NPR’s List of Essential Poetry Books

A reading list can come from anywhere and can be given to anyone.

Yesterday, Annex Books in Toronto closed its doors for the last time; however, before it went, it gifted me with a short reading list. Albeit an informal reading list, the books that ended up in my white plastic bag would not have ended up on my shelves had I not walked into that store on that particular day.

Book buyers, the ones who stock the shelves at your local bookstore, are the quiet list makers, tempting you with books you never knew were available. Their tastes inevitably shape the stock of the store, and your shelves. At the end of the year, newspapers and journals are bursting with end of year lists; however, a reading list tailored specifically for you will be the one you keep for years.

When I was twenty years old and a student at the University of Windsor, my American Literature professor noticed that I would read any book he mentioned in class. One day, before class began, he gave me a reading list. The list was comprised of names that while familiar to most were new to me. Years later, I still have the list and many of the books have become dog-eared favorites.

Although my professor passed away last year, his tastes have not. The good books he recommended remain good books, and, together, they make up a small slice of his literary history, which in turn, became mine.

So, take a few minutes and read through the list, which contains titles suggested by readers, writers and publishers, both Canadian and American. Inherit someone else’s library, or at least one title from it. While this list was not tailored for any one in particular, I hope you’ll consider picking up even one of the titles, especially if it is by a writer you have never heard of.

And if you want more suggestions, use the contributor list as your next reading list, many of whom have published worthy titles of their own. Better yet, ask a friend with an enviable book collection to make a list for you.

As for my pick, I’d like to suggest Now You Care, by Di Brandt. Now go on, get reading.

Surviving Survival

On Thursday March 31, 2005, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Vancouver hosted a panel called After Survival: Where is Canadian Poetry? The five panelists — Barbara Nickel, Chris Patton, Ross Leckie, Stephanie Bolster, and Eric Miller — were asked whether Margaret Atwood’s seminal study, Survival, had enabled or constrained Canadian literature’s sense of itself. Each poet used Survival to consider recent developments in Canadian poetry in English. Is survival still our leitmotif? Is there a distinctly Canadian poetry? What does it mean that these questions still preoccupy us?

Starting in September, NPR will serialize their papers at a rate of one or two per month. Zach Wells has generously agreed to round out the feature with a trenchant response to the series.

Survival appeared in 1972 with House of Anansi, a small (and still thriving) press formed in 1966 by writers Dennis Lee and David Godfrey. Just thirty-two, and beginning to acquire some renown, Margaret Atwood wrote, over a few months, a book intended to be a moneymaker, a “user-friendly self-help guide” along the lines of the press’ books on law and VD. Atwood claims – and the speed of composition corroborates – that she did not so much write as assemble the book based on “the work of my predecessors and the thoughts of my contemporaries,” and that at the time she “attached no particular importance to it.” Yet Survival, expected to sell 3,000 copies, sold 30,000 in its first year, and created a legacy so enduring that it was reissued last year.

The book responded to and influenced a crucial period in Canadian writing and canon-formation, a period nourished by the creation of The Canada Council for the Arts in 1965 and by the growing recognition of “Canadian literature” as a discipline of study. Although not intended to be comprehensive, that Survival was the most accessible work of its kind – designed, according to the original introduction, primarily for the general public – led to its being taken as authoritative by many readers. Despite Atwood’s insistence that she wasn’t an academic (she completed an MA, but as a Victorianist), and despite the derision with which many critics responded, Survival would become a major reference point in most CanLit courses for the coming decades. It’s been described as “the most visible – albeit the most challenged – critical work” in English Canadian literary history.

Claiming to be a descriptive survey of CanLit by theme, the book explores what Canadians write about, not how they write. Explicit in this undertaking is Atwood’s treatment of the works under scrutiny “as though they were written by Canada.” She contends:

The central symbol for Canada … is undoubtedly Survival . . . , … a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives . . . . But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck . . . For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning…

A few catchy chapter titles suggest the “almost intolerable anxiety” which Atwood claims this theme generates: nature the monster, animal victims, failed sacrifices, and, of course, the paralysed artist. Lists and bold, often wry, generalizations, are the book’s trademark: “If in England the family is a mansion you life in, and if in America it’s a skin you shed,” she says, “then in Canada it’s a trap in which you’re caught.” Indifference is difficult; one is either briskly dismissive or readily convinced. In my education, a key element was the typology of “basic victim positions,” arising from Canada’s “colonial mentality”:

Position One: To deny the fact that you are a victim

Position Two: To acknowledge that you are a victim, but to explain this as an act of Fate, . . . the dictates of Biology . . . or any other large general powerful idea

Position Three: To acknowledge . . . that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that the role is inevitable

Position Four: To be a creative non-victim

Atwood refers to these types by number so often that one has to memorize them. For a neophyte, this can have an indoctrinating effect. For a nascent writer, this indoctrination can be, as the writer-critic John Metcalf suggests, “dangerous.”

