canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Lie of the Land: Failed Regionalisms in Rocksalt 2009

By Catherine Owen

My initial disappointment in Rocksalt: an anthology of contemporary BC poetry (Mother Tongue Press, 2008) was personal. When I first heard the call for poems, I contacted Mona Fertig, one of the volume's two editors, Harold Rhenisch being the other, and asked if I could submit some work for the compilation, a book I was, at first, naively excited about, it having been over 30 years since the last collection of poetry from the Coast came out. I am an economic migrant within Canada. My situation is not unique. Indeed, as economic migrations from the Maritimes to Toronto, the Prairies or elsewhere are an accepted relocation pattern in Canada, such shifts, spurred on by the need for better work, more affordable accommodation and increased artistic freedom, rarely negate the artist's origins. Ken Babstock, to take one example, has been the recipient of the Atlantic Poetry Prize (for Mean in 1999), though he left Newfoundland when just a child and has lived in Ontario since. This does not appear to be the case with moves in the opposite direction. "Go West, young man," still seems to echo in our pioneering cortexes; those who, in an increasingly common trend, must yank up those luxurious coastal roots and plonk themselves down further East, continue to be viewed as anomalies, fools, perhaps even betrayers of the land all are mythically supposed to arrive at and none, held in thrall, leave.

In 2006, a week after I had re-located to Edmonton, AB, in support of my partner's boilermaking career and in the quest for a less financially anxious lifestyle, I returned to Vancouver to read at The West Coast Poetry Festival where I was, rather disconcertingly, introduced as an "Edmonton writer." How quickly my origins had been snatched from me, my artistic roots at any rate, an experience that had the effect of emphasizing the fickle nature of regional identity in this country, the superficiality of place, of where one calls home. Edmonton, however, was welcoming to a degree that suggested a case of the periphery embracing the core, Alberta's artists, for the most part, eager to claim me as "their own," while the poetry community in BC either still aren't aware I've left, don't care or have readily tossed me into another regional pot, a departure that frees up funding, attention or some other sliver of gristle in the provincial slow cooker.

And so a little personal history. Unlike many artists who currently call Vancouver home, I was born there. For thirty-five years, I swirled between Burnaby, East Van and Richmond, writing reams of poems about the West Coast. One of my collections, The Wrecks of Eden, much of it grounded in Vancouver, was nominated for the BC Book Prize. Further, until 2008, two years after I'd moved, my poems still appeared on BC's Poetry in Transit program. This year, 2009, a piece of mine will see publication in a much more focused regional anthology: Verse Maps of Vancouver. Additionally, I return to Vancouver every two months for a two week period. It is where the majority of my family lives.

I mention these facts to highlight the complexity of notions of residency anywhere. Officially, I live in Alberta. Unofficially, I straddle both provinces, with my work, for my family and in my art. Thus, when I was informed that no, I could not submit my work for an anthology of BC poets, I was taken aback. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. I know only too well how difficult it is to make editorial decisions, how one must impose stringent guidelines for inclusion or exclusion. As Rhenisch states in his introduction to Rocksalt: "If Rocksalt had included all of the poets who have lived in BC but, for one reason or another, are now living elsewhere it would have swelled into an encyclopedia."

Only if editorial discernment of an aesthetic sort was not put into effect, I argue. Surely, if the criteria was poems, not poets, the selection process would have been simpler and, in the end, a stronger one on which to base the final product. Unfortunately, the impetus behind Rocksalt was wrongheaded from the get go.

Rhenish continues in his introduction by underlining the motivation behind this volume of 108 poets, a selection whittled down from 289 submissions: "We wanted a celebration...a snapshot of what BC poets are working on right now." The criteria? The poets must have lived in BC for at least a year and they must have new, unpublished work to send the editors. A politically correct range of verse was the result, the array of mainly lyrical, I-based poems almost neatly divided between male and female contributors with a smattering of very young to nearly elderly writers and the requisite handful of First Nations and Asian poets. An inoffensive and, editorially speaking, ineffective package. What is celebratory, beyond the literary moment, of publishing an anthology of all new, untested and, at times, undercooked verse, poems whose too-rapid appearance in canonical print form may give the writers themselves pause in later years as they regret their hasty offerings? Further, what is the true justification for providing this "snapshot" of BC poets of the instant, as it were? Does Rocksalt truly valorize BC writers, validate the significance of regionalized designations or vitalize the rest of the literary world's perceptions of the importance of Canadian poetry?

