canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Frontenac House Quartet 2005 Series:

Between the Silences, Diane Buchanan
Puti/White, Patria Rivera
Invisible Foreground, David Bateman
Re: Zoom, Sheri-D Wilson

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Back again, and, yet again, the formula is working: put out a call, announce contest deadlines for the best four poetry manuscripts, wait for the poet hopefuls, penny dreadfuls, wailing, whirling wannabes, to storm the gates; sit back, begin the terrible winnowing of manuscripts.

By now, Frontenac House's annual competition must offer four of the most-sought-after slots in the poetry biz in Canada. I have no idea of the number of manuscripts submitted, of course, but the buzz in Alberta certainly is palpable, and there appears to be no end in sight of worthy contestants.

The trick with an eclectic press like Frontenac, it seems to me, is how to stay fresh; how to increase the breadth of your aesthetic; how to widen the net to admit more fishes; how to continually come up with new voices, new directions. Part of the secret, of course, is good press; more important, I believe, are the production values, the quality of the editing, the effort in the distribution and publicity departments. All of these things insure a good run at the gate, of course, but how can they possibly insure variety and innovation? For the answer to that question, you have to look at editor/publisher Rose Scollard's track record -- not just her record as a savvy business woman, but at her catholicity of taste, and her ability to find the fast horses within the aesthetic lanes she's prepared to add to the track each year.

Inevitably, some of those fast horses will falter and stumble occasionally, as, indeed, they do here. Yet, over-all, I sense no diminution in the quality of the series. But, on to the particulars.

First, the range. This year, Frontenac has chosen to include straightforward realist narrative in a linked sequence; socio-political, post-colonial lyric/narrative, with a third world feminist twist; post-modern, gay spoken word performance, with equal dollops of neo-surrealist obliquity and metaphysical wit; and feminist, Beat performance poetry. If the attempt to categorize this year's poets makes you laugh, so be it: I certainly found myself more than a little bemused while reaching for each section of academic fence in attempting to corral these fast horses. I also found myself making quick provisional judgments, and having to go back to re-evaluate my assessments on more than one occasion.


Initially, I was put off by the seemingly prosaic caliber of the work in poet Dianne Buchanan's second collection, for example. Certainly, the lines are balder, more matter-of-fact; the aesthetic closer to a demotic prose rendering of subject than the lines and aesthetic approaches of the other three poets under consideration. Indeed, I kept finding myself muttering that old creative writing saw, "show, don't tell," as I turned the pages of Between The Silences, and wondering where the rifts of ore were to be found in the individual poems. Give me metaphor, reach I mumbled; only connect. My creative writing teachers have taught me well, and I was quite prepared to go to church for the next available old saw.

But then the accumulative effect of the various pieces started to work the way fiction works; I found myself moving away from the aesthetic and more toward the argument, the concatenation of telling detail in assessing the reach of the book.

Certainly, Buchanan risks a lot in presenting her findings in such an unvarnished, un- -- one is tempted to say anti- -- poetic way. The readability and easily-accessed availability of narrative surface is, of course, one of the risks of the anecdotal approach, particularly when the poet prefers the open, ragged edged strophe to any nonce rendering of stanza and verse, and employs a demotic prose line. So my main criticism of this collection would be its lack of texture and sub-text, but it also occurs to me that you could turn that criticism around and simply say this is the least self-consciously arty of the four books too. A matter of personal taste perhaps. But let me show you what I mean; let me juxtapose a couple of sections, they way they appear, enface, in the opening narrative sequence, "In Youth Docket Court," from section one, Youth Court:

A young man enters

the prisoner's box, hands 

cuffed behind his back. 

He looks over

the spectators



for just one

familiar face. 


When none appear,

his face


into cruel resolve. 


A girl in high boots  

and miniskirt is called 

Before the judge. 

She stands -- 

the lawyers talk, 

the judge talks,

and she is diminished 


Nobody really looks, 

nobody really sees, 

nobody asks her 


She becomes --



You can see the point: two people being rendered into bloodless, non-individual defendants. The parallel phrasing creates a kind of bookends effect.

This book works the way good courtroom drawings work. Heather Spear's, for instance. If the writing seems a little more naive than Ms. Spear's writing on the Lena Virk case, for instance, it nevertheless, renders with quick, deft strokes, the heart of the matter, and the accumulative effect of all this portraiture and careful observation serves, as the title so aptly indicates, how important it is to find the human element, and how woefully lacking our jurisprudence system is, from the very set-up of the raised dais of the judge and harsh boxes of the courtroom to the subtle boxing and squaring off of legalese. The demotic prose, in other words, belies the subtlety in observation; one needs to read between the lines of what is said and what is revealed. I could have done without the glossary though: I found it a little insulting, since there were few terms there that weren't in common parlance.


My initial reaction to the opening poems of Patria Rivera's collection, Puti/White, was similar: where's the beef? This collection, though, also has an accumulative effect, and is infinitely more varied in approach. The poems range from straightforward narrative to hallucinatory lyric reverie; the language, from bald, demotic prose line to burnished lapidarian Neruda/Vallejo lyric/metaphoric/symbolic utterance. This may be Ms. Rivera's first full-length collection, but she's obviously been around the block a few times and she was a delightful discovery for this reader.