I offer myself as a case study. As an undergraduate in creative writing, I took three courses in CanLit, believing that, if I hoped to enter this country’s literary landscape, I’d better know my way around. As Roy Miki remarked, thematic criticism remained “alive and well in many Canadian classrooms” in the early 90s. In my courses here in Vancouver at around that time, Survival wasn’t assigned, but referred to so often that eventually my oh-so-Canadian guilt forced me to read it. By that point, its themes had been fed to me so often that I took them as given; implicitly, my course reading lists, which included a healthy dose of Atwood’s own fiction and poetry – the cerebral lyricism of which chimed with my developing voice, making her a too-seductive model – supported Survival’s thesis. Previously, I hadn’t cared much whether an author was Canadian. I’d identified – without using the term – as Cascadian; home was a landscape, climate, and vegetation zone that crossed the U.S. border and didn’t extend past the Rockies into the Canada that Atwood meant by the word. Now, I began to write as though I were Canada. My poetry became – for someone raised in the suburb of a growing city – exceedingly concerned with wilderness. Though I’d generally felt nature as a benign or benevolent presence, I became fixated on the terror of nature. When I wrote a poem sequence in which female fairy tale protagonists freed themselves from social and narrative constraints, I wasn’t thinking of Atwood’s remark that, “in Canada, Rapunzel and the tower are the same,” but I gloried in having written some “type four victims.”

Atwood would no doubt be appalled to hear of my apprenticeship, though also, I suspect, a little smug, as my willingness to accept her authority suggests a colonial inferiority complex. There was, I like to think, some irony in my manifestation of these themes, but the fact remains that reading one writer’s encapsulation of what others had written affected my writing; description had become, insidiously, prescription.

Untroubled by a gap between analysis and practice, Atwood was writing out of her own thesis even before she’d formed it; her book-length sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, took its protagonist from type two to type four victim two years before Survival’s publication. One reason why the book’s themes still feel relevant at all is that Atwood’s still writing out of them. In a sense, she was writing from and for herself all along; she simply called that self “Canada.” Survival was highly insightful about many of the works set forth as examples, but its narrow focus – a lack of regional and urban examples, to name two – made it incomplete, by Atwood’s own admission.

Among most academics, Survival is seen as a key historical document, a defining example of 1970s thematic criticism. As Russell Brown indicates, what we call in Canada “thematic criticism” is really more “cultural thematics,” a way of reading that – despite having been in vogue for only the first half of that decade, and attacked with such growing vehemence that Heather Murray declared in 1985, “Thematic criticism is of course now universally despised” – remains a persistent spectre. Practised in works of the era by D.G. Jones and John Moss, such criticism still has weight because it is, arguably, “the only clearly defined critical school to emerge in Canadian criticism” and because its practice was inseparable from the task of convincing the world – and Canadians – that there was indeed such a thing as Canadian literature.

Conversations with poets of my generation who spent time in English departments confirm that I’m not alone in having been formed by Survival, and not alone in finding it less engaging upon recent rereading. The discrepancy reveals both our maturity – a broader reading background, a propensity to read for technique, heightened critical faculties – and recent developments in this country’s writing.

Though I’m not sure I’d have needed confirmation, Survival’s confidence that Canadian literature existed ultimately freed me to write it without distracting myself with the question. In the writing programme in which I teach, CanLit is the only prescribed literature course, yet students don’t evince a sense of themselves as Canadian writers; thanks to the recent international success of such poet-novelists as Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, they aren’t interested in fitting in to a national tradition, but in winning prizes on the world stage. Might their blithe disregard confirm that Canadian literature has arrived?

Yet constraints remain. Though CanLit is more diverse than it once was, that I find still greater range among my students’ work than I do in most journals suggests that Canadian poetry is in fact much more vast than any editorial board – or, thus, any reader – would have it. When I jokingly characterize the quintessential Canadian poem, to my students, as a first person domestic lyric – perhaps involving the washing of dishes by a window outside of which weather occurs – am I describing not what is written but what certain editors prefer? When I consider my own poems of this kind – of course I write them – throwaways, what possibilities am I curtailing? We all know that trying to be original rarely results in true innovation. Perhaps the best way to truly reflect the culture out of which one writes is not to think about that culture. But to do that, one has to trust that the culture lies firmly under one’s feet.

