09 November 2018
Here is my version of an Instagram poem. Or one of them. My take on Rupi Kaur, maybe. I wrote the text and took the photo yesterday in the Nitobe Memorial Garden on a lunchtime walk with my wife Christina, to whom the poem is dedicated. It was pretty quick. There was a little tweaking and polishing and editing today, but not much, as I combined them into something meme-like. And also not.
11 September 2018
For Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song
IICSI colloquium at Guelph, 13 September 2018
(Panel with Sara Villa, Paul Watkins, Rob Wallace)
I want to start by poaching a phrase from the title of Fred Moten’s hot-off-the-Duke-University-Press trilogy, which he admits to purloining from Christopher Winks’s translation of an interview of Antillean poet Édouard Glissant by the filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Here it is: “Consent not to be a single being” (xvi). The implicit network of voices caught up in that performative translation suggests, already, the layered irresolution, the refusal and the excess that Moten names, following on a reading of C. L. R. James, the “not-in-between.” For a good twenty-five years now, I have attempted fairly quietly to practice a plural and dislocated cultural pedagogy, both critical and (co)creative, that hovers in the sometimes appropriative, sometimes disjunctive interstices of the Eurological, the Afrological and the Indigenous. I lay claim to no particular belonging, although my appearance and heritage tend to do that for me, materially and obviously. My writing such as it is has striven, sometimes against its own tendencies and sometimes by embracing them, to inhabit and to enliven—and to be enlivened by—those unstable and conflicted contingencies, those dissolving and partial places where productive intersections can and do happen. “Join me down here in nowhere,” Claudia Rankine calls out in Citizen: An American Lyric. I feel like I have tried, in my teaching and in my writing, to answer (and to answer to) that fraught, rich, poetic invitation.
The hover I often find myself attempting to describe occurs—perhaps as a temporary suture, perhaps as an undoing, as a re-opened wound—in the liquid, motile collision of words and music that happens both in and as song, particularly improvised song. It’s the attenuation, the extemporal hysteresis, in one sense, that tugs lyrics toward the lyric. Drawing on Amiri Baraka’s concept of “musicked speech,” Moten begins to map in C. L. R. James’s sentences a “phrasal disruption” that he names lyric, a noisy “poetry” interrupting (“[n]ot by opposition; by augmentation”) James’s prose—inflecting Moten’s own parenthetical and iterative style, as well as my imitation here—and an aurality that “remains to be seen and heard so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production,” serving “to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content” (3). At the same time, music asserts itself through and against the verbal “not only as a mode of organization but, more fundamentally, as phonic substance, phonic materiality irreducible to any interpretation but antithetical to any assertion of the absence of content” (31). Moten comes to offer his apologies for such theoretically and poetically dense passages as the ones I have just quoted: “I’m sorry if this is all a blur. I’m so used to my own astigmatism that maybe I can’t even talk to anybody anymore. To make matters worse, I’ve never been able to keep my glasses clean” (261). Still, he understands his own verbose blur (as the title of his book suggests) as constitutive and crucial, as inhering in the give-and-take word-music of song itself. This astigmatism, this arrhythmia, is the stuff of the improvisatory; Moten offers, as exemplary, the unsettled musicking of Charles Mingus: “He would protect the pulse, like any good bass player, while freeing himself from it,” and, I want to add, by singing, shouting, moaning, ululating, vocalizing as he plays (103). Protection, however, also articulates itself against the risk of hurt, in Moten’s terms, as both complement and antagonist, as augmentation and opposition. Moten thematizes this correspondent hurt in the transcribed/described “scream” of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Michel Leiris evokes the “cri,” which he hears in “les sons râpeux . . . que les jazzmen aiment àtirer de leurs instruments àvents . . .qu’ils savent aussi faire gémir, grognier, se plaindre ou ricaner sur toutes sortes de tons” [the raspy sounds. . . that jazzmen like to shoot from their wind instruments. . that they also know how to moan, grunt, complain or snicker on all kinds of tones] (37). This pained and celebratory tonality—at once, for Leiris, derisive and sanguine—offers a moment of suture, of unruly translation, between what he calls paroleand chant, speech and song: “Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile de traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passé de la parole au chant? S’ils se font chant, n’est-ce pas lorsque, cessant d’obéir seulement aux injonctions du dictionnaire, ils valent par ce que leur forme et point seulement leur sens official