Seriously Playful / Playfully Serious

Reviewed by Eric Schmaltz

In step with recent trends toward lyrical and identity-based poetry and poetics, experimental and avant-garde poets—who once might have distinguished themselves from the authorial I—have become gradually more prone to investigating and emphasizing the role of subjectivity in the poem. The aesthetic and political boundaries that once might have distinguished poets continue to trend toward dissolution, as evidenced by the three collections here under review. They each notably wield formally playful and inventive composition strategies often associated with experimental poetics to explore bodies, identities, otherness, and subjectivity in the poem and the world.


Multi-award-winning author Ian Williams is simultaneously playful and serious in Word Problems as he investigates concerns of our socio-historical moment. Williams spins lyrics through an array of “non-literary” forms: math book problems, grammar lessons, audio spectrums, drawings, text message threads, and more. Single lines spiral out or run across multiple pages to intersect with otherwise separate poems, while others are occluded by a finger imprint or an overlaid audio spectrum. These features result in poems that at times resist legibility, shift dramatically in perspective, traverse cultural allusion, and swerve discursively, all to resist critical closure and complicate the “problems of identity” that are central to the book:


Before class, at a faculty meeting, Sam’s chair refers to students as customers. During class, Sam returns response papers. After class, a point guard approaches, paper in fist, to tell Sam that he deserves a better mark than a B+ he received. He might be a linebacker, not a point guard. His response paper is 500 words and the assignment requires 750. Determine whether Sam is male or female, white or not. (19)


Such dark humour is found in many of the poems and adds to the playful quality of the book, but the concerns, of course, are quite serious. These issues of identity are catalyzed, as the title of the collection suggests, by language’s primary function of naming and categorizing things in the world, establishing separation and dissimilarity between persons and things. These poems offer no solutions to language’s emphasis on difference and hierarchy; they offer problems only. As a result, Word Problems thrusts these issues onto the reader, insisting that she or he “show your work” (48).


While Williams gestures toward a broad spectrum of social issues, London-based writer Angela Szczepaniak offers an investigation of the anxious subject in her third collection of hybrid experimental works, The Nerves Centre. This time, as the subtitle describes it, she offers us “a novel-in-performance-anxiety in ten acts, 131 stanzas, 2417 phonetic utterances.” Composed “from recordings of actual panic attacks that were poorly transcribed by increasingly confused transcription software” (“Nerves Centre”), The Nerves Centre is about and enacts performance anxiety. Each time the hopeful speaker approaches the “defiant” microphone (15), their speech sputters and vocalizes little more than extralinguistic expressions: “mmmmhhhhhhaaaa” (17), “whaaaa” (21), or “tah tah tahhhhh” (80). As poet J. R. Carpenter points out on the book’s back jacket, these are poems meant to be felt “in your belly,” inviting the reader to perform the speaker’s heaving sighs and gasps. The book has the striking quality of a multi-act sound poetry score; thus, it intersects with a rich tradition of proto-semantic poetics that might recall the spontaneous emotional release of 1970s sound poetry. However, Szczepaniak revitalizes the sometimes solipsistic sound poem, giving rise to a meaningful exploration of mental health, wellness, and the inward dramas of the anxious self.


While The Nerves Centre comprises poetry made from the self’s unintentional swerves, Franco Cortese’s Lip employs virtuosic constraints that differently negotiate the tension between authorial intent and the poem as an agential force in itself. In Lip, Cortese presses formal play to extremes with a variety of innovative “limit-case” lipograms that are construed into “real-world forms” (252). Such innovations apply immense external pressure to language and one would expect the subject to be pushed out entirely, leaving us with an alien world of molecularized language. On the one hand, these poems read in just this way, as though created by “a bruise forming words emphasizing contempt for a subject” (55). Pages of vowel columns, for example, look at first glance as though they have been written by an extraterrestrial. Some poems speak directly to the project’s attempt to dislocate the self from the poem:



I am


I was




to sew



ceremonial purification. (15)


At other times, there are scattered moments of profound and, dare I say, tender humanity:


his father

at all times

someone else







still. (45)


The push and pull between self and other is central to the text, a dynamic further emphasized by its collaborative elements. Celebrated poet and painter bill bissett provides hand-drawn images for the collection that, like the poems themselves, emphasize the collection’s central tension with imagery ranging from abstract linework to human figures. Likewise, poet Sacha Archer smears the title word Lip across a fleshy cover image reminding us of the bodies in the poems. The meaning of the word lip itself oscillates through discursive registers pertinent to human and nonhuman contexts. A lip is “the projecting rim of an open container,” for example (251). And yet, lips are also a source of human sounding, a means of linguistic expression, a site of human agency. As integral organs of speech, lips can make and unmake the world, just as, in Lip, Cortese, like a mad scientist, gives life to a language that is a world maker unto itself.


Works Cited

Cortese, Franco. Lip. Penteract, 2021.

“The Nerves Centre.” DC Books,

Szczepaniak, Angela. The Nerves Centre. DC Books, 2021.

Williams, Ian. Word Problems. Coach House, 2020.

This review “Seriously Playful / Playfully Serious” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Sep. 2022. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.