Poetry News

Maisonneuve Talks bpNichol

By Harriet Staff

As we await the Griffin Poetry Prize news, our attention is turned upward, o Canada. And Maisonneuse is right fascinating, having both a new interview with Christian Bök about the much-hyped Xenotext Project ("It’s a fascinating idea, worthy of the author of Eunoia, a tour de force that would make Georges Perec feel envious," wrote Ron Silliman) as well as this discussion on what was apparently a controversial essay written by Carmine Starnino about poet bpNichol.

Jonathan Ball, author of Ex Machina (BookThug) and Clockfire (Coach House Books), and Maurice Mierau, editor of the Winnipeg Review, note that Starnino is a "terrible reader of the avant-garde." Ball also comments: "His writings on supposed experimentalists display no affinity, and thus no foundation for a studied response. But with this Nichol piece, he finally appears to be apprehending and appreciating core values of the Canadian avant-garde. As an example, his observation that Nichol saw “Language [as] basically sonic Lego” is spot-on—and even sounds like something Christian Bök might say!"

The essay in question (sub req.), published by Maisonneuve in March, primarily asked: "Does bpNichol’s once-revolutionary wordplay have staying power?" But the piece seems mostly to have brought on a consideration of Canadian experimental poetry and any possible critique therein.

JB: I mean not that he’s flourishing a fallacy, but that the avant-garde Starnino seems to believe exists is itself a straw man, one he bullies in a pointless struggle. This essay is a real step forward for Starnino, but he’s tagged a solid and insightful meditation on Nichol with a pointless criticism of nobody in particular. I suppose there is a rhetorical strategy here, to buoy Nichol further by noting the lack of a modern-day Nichol, but I could suggest (and have suggested, in Open Letter) that derek beaulieu marries Nichol’s energy and concrete interests with occasional bursts of exuberant humour (i.e., in the book he co-wrote with Gary Barwin, frogments from the frag pool). And kevin mcpherson eckhoff, with Rhapsodomancy, has established himself as a possible Nichol-in-embryo, one to watch.

But when Starnino writes that “the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phenoms [is] humourlessness,” I shout “huzzah!” This is a serious charge and, I think, a valid charge. But the fact is that galling humourlessness is not confined to the experimentalists among us. On the contrary, my sense is that this is a greater problem outside of the avant-garde—indeed, parody and absurdity are hallmarks of avant-garde practice. Can we point to a so-called traditionalist who can craft lines as biting as Ryan Fitzpatrick, in Fake Math, when he writes, “My assassin brings me products I love” and makes it fit into the same poem as the silly “I wasn’t elected smart guy”? In a book with the line, “A new weapon in the war against explosions: / EXPLOSIONS!”?

Let’s even accept Starnino’s premise that the Canadian avant-garde is interested in flouting conventions. Flouting conventions is a hallmark of humour! My point is that if one actually looks at the loose group often identified (and even self-identified) with the misnomer “avant-garde,” one sees just as much humour as elsewhere, if not more. Of course, the opposite goes—there’s a lot of arch, over-serious experimental work, far too much. Should we not conclude, then, that most poetry sucks, that this is Canada’s or modern poetry’s failure, rather than the avant-garde’s? Regardless, all praise to Starnino for pointing out this nation’s greatest literary flaw.

MM . . . But getting back to Nichol. He was an experimental writer, as eckhoff is today in Rhapsodomancy. Starnino really does a marvelous job of describing Nichol’s oeuvre, his working methods with mimeos and throwaway media, his incredible energy and ability to work in multiple genres, his wit, and the publishing micro-industry that’s followed in his own micro-industrial wake. Starnino’s a fabulous cultural journalist, which leads him to observe the internationalism of Nichol’s practice (in the discussion of the concrete poems). Internationalism is something Starnino has advocated in other essays, in the sense that Canadian poets ought to pay attention to the bigger world of poetry.

What’s interesting is that most experimental writers are and have always been intensely aware of the international scene (think of Anne Carson and Lisa Robertson as contemporary examples). The provincial poets are the ones reading only the work of the people on their tenure committee or local arts council jury. The real experimental writers are pushing boundaries not by ignoring the past or the world beyond their civic boundary, but by doing a re-mix of the traditional and the new, the pop cultural and the staples of western civ.

You can find the rest of the discussion here. Or you can watch a young bpNichol (né Barry Philip) in this "so groovy" interview with Bill Bissett and Phyllis Webb below.