Wordplay, Play on Words

  • George Bowering
    Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Maia Joseph (Editor), Larissa Lai (Editor), Christopher Lee (Editor) and Christine Kim (Editor)
    Tracing the Lines: Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Natasha Dagenais

The pieces included in Words, Words, Words and Tracing the Lines explore the uses of language by individual writers to connect with readers moving in and out of literary and cultural communities, in other words, beyond stifling or predictable moulds and conservative academic circles. In fact, both works attest to the power of words to expand the limits of imagination: a power that can be used, on the one hand, to express everyday life experiences, and, on the other, to fight for and demand justice for those who have been silenced or, to use Roy Miki’s term, muted.

In the first collection, George Bowering never seems to be at a loss for words. At the outset, the front jacket points to the playful (and light) nature of the book’s contents by featuring a set of “chattering” teeth (with a partial definition underneath)—emphasized by the photo caption of the author with a set of his own on the back jacket. Words, Words, Words includes pieces that have appeared in modified form in previous publications, but for those readers looking for a collection of the poet’s essays and memoirs, this one spans a range of topics, beginning with three “memoiristic” essays (two of which show “sort-of how” he became a writer and teacher) and ending with a piece on the “usefulness” of the dead. It also has pieces on writers such as bpNichol and Al Purdy, and some other pieces on baseball—reminiscent of Bowering’s sportswriting days. While his voice is often lighthearted and playful, even ironic, the two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award (and Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate) understands how well-connected words can sometimes express, on a more serious note, what seems inexpressible. For example, in the third of the memoiristic essays—one that offsets some of his other pieces by its serious tone and topic—that begin this collection, he addresses the issue of how people write and speak (and, in fact, sometimes miswrite and misspeak) about grief and mourning (see “May I Bring You Some Tea?”). Not surprisingly, the writer’s style and voice reveal a search for meaning and clarity while sometimes intentionally confusing meaning and forsaking clarity. Indeed, his wordplay is such that readers unused to his style and voice may find themselves wondering what to take seriously and what to recognize as playful, even paradoxical. Perhaps that is part of what draws many readers to his writing. Despite its lighthearted tone, Words, Words, Words is not always a “light” read in the conventional sense. Bowering chooses words, not to clarify a particular message, or even to point out that there is a “real” message or meaning behind his words, but rather to show that choice of words and lines can greatly impact how readers are able to take in the effect of writing practices that strive to stay clear of forms of regimentation.

Similarly, readers of Tracing the Lines are left to interpret how language couched in different perspectives and used by diverse voices will affect the overall reading experience. Based on the 2008 conference of the same name, its subtitle, “Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki,” highlights Miki’s influence as critic, teacher, poet, and activist on communities of artists and intellectuals. In order to give greater significance to the pieces in this volume, the editors contextualize Miki’s life and work in their introduction to ensure that readers grasp the parallels and departures between the varied styles and voices of the contributors. Bowering himself contributed three poems (“Voice,” “Love,” and “Translation) to theTracing the Lines anthology, whose contributors are inspired by Miki as a creative and critical writer, and as “a practitioner of ideas”—who, by definition, must think outside the box of academe—as a passionate activist, specifically concerning the Japanese Canadian redress, in which he played an all-important role. The more than 25 contributors (from Daphne Marlatt and Marie Annharte Baker to Hiromi Goto and Smaro Kamboureli) to Tracing the Lines were “chosen because of their involvement in the communities of writers, activists, intellectuals, and artists through which Miki moves.” Readers of this anthology will certainly appreciate the variety of pieces categorized under the four main sections: Poetics, Social Justice, Biotext, and Institutions. They are introduced to varied tastes, styles, collaborative initiatives, and techniques. Of particular interest in the first section are the poems “Abdijection” and “Abdijection 2” by Fred Wah, who creates “an exercise / in syntax” in compact four-line stanzas, and Baco Ohama’s ongoing writing project that combines words and images on the page to reflect a breaking free from the confines of language and the body. The second section contains five works with two texts (by Mona Oikawa and David Gaertner) revisiting the Japanese Canadian redress movement. In addition, the anthology incorporates a thoughtful “performance experiment” that bears to fruition the collaboration of three women (i.e., The Sybils) with seven invited Sybils who explore, albeit to varying degrees, issues of discourse, connection, lineage, alliance, relationship, justice, and coexistence, thus revealing a need for more connections and dialogues among peoples. Those readers interested in autobiographical practices may find the third section enlightening because the writers play with creative means to produce their “biotexts.” In the fourth section, the authors revisit language in and out of the academic world. Lastly, for those readers who want more on the redress movement and the connection between photographs, memory, and language, they should have a look at the discussion on poetic practice between Roy Miki and Kirsten Emiko McAllister which appears after the “Institutions” section.

These collections reveal multilayered approaches to using the written word and delve into a range of topics, from memoiristic views on mundane circumstances (Words) to discussions on the self, language, and voice (Tracing). In the end, readers will discover that the lines of thought and expression here converge, and the paths (from light and playful to serious) intersect to articulate something meaningful and worth reading.

This review “Wordplay, Play on Words” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 128-29.

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