry written by Canadians.”

John Barton’s introduction is, simply, brilliant; the work would be the poorer without it. He contextualizes the volume at hand by giving an overview as to what has been effected elsewhere, stating that “it is very difficult not to be affected by, respond to, or work against the assumptions of anyone previously, or even currently, working in the area not to be influenced by the attitudes of the poets under consideration.” Barton goes on to state that the category of “gay poet,” while definitive in some ways does not mean restrictive. He then provides a thoughtful gloss on the poets at hand, arranged in the volume by year of birth.

This brief history of early poets, such as Émile Nelligan, John Glassco, Douglas LePan, Patrick Anderson, E.A. Lacey, and Daryl Hine, is a note-perfect initiation into an often disregarded coterie. Barton continues the discussion to include poets up to the present day, and of the fifty-seven comprising the work, I cannot think of one he may have missed. From bill bissett, Ian Young, Jean-Paul Daoust, Daniel David Moses, Ian Iqbal Rashid, Gregory Scofield, Andy Quan, and Orville Lloyd Douglas, to the editors themselves, this anthology deserves the qualifier “the.”

Barton admits, though, that there are poets who declined (or whose estates declined) to be included; it is unfortunate that we could not get a list of them. Nevertheless, Barton gestures to the ongoing political nature of being gay in a society that in many subtle and overt ways still punishes those labeled as “other.” He writes that for the gay male poet, “the range, parameters, and depth of potential themes at last are limitless.” The book closes with a generous twenty-eight-page description of contributors; credits; and—wow!—an index (something Sexing the Maple lacks). The editors have clearly done their homework. What a fine gift for us all.

Stephen Guy-Bray’s slim volume Loving in Verse: Poetic Influence as Erotic, states its premise clearly in its title. Guy-Bray is interested in how declarations that inspire love as well as poetry are “paradigmatic representations of poetic influence” that conspire to become “a form of loving in verse.” Eve Sedgwick’s well-known account of homosociality looms over the book, in so far as heterosexual and homosexual relationships evince both the romantic and erotic conflicts, struggles and “happiness” of which Guy-Bray writes.

That aside, what Guy-Bray uses—and very effectively so—the critical paradigm of Julia Kristeva’s “intertextuality,” that is, a transposition of signifying systems. Transposition, expanding beyond the poetic value of allusion, also comes to suggest sexual position, more figurative than literal. The various couplings essayed are, to begin, not simply Dante and Virgil, but also Dante/Statius, and Virgil/Statius, since Statius’ Thebiad, an epic on male couples, is introduced; then, Guy-Bray examines how Spencer uses Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, in recasting the Thebiad-influenced Squire’s Tale. Hart Crane, who used Marlowe, Wilde, and Melville to explore poetic influence, celebrates Whitman’s role in “Cape Hatteras,” according to Guy-Bray, who, in scrutinizing “the romantic implications of the poetic male couple,” finds parallels to Virgil/Stasius. T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Poet” and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence are tabled, as the two authors are “simultaneously aware of the erotic implications of poetic relations and [are] uncomfortable with those implications.” And finally, Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text and Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” help Guy-Bray explicate the erotics of poetic influence.

Guy-Bray’s premise, that the “textual and the sexual do not merely intersect but in fact are identical,” arises from the notion that homoeroticism is “something that resides in textuality itself.” This is a large claim to make about narratives (and one that is derived largely from Barthes); it is perhaps better explained, I think, by the aforementioned concept of homosociality, which Guy-Bray briefly mentions but never otherwise develops (let alone acknowledging Sedgwick’s name or very influential work in the field). Nevertheless, Loving in Verse is a startling and welcome intervention into the discussion of poetic influence.

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MLA: Lesk, Andrew. Sexual Sources and Influential Erotics. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 122 - 124)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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