Survival’s reissue stems from its authorship and the debate it sparked, not from its applicability. In her new introduction, Atwood declares: “I wouldn’t write Survival today, because I wouldn’t need to.” One function of this re-engagement with the project of defining a national literature is to show us how far we’ve come – and how far we can still go – and then to let us move on, creative non-victims all.

Stephanie Bolster was born in Vancouver and raised in Burnaby, B.C., she now teaches in the creative writing program at Concordia University. She is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry: White Stone: The Alice Poems, Two Bowls of Milk, and Pavilion.

‘Throat’ and ‘Of This': A Music / Poetry Project

Performed at Array Music Studios, Toronto, July 13, 2008
Presented by The Scream Literary Festival
Artists: Paul Swoger-Ruston (composer); Jordan Scott and Souvankham Thammavongsa (poets); Max Senitt (drums); Ben Miller (bass)

The attraction between composers and poets is as ancient as the Forms. Whether the art is conventional or experimental — a traditional song or the renegade compositions of Harry Partch, who invented notational systems and instruments to replicate the inflections of the spoken word — music and poetry have long been integrated. Through these integrations, musicians have explored the areas of overlap and difference between language and non-linguistic sound; ideally, the final work succeeds as its own entity while simultaneously augmenting the possibility of each component part. This has been achieved with “Throat” and “Of This,” a music/ poetry project led by Paul Swoger-Ruston, a Toronto-based composer and music theorist whose work has been performed throughout Europe, and who teaches at Ryerson University and Humber College.

“Throat” paired Swoger-Ruston with Jordan Scott, the young BC-based poet whose most recent collection, blert (Coach House Books, 2008), grapples with language and communication through the act of stuttering. Scott’s poems intentionally ram him into his stutter, forcing his body to collide with language.

My mouth drew the swallow’s panic. Chew pteryla. The spaces
between them chomp apterium; gizzard beat Broca, Broca.
Chirped electrode. Sing fuming. Sing furious. Now, open your
mouth and speak.

Words are both abstraction and materiality. They are elements in the field of semantics but they’re also shown to originate in the physical tissue of our bodies — the mouth and throat, the breath and tongue, the teeth and palate that must work in fluid exchange to form each word and sentence, each communicated thought.

You lambada glyph; cockatiel into calligraphy like your mouth-
wash swills hurricane. Puke gauze sphagnum and purr: outbreaks
will diminish against the chincherinchee festooned on bronchial,
you go on go on, urge backwash cha-cha-cha, homily into
boomshackalacka like fungi canoodle sequoia: say nosh cricket
merengue, your turn, say gnash locust meringue.

The book accepts the challenge of utterance — the act of words surging from our interior, where they (and we) are contained and known, to enter that uncertainty of communication. Within these poems, then, is the potency of language. Its inherent risks are felt in the lapse and trip of each stutter; our desire for release into rhythmic, streaming meaning is sensed in the undeniable effort to speak. In blert, language possesses both possibility and loss; it is both the longing for connection through communication and the always-coming realization that words can’t convey, complete, our being/ self.

Swoger-Ruston doesn’t engage directly — i.e., obviously — with the stutter; instead, he engages with the thematic explorations in Scott’s work through the medium of music. The composition is tight, all elements acting together in staccato precision. The piece begins with Scott’s voice:

It is part of my existence to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily
am I carried away by the first simile that comes along. Having
been carried away, I have to find my difficult way back, and
slowly return, to the fact of my mouth.

The voice is thinned out; the words feel brittle, breakable. At times, their component sounds are effaced to the level of incomprehensibility. It’s as if the voice is being erased even as it speaks. Scott’s voice, treated in this way, runs throughout the composition; although it’s been equalized — its own aural space provided — it often goes unheard beneath the other elements. Those other musical elements are drums, electric bass, and Scott’s voice (differently treated). For this second vocal element, Swoger-Ruston extracted ten short phrases from blert. Those spoken phrases are truncated but strong; the stutter isn’t contained in their resonant confidence. Scott’s voice, then, speaks without hesitation, rhythmic and repeating. This sense of command is enforced by the drums and bass which move, responsive, along the contours of each phrase: the bass follows Scott’s precise pitch; the drums carve a channel around his cadence. The effect is an assertive burst — a muscular declaration of instrument and voice. Even so, this isn’t a typical rhythm-section composition. The instruments aren’t allowed to enter a sustained groove, where each note is subsumed in the conveyance of melody or rhythmic repetition. Instead, they are contained and constrained in the rip of their execution — their brief utterance — allowed then stopped / stoppered / shut in a round burst of silence.