suggèrent (en quelque sorte ‘génèrent’)?” [Perhaps it is when the words, instead of being in a servile position of translators, become generators of ideas that we pass from the word to the song? If they make themselves sing, is it not when, ceasing to obey only the injunctions of the dictionary, they are worth what their form and point only their official sense suggest (somehow 'generate')?] (112). In some sense like me, Leiris comes to this music as an attentive outsider, hoping by staging, as audition, a close proximity to its song also to catch at (that is, to translate otherwise) some of its vitality, its deep cry. Moten, by contrast, necessarily resists such “an absolute nearness [to black vitality], an absolute proximity, which a certain invocation of suture might approach, but with great imprecision. . . . There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded” (ix). “Jazz,” as he puts it, “does not disappear the problem,” or dress its wound, or offer healing sesames: jazz “isthe problem and will not disappear. It is, moreover, the problem’s diffusion, which is to say that what it thereby brings into relief is the very idea of the problem” (xii, emphasis in original). While attempting to describe my own practice of study, which I understand as the interrogation and elaboration of a certain conceptual arrhythmia, I have perhaps relied overmuch on quoting Moten in these few minutes, but I am also mindful that the work of reading, with as much acuity as I can muster, is also to develop a tenuous but palpable resonance, a hapsis, a pushback and a to-and-fro with what I hear presently in Moten’s sentences. I’m going to move on to try to give a more specific example of this practice of reading and listening, of listening as reading, but before that I want to look only once more to the early pages of Moten’s book, where he delineates what he calls “black study” as the stuff of discrepant song, as audible hurt and as a “lyricism of the surplus”:
This is why, as Wadada Leo Smith has said, it hurts to play this music. The music is riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study. (xiii)
My own practice of study cannot unproblematically or unchallenged suture itself to that terrible beauty or find even vestigially proximity to Moten’s “we.” Nevertheless, in the fraught translation between word and sound that manifests itself in improvised song, I do find myself, following Brent Hayes Edwards and, of all people, Raymond Williams, “hovering ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’” (16) trying to explain the blur.
Part Deux. Deuxième Partie, I Should Say.
I only have a couple of minutes, so I want to give a brief example of the creative blur, the hover I’ve been trying to describe in my own creative-critical practice by ventriloquizing some of Fred Moten’s recent work. I want to begin to listen carefully to Darius Jones’s and Emilie Lesbros’s Le Bébé de Brigitte, which is both an homage to and an extension of Brigitte Fontaine’s 1969 collaboration with Areski Belkacem and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la Radio. I want to take up two related tropes to understand how song and the improvisatory intersect in this work: the suture and, borrowing the title of the one wordless track on Darius Jones’s 2015 recording, the “universal translator.” Linking the Jones-Lesbros collaboration directly to the Brigitte Fontaine recording is from the get-go a bit misleading and an instance of mistranslation or of meaning lost in translation. If you dig a little (through the internet, for instance), you’ll discover that the “Brigitte” in Darius Jones’s title is not Fontaine (though named for her) but a maternal figure in his evolving personal cosmology (articulated in his unfolding series of “Man’ish Boy” recordings); unless you find your way to such notes, however, who Brigitte is will remain hermetic and likely miscued for listeners. The promise of universal translatability offers itself through Google or in Star Trekand Hitchhiker’s Guideutopianism (and has something to do with an Afro-Futurism here, though I have no room to engage or unpack it), but rather than transparency, the universality – the Benjaminian Reine Sprache– that Jones describes musically is an effect of contingent opacity, of difference and uncertainty, of the slipped suture: “In the process of creating this music, we often fell into moments of miscommunication because of differences in culture and language. I think this created a sense of mystery, and forced all of us to listen more deeply to each other’s nuances and subtleties, because we didn’t always have words to fall back on.” Words, despite what Jones appears to claim here, are not even a fallback for communicative or diegetic clarity, and even when they’re unsung, their tug and blur remain in play in the performance, the articulation, of these songs. Briefly put, the cosmology – the universality of an imagined universal translator – never closes or coheres, not even for its originator; instead it revises, remakes, re-writes itself, an extemporaneous diegesis. Which means, for me, that in the stitching, the verbal-acoustic suturing that happens when we sing, the lyric “problem” that Fred Moten describes tends to come into play, maybe even necessarily. Here are a few snippets from the (what I take to be) largely improvised lyrics by Brigitte Fontaine for “Comme à la Radio,” the eponymous opening track for her collaborative album:
Ce n' sera rien
Rien que de la musique
Ce n' sera rien
Rien que des mots
Comme à la radio
Tout juste un peu de bruit
Pour combler le silence
As she moves through the song, we realize that with her increasing tenacity what we’re hearing both is and is not audible “like” a song “on the radio.” Her words, her noise, fills in silences, but even with what we might mistake for self-deprecation (“nothing but words,” “nothing but music”), it inclines itself, by both suturing and cutting into itself and its musical accompaniment, to the “nowhere” that Claudia Rankine says she inhabits, an excessive and unruly soundspace that both fills semantic gaps and refuses to fill us in. Emilie Lesbros’s singing on, for example, “Chanteuse in Blue,” also darts in and out of any semantic purview (one critic, while asserting that her texts are mostly “suitably poetic,” found that these words “veer into the irritating”: I’d call them edgy, working the audio nerves to the edge, the abutment, of sound and sense, of the Eurological and the Afrological, let’s say, with her Aebi-Birkin-esque accent):
hah, wah, a-a-a-a-a, uegh
“Baby, let me tell you something.”
“Chanteuse in blue . . .”
“He said, ‘What? What are you talking about, sweetheart?’”
“I said, ‘I am suffering from the difference that people
think we have.’”
What’s both thematized and enacted here, meta-diegetically and subversively, as translated verbal excess, is precisely and necessarily the irritation of the lyric: the refusal to settle in; instead Lesbros (and Darius Jones’s dialogic saxophone lines, both miming and counterpointing, intensifying and cross-cutting Lesbros’s voice) presents an embrace—a fraying and a knitting up – of the discomfiting, the discrepant, the extramusical, the blur. I will have exceeded my time. My time’s more than up.
Texts Quoted or Name-checked (in reverse alphabetical order)
Fred Moten. Black and Blur. First volume of consent not to be
a single being. Duke UP, 2017.
Michel Leiris. À Cor et à Cri. Gallimard,1988.
Brent Hayes Edwards. Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary
Imagination. Harvard UP, 2017.
11 August 2018
Here is a brief elegy for Ken Pickering, who passed away yesterday and will be sorely missed.
for Ken Pickering
Some musics draw you in and pull you near.
Some musics sound what words fall short about.
Some musics free you up enough to hear
what offers a brief means of letting go.
Some musics can’t be bought again, even
by special order at Black Swan Records.
Some musics refuse the done, the given.
Some musics have a way of happening
that defies and embraces love at once.
Some musics winnow a few greasy vowels
down to their consequential resonance.
Some musics make life a bit more worthwhile.
Some musics have little to do with notes.
Some musics improvise what can’t be said.
Some musics stir what grieves and celebrates.
Some musics keep good company in loss.
31 July 2018
I've been listening to Petra Haden's recordings for years now. I've never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.
13 June 2018
This year’s IICSI colloquium—Sounding Promise in the Present Tense: Improvising Through Troubled Times—happens during the opening weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, from Friday June 22 to Sunday June 24, 2018. All of the talks, presentations, and performances, which are free and open to the public, take place in room C420 of UBC Robson Square, the downtown Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia, located underneath the Vancouver Art Gallery. By my count, this is the tenth Vancouver colloquium supported by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and by its parent research initiative, Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP), which have been presented almost annually here since 2007. Rainbow Robert, from Coastal Jazz, and I have curated this year’s colloquium, blending various modalities of and approaches to improvisation. Here is the provocation I put together to suggest some of the potential overarching themes and trajectories for our event:
At this year’s colloquium for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, presented in collaboration with the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and Coastal Jazz, presentations and performances will address questions around what it means to improvise in a challenging and uncertain present. What roles can the improvising arts play to address cultural and social turbulence? How might improvisation both settle on and unsettle our senses of what matters now? How does improvising confront our enmeshments in a heavily mediated and diverse world? What sorts of connections and resistances does improvisation enact? How might improvisation involve practices of disruption and of reconciliation? Of protest and of healing? Of undoing, of re-mixing, of co-creation? What senses of promise can improvisations sound in a time of unease and displacement?