The poet was born and raised in the Philippines and brings the experience of guerilla theatre and hard luck political awareness and analysis with her. As someone who's pursued media studies in Sydney, Australia, and Berlin; and as a poet and editor who now lives with her family in Toronto's east end, she carries not only a lot of political baggage, but a lot of feminist moxie. She is also equally adept at open strophes in the Olson-Creeleyesque proprioceptive, minimalist style as she is in nonce form, triplet-laced lyric and leaping image prose poem forms; she writes in both open and closed forms too, turns a mean line, and is capable of wringing all the subtleties out of enjambment, syntactical and lexical ambiguity that accompany careful use of phonological phrases.

I found the second half of the book much richer than the first, almost as though this were a journeyman book: one that shows how far she's traveled, not only across the planet, but from first published poems to where she is now.

Quite simply put, this is an excellent book, and a most welcome debut. Not since Rienzi Crusz's debut, have I tasted such rich language and succulent turns of phrase:

I carried my sorrow onto the waiting road,
into the swiftly descending dusk,
past the tangle of shrubs and pine trees,

the jacinths unaware of the waning moon.
Rain, blind, followed wind, butting asphalt,
roofs, foliage, the neighbourhood of desires.

There were big drops, heavy as restoration,
curved, diagonal, colliding, breaking up
into tiny droplets, like pulses skittering

Mmm, tasty. Not much to bitch about there, except maybe for the expletive construction of the first line of the last triplet quoted.

Patria Rivera's beat, if you haven't guessed it, is the experience of exile -- from place, culture, language, ritual, custom, extended family. What I particularly admire though is the lightness of touch: we don't get any of the heavy-handed bible-thumping moralizing, of, say, the negritude poets, though it's clear the poet has read her Senghor and U- Tam Si, and a good deal else. She's not a Confessionalist, though her work is rich with familial detail; she's not a hermetic symbolist, though her work is ripe with image and metaphor. She makes me long for Nigerian mangoes, not the store-ripened, flat-tasting simulacra we buy in the supermarket here: she offers a feast for hungry ears.


David Bateman, the gay performance artist of the group, is astonishingly good, and it shouldn't matter a flying fuck what his sexual preference is, or how openly graphic the imagery , or how androgynous his mother on the motorcycle image of the cover is, or what side of the political spectrum you come from, or what banner you're hiding under. If you don't read gay poets because you're straight and don't think a homosexual glamour puss has anything to say to you about hetero- or any other-flavoured sexuality or lifestyle orthodoxy, or you side with the bozos that would prevent homosexuals from the basic right of marriage the rest of us enjoy, shame on you: go out and buy this book! Buy it for the language play, the wit, the humour, the stand-up timing; hell, buy it because it's good for you: you'll learn a lot about what Scottish poet W.S. Graham used to say the language is using us for. Your mother would approve: Bateman's that damn good!

I was unfamiliar with this poet before I read this book; now I'm grateful to have made his acquaintance. I laughed, I guffawed, I grinned, I winced. I had the damn flu when I read this book and I couldn't put it down until I sucked the marrow out of its bones. If you are at all interested in where the page meets the stage, you want to read this book.

The qualities I admire most are the honesty, the directness, the leaps of logic and imagery, the wit and wordplay. If I had to sum up the talent displayed here in a single word, I'd say nimble. The man is showing a lot of us untutored louts how to dance too, by God, and here's the kicker: I'm an old fart who's been around the block and read a lot of poetry myself, but here's a guy who's showing me all kinds of new moves -- not just in how to get from image to image or idea to idea, with a little pas de deux mixed in with the stomp and tap dance clickety clack, but what the hell a poem can be as well!

Most poems I've read in a performance vein don't stand up on the page; his most often do. Most of the rhetoric necessary to create the incantatory effects and rollicking rhythms of performance seem forced or so much dross on the page; his rhetoric doesn't. Most performance poets are bombastic; hector, harangue, pontificate; David Bateman has you slobbering like a spaniel with a big wet kisser and following him from phrase to phrase, page to page, like you deserved praise or a head pat for being there. You'll follow him anywhere, and he'll take you on some pretty interesting tours of yer neighbourhood too, by Jesus.

