Whose Canadian Avant-Garde?

Reviewed by Scott Inniss

Avant Canada: Poets, Prophets, Revolutionaries presents a range of writers, critics, and textual practices, some of which are far from fellow-travellers. Gregory Betts and Christian Bök deserve credit for their editorial ambition and scope. The anthology comprises nine divisions, the most sizable of which combine creative and critical texts illustrating major tendencies within contemporary avant-garde literature: concrete poetry, language writing, identity poetics, and conceptualism. Each of these sections offers material of interest. Highlights include Lisa Robertson’s essay, and poetry from Dorothy Lusk, Donato Mancini, and the always amazing Annharte.

By far the most significant aspect of Avant Canada, however, is its constellating of avant-garde and Indigenous writing. The central dissatisfaction lies in the critical-editorial apparatus that frames this encounter. As the title indicates, Avant Canada gathers its material under the rubrics of the nation-state and the radical aesthetic-political cadre. The advisability of this organization is open to question. How productive is a literary-nationalist framework for oppositional textual economies that are often stubbornly site-specific, transregional, or local-global? As for representing Indigenous authors under the colonial sign of Canadian sovereignty, is this at odds or of a piece with the editors’ rhetoric of inclusion, diversity, and reconciliation? What is at stake in viewing radical Indigenous writing as consubstantial with an avant-gardism still inextricably marked by whiteness, anti-feminism, and phallic (Oedipal) aggression?

As avant-garde scholars and practitioners, the editors know that identity, aesthetic violence, and cultural imperialism are issues central to any project like theirs. The problem, then, is not that they ignore these issues, but that they consider them in a manner that too often rings hollow, reads as mostly proleptic, or comes off as obtuse or atonal. At times, they appear simply to extend the avant-garde franchise to Indigenous writers. Perhaps what the avant-garde stands to gain in return is some of the cultural-political authority that Indigenous writing currently enjoys. What gives the anthology its particular promise are the Indigenous writers who allow their work to appear in its avant-garde nationalist framework. For these authors, what is the relation between avant-garde transgression and decolonial poetics? To what extent are radical settler-cultural forms an influence on their work? From an Indigenous point of view, what are the uses of avant-garde conceptual vocabularies? What are their limits?

For the Anishinaabe poet Liz Howard, any identification with the avant-garde is conditional on its ability to perceive the immanent radicality of Indigenous survivance and resurgence. In an interview with the editors, Jordan Abel sidesteps leading questions about the avant-garde provenance of his erasure poetics, comparing them instead to Nisga’a carving techniques. Arguing that Indigenous “conceptual” writers like Abel “build contexts of anti-oppression into their erasures,” non-Indigenous poet-scholar Sonnet L’Abbé strongly contests the (white, colonial) entitlements at work within dominant vanguardist conceptions. The positions from which these poets each write require them to confront the antagonisms inherent in any encounter between Indigenous and avant-garde. Unlike the editors, they foreground the truth that aesthetic revolution is not always equal to cultural-political revolution.

This review “Whose Canadian Avant-Garde?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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