We have expanded from two to three days of programming, and part of our focus this year involves making space for indigenous performances and community work. On Friday, June 22, we will be presenting Tla’Amin youth activist, singer-songwriter Ta’Kaiya Blaney. We will also be featuring a performance-discussion by Blue Moon Marquee, and a day of workshops and presentations on community engagement through improvisation; some of this latter work has emerged from the influence of Jo-Ann Episkenew, and we have dedicated the day to remembering her legacy.
There will be artist keynotes on Saturday and Sunday from drummer-composer Scott Amendola (titled “Stretch Woven”) and guitarist Nels Cline (“Improvising from the Get Go”). Writer Gillian Jerome will give a poetry reading on Sunday morning, and writers Dina del Bucchia and Jen Sookfong Lee will record a live “Can’t Lit” podcast on Saturday. Percussionist-improvisers Joe Sorbara and Dylan van der Schyff will discuss their co-creative approaches to improvisation, and British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert will present her piece “Letters I Haven’t Written.” Guitarist Aram Bajakian and poet-singer Alan Semerdjian will discuss their collaboration involving musical settings of poetry around the Armenian genocide.
I’ll post expanded blog entries on each of our presenters in the coming days. In the meantime, check out some of the links above. And feel free to come on out any or all of the colloquium presentations: there are going to be some exciting, powerful and compelling moments!
12 May 2018
When I first read Nick Mount’s Arrival, I recognized a history of the various forms of academic, institutional and cultural gatekeeping that emerged from the 1970s CanLit boom his book maps out, and also imitates and re-contextualizes, roughly fifty years forward into a Canadian present. My recognition is thoroughly personal, and signals my immersion in and interpellation by an ingrained set of historical filters and blinders. I have to acknowledge my own privilege, even as an undergraduate at Western in the early 1980s, and the mobility that such privilege impalpably enabled, but it was a privilege that worked more as deficit than enabler: in a scenario somewhat akin to Kafka’s parable, I was shown the magical door into the creative and academic domain of Anglo-CanLit, but was never invited to cross the threshold.
I have remained relatively adjacent ever since, though I have never mistaken my own tenured position in an English Department for something to complain about; but, for me, that position remains asymptotic to the still inaccessible domain of what I now understand as a fiction of success in the intersecting parochial circles of the Canadian literary world. Professor Mount frames, as apologist, as enthusiast and critic, as a historically and aesthetically proximate participant-observer, the key players in a nascent cultural nationalism that shaped and informed how I was taught Anglo-Canadian literature and literary history thirty-odd years past: Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Watson, Purdy, Munro, Layton. (Within this inherited framework, Francophone literature becomes one of many cultural sets subsumed within or adjunct to a larger English-speaking national mythos – despite Mount’s fairly robust descriptions of Marie-Claire Blais, for example, or Anne Hébert or Hubert Aquin.) When I opened Mount’s book a few months ago, I recognized a slice of that past where I know I came from (as Northrop Frye might have put things), and of the recalcitrant critical context into which I was not so much invited as trained, and then passed over.
What follows isn’t really a late-to-the-game review of Arrival so much as a brief set of personal and critical riffs, set off by a few resonant moments in the book as I’d read it through. Mount has already been both lauded and excoriated, often for what amount to pretty much the same reasons. In Arrival, he accurately and attentively revisits the cultural nationalism of (roughly) post-centennial English Canada around the creation and promulgation, until the mid-1980s, of what was then called CanLit. His perspective is self-consciously sesquicentennial, though it only lightly confronts what feels to me like a contemporary recidivist nationalism that continues to be caught in and to resist the unsettling roils of decolonization, reconciliation, and gender trouble. Instead, Mount re-embraces what feels like the narrowly bracketed recovery of Anglo-Eurological prestige that drove polemics like Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), after which Mount’s book is named. Collectively around 1968 or so, CanLit very obviously wanted to legitimate itself as a capital-L Literature. “I wrote this book,” Mount claims at the outset of his 2017 preface, “because it didn’t exist,” re-imagining a kind of literary-historical terra nullius onto which CanLit, now alongside his populist history of the CanLit boom, once sought to inscribe itself (Arrival 1). Mount has been criticized for mostly omitting the complex intersections of race, region, gender, class, orientation and ideology that wove themselves through and articulated themselves against CanLit in the early 1970s, and for re-asserting a literary emptiness that is clearly mistaken: even before confederation, the nascent literary domain of the Canadian was embroiled in its own aesthetic and cultural controversies.
