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Teaching the Poetic Event
Karis, I’m interested in this course you are developing on the “Poetics Research Site,” which I’m assuming, since your specialty is Canadian literature, is about key poetry research sites or events in Canada. Can you tell me a little about where you got the idea for this?
KS: I came up with the idea for this senior-undergraduate course on the “Poetics Research Site” recently after re-visiting two books: Writing in Our Time: Canada’s Radical Poetries in English (1953-2003), co-authored by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy, and Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, edited by Juliana Spahr and Joan Retallack. Both of those books ask readers to think about poetry in fairly unconventional ways. Writing in Our Time, for example, in addition to providing close readings of radical poetries, considers the material spaces (magazines, events) that writers carved out for their experimental work. Specifically, I’m interested in the way Butling and Rudy borrow bpNichol’s term “oral research site” to explore poetics events and “literary communities that provide material space and discursive contexts for poetics ‘research’” (33). Poetry and Pedagogy challenges reader-teachers to retool their pedagogies to better address (contemporary) experimental poetries. So I thought, how can I push the boundaries of my own pedagogy and create a course that explores some of the most important but difficult-to-teach poetics events that have taken place in the past few decades? I’ll have an opportunity to teach this course in the Department of Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan) in fall 2011; in the meantime, I’m still working out some of the challenges associated with the ‘how’ – particularly the logistics of bringing the necessary texts (official and unofficial; print and audio; participants’ accounts, etc) into the classroom.
And you’re right, the course is about key poetry events that took place in Canada. That said, many of the events that we’ll investigate, such as the Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963) and the Long-liners Conference (Toronto, 1984), were sites of important intersections between Canadian and American avant-garde poets/poetries. Charles Bernstein, for example, participated in the Long-liners Conference, and the Vancouver Poetry Conference featured readings and lectures by Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others.
Each these (often unprecedented) poetics events was an intervention that brought together individual poets, editors, readers, and cultural workers from across Canada (and the U.S.) who were interested in the issue or idea around which the event was organized: avant-garde poetry in the case of the Vancouver Poetry Conference; writing, editing, publishing by women in the case of Women and Words / Les femmes et les mots (Vancouver 1983); and the long poem at the Long-liners conference at York University. Although they were drawn to these conferences out of shared interest in the topic, the participants often worked out of different aesthetic and political backgrounds, crossing provincial and national boundaries to attend, and may not have otherwise met. Some important collaborative work was generated from these intersections of positions and ideas. Tessera is a good example of a collaborative project that emerged from an event – that journal emerged directly from conversations that took place amongst the founding editors (Barbara Godard, Daphne Marlatt, Kathy Mezei, and Gail Scott) at a 1981 conference on feminist literary theory in Quebec.
SQ: This is a great idea for a poetry course. It works against the notion of the individual poet suffering alone on the outskirts of society. It fleshes out the landscape of Canadian poetry–a far different version than we traditionally find, when we find it at all. Those events are key, and they had enormous impact on my generation in particular, so it’s important to see that context, trace the strands of influence. I am very familiar with the events, and both texts you mention, but I sense that the documentation of those key events is lacking. Am I wrong?
KS: That’s it – I’d like this course to be a pedagogical intervention that moves us away from the idea of examining the work of individual poets in isolation and grounded strictly in the printed page. Instead, the “Poetics Research Site” will emphasize the collaborative, conversational, communal, and performative ways ideas are generated and texts are produced.
Because they are so highly collaborative and performative, poetics events always exceed any ability to document them. In the course, the events we’ll focus on (Vancouver Poetry Conference, Women & Words / Les femmes et les mots, and the Long-liners Conference) all have some “official” documentation (publications and/or recordings) that emerged from them and some of the archival recordings are now available, making it easier for students and other reader-listeners find points of access. The Slought Foundation site, for example, now features Fred Wah’s digitized versions of the recordings of both poetry readings and lectures/discussions from the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference.
But it will be important to bear in mind the limits of the documents. In other words, I want to be careful not to simply idealize these poetics events, as important as they were (to whom?) and make sure we ask questions like whose (dissenting?) voices are not represented in the official documents? Where were the tensions? And who did not have access to these events?
SQ: It will no doubt be important to “bear in mind the limits of the documents,” and also the notion of accessibility. And yes, I think there is always a danger that these events become idealized, as you point out, and also highly defended. Lineages are born, and can have enormous and lasting impact–for better or worse. But speaking of impact, how about the work of people like Margaret Christakos with her Influency Series and website? This is an ongoing event, but it seems to me that it is predicated on the notion of curating meaningful and multifaceted events that have, in Kenny Goldsmith’s terms, real bounce.
KS: Absolutely. The Influency Series is another good example of an ongoing poetics research site. Unfortunately, it won’t be on the syllabus this time. The challenge of teaching within the temporal limits of a 13-week course led me to limit the focus to a few one-time events (usually conferences) that took place over the period of one, two, or three days. Even those “brief” events produced so many texts, so many ripples and possible lineages that could be followed up on.
SQ: In terms of accessibility, your fortunate students will also benefit from a highly selective process–landing in your class, for a start. I hope you are planning an actual event as well? And an archive? Online perhaps? So we can follow along?
KS: It’s possible. Right now I’m planning a mini-poetics-conference at the end of the course as a way of opening up our conversation to others. We’ll also be collaboratively generating a list of research sites and events like the Influency Salon and other ones – local and national – that the students themselves discover. But besides that, I’d like the students to think about the course itself as a poetics research site or series of “events”: in other words, I’m hoping that through the process of theorizing these events and raising questions about technology and access (who? how?), they’ll also come to think of their relationship to the classroom and to poetry in new ways.