Within this silence, then, the brittle voice is heard, continuing, unaffected:

What is the utterance?

What a poor crawling thing you are!

Scott’s voice encounters resistance on ‘thing': the breath of th, pushed back, inside his mouth. The composition waits for him to speak.

When his words are finally given, the score returns to silence, surrounding that ‘what’ — that utterance, effaced — what a poor crawling thing you are — then back, without rhythmic expectations or melodic cues, into the instruments: the fatness of the bass, the unambiguous act of the drums, the full voice whose short phrases, repeated, possess their rap-like confidence.

These instrumental riffs are extremely difficult to execute, particularly for the drummer, who must alter his entire physical approach to the instrument in order to hit those interrupted / interrupting notes. Drummer Max Senitt executed his part masterfully. At only two points in the composition are the instruments able to improvise: Scott’s phrase “go on go on,” is repeated, the intonation rising to the mid-point then falling, symmetrical; the drum and bass ride atop, never soldered to the voice but never straying, either. As this phrase gets repeated, the words morph into elements of sound, evacuated of all linguistic meaning: go on go on go on go on. The words are eliminated, then, from the score, allowing the live instruments to overtake. This could’ve gotten showy or cock-sure: electric bassist Ben Miller could’ve broken the tightness, letting his fingers roam the instrument in a demonstration of technical prowess. Instead, he and Senitt show artistry, holding back, abutting against the constraints of the piece — blert’s uncertain rhythm, its denial of easy release.

From this improvisation, the composition returns to the extracted phrases, the brittle voice beneath. Here, Swoger-Ruson allows for the humour in blert, choosing to highlight certain absurdities:

In jugular then jujitsu, we ta-ta bazooka-woven nouns

Soaring on the joyful outbreak of humour and sound, the piece then loops around a repeated phrase, “You lambada glyph”; soon the drums and bass overtake Scott’s voice, only to be overtaken by a sequencer –that unmistakable, unsophisticated, ‘gee-whiz’ tone of early synthesizers. The live instruments cut out and the sequencer remains, its rhythm clean, clear-edged and fake. There is no slippage here — no physical creation of meaning, no risk in sound.

Sliding out from this slickness, Scott’s brittle voice again speaks:

Your hem-haw exhume Amazon’s octane aria:

armadillo harmonica logorrhea

iguana ennui hillbilly.

Now, zygote guava, each verbivore salacious.

Now, appendix escapade, your aha tsunami

trachea origami

Houdini in open wide:

when lingo

Here a stutter is heard, the slightest quiver, a hesitation on the lip of meaning.

“Of This,” the final composition of the evening, bears no resemblance to “Throat.” This is a testament to Swoger-Ruston’s talent; he strove to work with — and from — the aesthetics of the individual poets, creating unique compositions based on their unique voices.

The small, steady voice of Souvankham Thammavongsa, the Toronto-based poet whose first collection won the 2004 ReLit Award, opens the piece by reading the initial poem from Found (Pedlar Press, 2007):

In 1978, my parents lived in building #48. Nong Khai, Thailand, a Lao refugee camp. My father kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, maps, measurements. He threw it out and when he did, I took it out and found this.

Thammavongsa’s actual book –the physical object that contains her words, the “this” which was found within that other book object (i.e., her father’s scrapbook) — is a beautiful entity in itself. Beth Follett of Pedlar Press, working with Winnipeg-based Zab Design, has always ensured that the aesthetics of the book object enhance the experience of the words. The cover is lush in its simplicity: it is darkly blue with thick, matte stock embossed with silver writing and a single, simple diagonal line in the upper right quadrant. The poems themselves are often spare; the font is small, the words relegated to a tiny portion of the broad, creamy pages. Irregular lines, like the one on the cover, appear in some of the poems; they are, Thammavongsa indicates in the poem “January, 1979,” reproductions of her father’s penned slashes through days on his calendar.