Earle Birney’s oft-quoted lines—from the brief squib of a poem he titled with the first use of the clipped portmanteau “Can. Lit.,” and which he tellingly split-dated both 1947 and 1966—assert that “it’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted.” But Birney’s absolutism (“only”? really, Earle?) is tendentious and misguided: there was plenty going on, and none of it lacked for ghosts. What it did lack was any artifice of coherence, though not for lack of trying. (“No Whitman wanted,” is how Birney puts it, a claim about absent mythopoeia I once heard, when I was a graduate student, repeated back to me by the one and only Helen Vendler, on a train in Ireland from Sligo to Dublin, to meet Seamus Heaney. But that’s another story.) If you think about it, charging Mount with the same sins of omission and the same typological longing as his subjects and predecessors, with their attendant exclusions and implicit structural racisms, isn’t really much of a critique. What might be better to ask is why he or we might want to return to such formations CanLit now, at 150+, at a remove of at least half a century.
The origin story that Mount offers is one that I was taught, too, although his rather Toronto-centric balancing act between two founding (father) figures for CanLit, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, is both distorted and out of keeping with my own experience. What I received at lectures and in seminars was mostly Frye and more Frye; one of my professors at Western joked that many of his colleagues were “small Frye”—a terrible pun, but not far off the mark. Mount’s argument for the formation of CanLit centres on the intersection of granting bodies like the Canada Council with secondary and post-secondary schools and with the publishing industry, particularly the dissemination of the New Canadian Library. But, in terms of an aesthetic of cultural nationalism, the often conflicted counterpoint of the work of U of T professors Frye and McLuhan remains for Mount at the core of the CanLit’s conceptual apparatus:
Mostly, what Frye—and McLuhan—did for Canadian writers of all kinds and loyalties was to provide examples of international success, proof that you could be not just Canadian and a writer but Canadian and written about, argued over, read. (75)
It’s notable that McLuhan is second banana in Mount’s phrasing here, but the idea is still not far from what I experienced: that Frye and McLuhan offer forms of imitatio scriptor, modeling literary greatness on a cosmopolitan stage. It’s no accident that Atwood’s Survival begins with epigraphs from Margaret Avison and from Frye, her professor, that gesture at the collision of the parochial and the worldly. Birney’s poem doesn’t, in fact, lack for ghosts, and the spectres of Frye and Roy Daniells, it’s possible to remark now, loom posthumously through his lines; those spectres, it turns out, are the ones who lament a literary lack, and did so well in advance of what Mount presents as CanLit.
In Survival, Atwood echoes and re-purposes a “great man” ideology of literary value, transposing its key so that it might, in a gesture of gender-neutrality, include women’s writing too: “In Canada there are many authors and many books, but few obvious classics” (11). What constitutes a “classic,” for Atwood in 1972, remains relatively unchallenged, and still resolutely patriarchal, as she suggests when she quotes another U of T professor, E. K. Brown, with measured irony around an aesthetic of greatness that’s hardly at any remove from Thomas Carlyle: “A great art is fostered by artists and audience possessing in common a passionate and peculiar interest in the kind of life that exists in the country where they live” (qtd. on 181). Roy Daniells, who was chair of my own Department of English at UBC through the 1950s, is deeply and thoroughly influenced by Brown, who had in turn emerged from the tutelage of Pelham Edgar, when he reproduces this yearning for Anglo-Celtic greatness and for reconstructed autochthony in a 1955 chapter on Canada’s “Literature: Poetry and the Novel” (qtd. in Djwa 313). Noting that no great writer has yet emerged who might be “capable of producing a large number of stories which are united by a sensibility, a style, a locale, and a selection of material,” Daniells nonetheless asks for a literature keyed to geography and cultural amalgam, expressing a unifying sense of “first the land itself, the great terrain, and second the juxtapositions of race, nationality, and creed within the country and upon the continent.” Daniells, Djwa argues,
was particularly interested in the larger geographical features that had conditioned the history of the country – especially the experience of entering the country through the St Lawrence (a concept later developed metaphorically by Frye in his Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada) – and the importance of landscape on all forms of new writing. (309)
Greatness comes in response to addressing the pressing existential and fundamentally Anglo-Canadian, settler-culture question of where here is. CanLit, in Mount’s reading, aspires—and occasionally achieves—recognizable greatness. But it does so by stringent gatekeeping, by carefully policing its nascent boundaries.