His beat is as wide as the world and as narrow and parochial as your back yard, though admittedly backlit with preternatural moon glow. Imagine David Trinidad with ants in his pants, or Denise Duhamel's Kinky Barbie dolls all kicking up their gams and kicking out the jams or pogo jumping to Iggy Pop and the Stooges: he's assimilated a lot of pop culture influences from Hollywood musicals, the bitchy/witty dialogue of Joe Orson, Harvey Fierstein, Tony Kushner, Sky Gilbert and others; the droll delivery of Jones or Charles Bukowski; a little of the New York School Poets, Frank O'Hara and early John Ashbery; but his diction zings and pops with the polyphonic zeal and chance collisions/juxtapositions of August Kleinzahler or Po Mo language poets like Ron Silliman and performance poets like the Green Mill slammers and Nuyurican crowd. He drops allusions to T.S. Eliot and Tammy Wynette without ever wearing his learning on his sleeve or punning in ways that make you groan. Yet the elements gell into a unique voice and style. Most of the poems take a long while to get rolling, rather like a shaggy dog story, so it's hard to excerpt quotations that would do justice to the ground covered, but let me show you a couple of quick quips in their entirety:

My Poetry

lies somewhere between political critique
and the label on the back of a box of potpourri

scathing insight and room deodorizer
lavender and blue


Two thirds haiku on trans gender
( for Tammy Wynette )

sometimes it makes me
hard to be a woman

The longer poems, of course, have more sweep and depth. Fabulous poet.


Re: Zoom (resume, re-zoom, etc) is vintage Sheri-D Wilson, with the added satiric kicker of typographic play with the conventions of e-mail: the use of the RE: header in various punning configurations and back formations, prefixes, pre-prefixes and what not, the use of the chevrons with return and return return return messages, play with CAPS (Yelling in e-mail; here more like sidebar snickers and stage directions.), the double use of colons to introduce or double stall clauses, phrases or words, offset stage comments or juxtapose the analytical sub-textual voice against the great swatches of rollicking jazz improv-like strophes or droplines that tell us when to drop the pitch of our reading voice. How cute or clever the reader finds these typographical elements is largely a matter of taste. Suffice to say they don't interfere with the poet's signature mouth music and punning leaps of sound and logic. One can ignore them and still read the text straight for the narrative through-line, or stop and catch the syntactical and lexical ambiguities along the way, rather like bird watching from the car.

The most effective aspect of the Reply or Reply All commands is the way the conventions allow the poet to play with intertextual glosses on earlier poems -- earlier in the collection or earlier in other books.

Sometimes I found the punning and leaping, multiple margin use of phonological phrases, and bits and pieces of language a bit precious, or wanting a little more restraint or line editing, but I suspect the effects work better in performance than they do on the page anyway. Likewise some poems are slighter than others, and a few seem like freefall journal entries that haven't found their footing or aren't really developed the way the best of her poems in earlier books are. I didn't find any great falling off in the wit and humour departments though, and Sheri-D manages to skewer or lance most of the targets with the poniard point of her acid pen. So readers familiar with her earlier work will hear the same feminist Beat verve driving the engine here.

The term jazz poetry is often used to describe Sheri-D Wilson's work, and certainly the connotation of improvisation fits. Poems proceed as much by the linkage of cognate sound, shifts in internal vowels, hip hop or slam poetry rhythms, and by etymology as by image motif or narrative trajectory. The puns and connections are frequently surprising and delightful. Indeed, I detect a lot more language school architecture in these poems than in earlier work, and echoes of bissett, Moure, Marlatt, and other more self-consciously based post-structural theorist poets, but the poems never get bogged down in their own cleverness or tendency to footnote the footnotes the way, say, Charles Bernstein's work frequently does, and the average educated poetry reader is more likely to allow for the self-indulgent bop solo here and there as all of the signs, bits of syntax, graphemes, quirks and quarks of lexiconjury are set spinning in the cyclotron of open form poetics than s/he would with so many of the more deliberately obtuse language poets.

Sheri-D's improvisations are more like Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band improvs with the Master musicians of Joujouka than like his earlier free jazz experiments; the insistent rhythms hold them to ground while she spins endlessly inventive melodic skeins over the top. You never stop tapping your toes or bobbing your head through the weave.

Is she "one of the finest poets in Canada, if not the world, including Vancouver," as musician Jann Arden riffs in her cover puff? No, I don't think so: far from it. She's certainly one of the best performance poets I've heard, and one really does need to hear her work to get the full effect of the rollicking wit, but she's challenged herself here to move beyond Naropa and the Beat poetic, and it will be interesting to see where these various concrete and language school developments take her. I hope she doesn't stray too far from her working and middle-class roots because she's always been one of those poets who redeem the art form for the non-literary audience poetry has always hoped to re-capture. As her CD, Sweet Taste of Lightning, makes abundantly clear, the commingling of jazz improvisation and spoken word still has a lot more to offer than any of the Beat/ Boppers of the early and mid-fifties managed to realize.


To sum up then, we have another good crop, and a huge range in poetics here: both argue for the continued success of a series I now look forward to every year. All you poets out there should check the web site for details of next year's contest. You won't find many presses out there with as wide a range of aesthetic taste, and how bad can that be for the future of poetry in Canada. Granting bodies, your money's well spent here.

Richard Stevenson is usually far less prolix and has taken to writing haiku, senryu, and tanka lately, in fact. He still teaches at Lethbridge Community College in southern Alberta. New books include A Charm of Finches, Parrot With Toilette's, and Flicker at the Fascia. A jazz poetry chapbook, children's picture book, memoir, and further adventures in haikai literature are forthcoming.







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