The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry. Palimpsest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Anthologies make arguments. Any anthology worth its salt takes a critical stance on which writers deserve attention and why. In the process, they can reify dominant canonical understandings, map emergent tendencies, and remediate forgotten literary groups and coteries. They can work at scales from the local to the national to the transnational. They can do a little or a lot, but what is important when reading any anthology is asking what precisely a collection’s argument is.
In The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry, editor and poet Jim Johnstone seems unsure about the stance he wants to take. At a glance, his book proposes the kind of generational bet-placing that characterizes past anthologies like Al Purdy’s Storm Warning, Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane’s Breathing Fire, Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon, and derek beaulieu, Jason Christie, and angela rawlings’ Shift & Switch. Like those collections, The Next Wave corrals a group of emerging-ish poets who provide evidence, according to the back cover copy, of a “reinvigorated national literature.” If The Next Wave seems custom-built for complaint, it’s because of the way its picture of a reinvigorated literature is necessarily incomplete. Why, for instance, does Johnstone fail to recognize the wealth of sharply political poetry coming from Vancouver (Cecily Nicholson, Mercedes Eng, Danielle LaFrance, Anahita Jamali Rad) or the more intimate work congregating around Montreal’s Metatron Press? Why such a narrow frame on a national literature? Or why a national literature at all?
Despite the excellent quality of the collected poetry, I think it’s completely necessary to take a critical stance toward The Next Wave, beginning with its hedging assertion that the anthology isn’t definitive, but rather represents a “personal canon.” Here, Johnstone acknowledges the incompleteness of his collection. Rather than merely acting as a way to deflect criticism, this invocation of personal taste might provide a reach around the book’s nationalist vibes, opening up the question of what exactly Johnstone maps through his choices. The list of contributors largely corresponds to Johnstone’s publishing work with Anstruther Press and the communities he circulates in. In particular, he collects from a cohort of poets invested in the possibilities of the lyric and holding tight to a vision of Canadian poetry driven by prize culture and fuelled by the growth of MFA programs. Bracketing off concerns about the canon, this tight focus, however incidental, is a strength of the anthology because it provides a useful constellation of contemporary lyric work in (and around) Canada. It’s from this more anchored position that we can dialogue critically with Johnstone’s choices, making sense of not only the inclusions and omissions but also the networks and geographies of the work in a way that isn’t determined by a nationalist frame.