Mount suggests—and I think he’s wrong about this, given my own epigone encounters with some of these writers—that the universities (such as my own campus, where Daniells was a key player in the founding of the academic/public intellectual journal Canadian Literature, a juggernaut of canon formation in 1958) played a minor role in the making of CanLit, which he understands as more populist and distributed:
Universities did little to encourage Canadian literature, but they did create a record number of new spaces in which others could – all those new campuses and new classrooms and the theatres, galleries, bookstores, pubs, and cafes that followed them. More by accident than by design (which is pretty much how a university develops, because pretty much how knowledge develops), they greatly increased the opportunities for the kind of chance encounters that turn young people toward artistic lives. (75)
I’d like to pause here to tell one of two stories, this one involving me—who positioned himself, albeit about a decade late, as one of those “young people”—being turned not toward but away from CanLit.
As an undergraduate at Western, I was in close proximity to a number of first- and second-generation CanLiterati; I took courses from James Reaney and Don McKay, for example, and—because Toronto was only a two-hour drive up the 401—there was a robust slate of live readings and a strong writer-in-residence programme. In my fourth year, I took what I understood to be one of the English Department’s first versions of a creative writing seminar, led by a professor whose own output inclined toward creative non-fiction, his nearly sui generis mix of the critical and the confessional. (I won’t name him, but if you are so inclined you can find him out.) He, too, seemed to me at the time to be CanLit adjacent, an adherent more than a recognized member of the clique—award-winning writers were his friends and colleagues. I thought, like others in the class, that we were being offered slight but tangible access to the post-Survival literary establishment, that a university, as a key site of the management of what constituted a nascent contemporary canon of Canadian writing, was opening the gate a crack.
I ended up with a B+ in the course, a grade designed to signal, as the professor later explained to me, that I had lots of knowledge but no real talent. For him I didn’t write—especially poetry—the right way, or well. I had already had some inkling of this trouble when I had visited the current writer-in-residence, a Toronto-based poet in print through McClelland and Stewart, earlier in the term; “Hmm,” she had said as she flipped through the handful of pages I had submitted, “do you really want to publish these?” The poems were, she said, “kind of precious,” and she didn’t know what to tell me. “Do you want these published?” she repeated, at a loss for suggestions. “No,” I said. “No.” Which was a lie. What I had wanted from her was some recognition even of my writing’s modest value, some affirmation, some key to set me on the road to any sort of publication. But it wasn’t forthcoming, and I left her temporary office temporarily defeated. (Footnote: one of the texts she read, which I had been drafting and developing for the creative writing seminar, would eventually find publication as a long-form prose poem called “Pining” in West Coast Line.) What would have helped me, I think, was even a pittance of generosity. The creative writing professor, in a semblance of deference, invited me out after the term was done for a beer at a local pub, Chaucer’s. I came prepared with two books in my satchel: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler and George Bowering’s George, Vancouver. I admired both poets, and one of my favourite texts had been Ondaatje’s chapbook Tin Roof, a copy of which I had bought from Ondaatje himself at a reading at the Forest City Gallery. Look, I said to my prof as I set them on the table: “This is the kind of writing I don’t want to do.” I was, even then, more of a formalist, reacting against the looseness of TISH and the confessional and landscape regionalism. It’s that as-yet-unsettled formalism, I think, that had been read as “precious.” “Well,” he said over his beer, adopting the condescension of the trained academic, “these are two very different writers, you know.” They were both his friends. Yes, I knew. “I’ve never met anyone,” he told me, “who seemed to know so much about recent poetry but wasn’t able to do it.” His version of the CanLit gate was closing for me. He seemed to think he was trying to be gentle, but there was meanness there, a stiff inability even to want to foster my desire, as a tyro, to be a part of that small cultural world, a world he himself wasn’t quite in with.