This is the tangible, physical object through which we experience Thammavongsa’s words:

“Sculptor”

To worship

you took
a knife in

cut out
for us

a human face

 

“My Father’s Handwriting”

He carved
every letter

into
the sound

its
shape made

and every one took
a place

where nothing
stood

The ‘exterior’ of these poems (i.e., the words in their formation) is delicate, unassuming; the work’s reverberations, however, possess a magnitude of intensity and duration. In order to feel those reverberations — the poems’ waves of meaning — a reader must engage from a place of stillness. The book’s design guides us toward that place, subtly providing a model for our approach to the book. In our minds –our interior perceptual space — we, too, must create a dimension of active emptiness around the words.

What Zab Design has done visually, Swoger-Ruston has achieved in sound.

The final score is an immersive aural landscape. Electronic instruments, emanating from six paired speakers, follow their own streaming path; some are primarily rhythmic, others melodic. None attempt to mimic natural sounds, though the instrumentation is sometimes suggestive of bells, tinkling glass, water dropping into a pool. These suggestions are vapourous, evaporative: Swoger-Ruston doesn’t clamp links to the natural world. Instead, he teases us into our perceptual associations, which we feel more potently for our inability to grasp them.

The music, then, creates a demarcated space –a volume — within which Thammavongsa’s words can be housed, flowing around the listener who, also, is located within. This is a fundamentally different experience from that of a straightforward poetry reading, where words seem to originate from the single point — the poet and his / her mouth — extending toward the listener who hears and absorbs, experiencing the work through both cognition and affect. This experience necessitated a different encounter with the words.

The music progresses as Thammavongsa reads her entire collection. The various streams don’t develop themes that respond to each other, becoming augmented or enfolded. Rather, they accommodate each other within this space they’re creating. We feel them swirling — turning toward and bending around Thammavongsa’s voice and each other.

That voice assumes various positions in the aural landscape, sometimes foregrounded, sometimes receding. As it moves, its tone, pitch, and speed of delivery never change; that quiet consistency increases its resonance as the music develops around it and its words:

“The Bible, Notes On”

I can only
read

one word
here

You put it
inside

a bracket
and

placed
it

above

 

“House, A Sketch Of”

It’s the only
thing

on
this page

Its black lines
thin

uneven
and delicate

a simple plan
for

windows
a roof

steps
an open door

As Thammavongsa speaks these poems, one grinding note — low-pitched and discordant — is held, extended; it then begins to jerk, pulsing arhythmically. The atmosphere within the interior space gets thicker, moister, as if with sweat; this note doesn’t progress. It is stuck, eliciting our anxiety.

A melody then overtakes as Thammavongsa continues, her voice steady:

“My Mother, A Portrait Of”

There are
no photographs

of
my mother here

just
her name

Her
real name

Her
real name

looks
like her

Quiet
and reaching

for
my father’s

We relax somewhat — incompletely — unable to trust the cessation of the grinding discord. Swoger-Ruston has prepared us, then, to hear the horror of “Laos.” This horror isn’t the scream of attack but the chill of continuing — the aftermath in which extraordinary violence is incorporated, calmly, into the everyday.

“Laos”

When bombs
dropped

here
we buried

the dead
then took

the metal
for stilts

to lift
our homes

above
the ground

During the subsequent section of the composition, the music becomes more dense and jagged, the lines intersecting, all unwilling to accommodate, none fading in the cross-currents in which we, now, are caught. Inside that interior, we must integrate these streams of sound of words — the poetry of the instruments and language. We don’t become lost inside its rhythm, nor do we transcend ourselves, carried upward by the melody. Instead, our bodies are the place where the music –the poetry of this project –happens.

Now, in seventeen consecutive poems that draw the collection toward its end, Thammavongsa poetically inscribes the passage of time. This temporal dimension, often explored in narrative and music, is not generally the focus of poetry. Here, again, Pedlar Press designed the book object to powerful effect. Ten of the seventeen poems consist solely of titles at the top of the page: “October, 1979″; November, 1979″; “December, 1979″ or titles with a single slash, as on the cover of the book. These non-linguistic marks stand alone; the pages are turned, stating nothing, the contents of days and months — that time — unsaid, the silence ominous. Swoger-Ruston grasps this gathering of fear, releasing the score into soft percussive sounds and Thammavongsa’s voice, which speaks the unspooling of time, concluding in the final poem:

“Warning”

My father took
a pigeon

broke
its hard neck

cut open
its chest

dug out
a handful

and threw back
its body

warning

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic based in Toronto. Her current writing explores the ‘contact zone’ between genres – poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical. Her experimental novel, Swim, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2009.