So here is my other undergraduate story triggered by Nick Mount’s book. In my first year at Western, Austin Clarke was the writer-in-residence. Among other things, he took it upon himself to hold weekly informal seminars for any students who wanted to talk about writing or to get a bit of feedback on their work: a workshop, but without the constraints of formal study. He modeled a kind of generosity and personal attentiveness, a practice of care, that was rigorous but also, I came to realize later, atypically open-hearted for the Canadian scene. He had a way of making space for others, not by deference, but by interested engagement. He is one of the very few non-white writers cited in Atwood’s Survival, and not so much as colleague but more an figural example, as stand-in. Her chapter seven describes “The Reluctant Immigrant” by summarizing two stories from Clarke’s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks; they centre, for Atwood, on economic and social disenfranchisement, “failure masquerading as achievement,” devolving to debasing resentments about money (151-2)—they’re not about craft or voice, but reductively allegorize social marginalization through realist depictions of urban racism. Mount repurposes Atwood’s distancing tactics when he re-narrates an anecdote about one of publisher Jack McClelland’s notorious encounters with Clarke:
Austin Clarke was so abusive to M&S staff that Jack [McClelland] suggested he look for another publisher. “What you need more than anything else, “ writes Jack, “is a good swift kick in the ass.” (173).
Mount seems charmed by McClelland’s blustery machismo, but what I hear in this story is recalcitrant structural racism, an inability to empathize with Clarke, to address what it is he might have been angry about. The threat was that a version of that cultural gate, suffused with a version of white universalism, might snap shut.
In the first of our writing workshops with Clarke, he brought along two LPs and a portable record player. One was a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, I think the von Karajan complete on Deutsche Grammophon. To get the ten or so of us present to reflect on the relationship between style and meaning, he wanted to play one of the pieces, one movement, but couldn’t get the records out of the cardboard sleeves. He pulled out a jackknife and, cursing under his breath, tried to cut the box open along the edge. “My daughter,” he said, “has scotch taped it for a joke.” He gave up, and tossed the set onto the table in front of him. The other record was Milestones by Miles Davis. It hadn’t been taped up. He played us the title track, a famously galloping modal tune that begins side two. “What do you hear?” he asked us. Part of his point was no doubt to invite us to consider the challenges of blackness in Canada. Most people registered the up-tempo groove as ebullient, liquid, sanguine, joyful. No, said Austin Clarke, “what I hear is anger. Miles is angry. Think of the blade-like sound of his Harmon mute on other songs.” And then he laughed. And he didn’t tell us exactly what he knew Miles Davis was angry about.
When I turned in some of my nascent fiction to him later in the term, he didn’t put me off. I had what I thought was a concept—something like second-rate Lydia Davis, I’d later figure out—that I wouldn’t write more than a page per story, a story per page. The idea was to be clipped and suggestive. His unlit pipe clamped in his teeth, Clarke read it through silently, in front of me, looked up over the top of the page, and said, “Great. Now where’s the rest of it?” Two lessons, at least, emerge for me from that moment: first, don’t have so little humility as to believe your own aesthetic malarkey, and second, more importantly, try to ask for more, be kind, be generous, be open. Austin Clarke’s sense of anger came, I think, from having that generosity thwarted and unreturned. That negation, that thwarting, I think, is a large part of what still constitutes CanLit at all. Such gatekeeping needs not so much to be reanimated as to have its worn out scotch tape cut.
Books and Such I Quoted From
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
Birney, Earle. Ghost in the Wheels: The Selected Poems of Earle Birney.
McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
Djwa, Sandra. Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells. U of
Toronto P, 2002.
Mount, Nick. Arrival: The Story of CanLit. Anansi, 2017.