If, as Rhenisch further asserts in his own artist's statement (both editors predictably using Rocksalt as a vehicle for self promotion), that "there is a poetry of BC, distinct from a poetry of Canada or any other place" (202), then why make the publication of new work, and, on occasion, recent residents as the spur behind Rocksalt's compilation? Longtime BC poets such as Patrick Lane, Jan Zwicky, Wayde Compton, Miranda Pearson, Theresa Kishkan, Lorna Crozier, Lionel Kearns, Elizabeth Gourlay, Mavis Jones, Phyllis Webb and Margo Button are not included in this anthology. They may not have submitted or they may be among the poets Rhenisch admits had no "new, unpublished work" to send them, many because "the pressures of teaching kept them from writing" (viii). The majority of writers in Canada teach. Should such a fact keep them from being included in an anthology, particularly when a compilation of BC poets has not emerged in over thirty years (and the last one, New: West Coast from 1977, edited by Fred Candelaria, also used the same methodology of publishing only new work)! This lapse of time surely calls into question the editors' decision to publish only new poems. If an anthology of BC poets had appeared within the last ten years or less then perhaps this exclusive reaching for the fresh would be to some extent justified. Additionally, don't those poets who more thoroughly epitomize the position of a BC writer deserve a place in this compilation, Lane or Thesen, for instance, rather than Christopher Levenson or Zach Wells, both of whom moved to the Coast in 2007 (Wells has already moved back East again), if the intent behind this volume is to be in any way representative of the "poetry of BC" ?

But if published work had been accepted then the editors would have had to track down permissions, a time consuming task and surely one of the bugaboos of being the editor of any anthology. However, is this a duty one should shirk? Rather than being a paean to the basic parameters of residency and the raw nature of the un-circulated poem, should an anthology such as Rocksalt not strive to showcase at least some of the key poems of BC over the last thirty years? How quickly we forget work that has been published in literary magazines, even in trade publications. It would have been wonderful, a true celebration, to see some of those poems recuperated, honoured in anthologized form, for their contribution to the literature of BC. Perhaps poems like Zwicky's "Small Song: Favorite Beach" (37 Small Songs and 13 Silences 2005), Pearson's "Vancouver, June" (The Aviary 2006), Jones' "Granville Island" (Her Festival Clothes 2001), Lane's "Heron" (Mortal Remains 1991), Kishkan's "Owls in the Small Hours" (Black Cup 1992), Christine Lowther's "August 1st, Mayne Island" (New Power 1999), Joe Denham's "Swimming through Inertia" (Flux 2003), Button's "Blank Years" (The Unhinging of Wings 1996), or even one by Kerry Slavens such as "Whaling Station Bay" from the long forgotten, Robin Skelton edited volume Gravity & Light (1991).

If regional classifications are to hold any weight at all, both within Canada and in the rest of the literary world, their value must literally be grounded in the work itself, not in its creators. It is not the artists who have regional literary merit, it is the poems. Although they first exist in the "placelessness of the English language itself" (77) as Carmine Starnino points out in his collection of essays, A Lover's Argument, poems also inhabit a specific terrain, one that, at its best, is not insularizing or limited, but a rooted evocation of being in place, one that can be of especial importance in this era of detachment from the land, a detachment that enables its destruction. At the same time, as I noted, we also live in a time of itinerancy, of movement away from our place of birth, often for economic reasons. Thus to establish the criteria for an anthology on the basis of official residency rather than on the terms of a poetic involvement with the land in question, is to me a flawed one.

To take one very different approach to anthologizing BC writers, Robin Skelton's Six Poets of BC, published in 1980, heralded half a dozen poets that he felt merited attention, six who showed promise in the ability to do their land justice through verse. All of these poets, including Rocksalt's co-editor Rhenisch, the youngest contributor, wrote, at least in large part, poems rooted in the geography, myths, flora and fauna of the coastal region. Each poet received the blessing of a lengthy introduction, both biographically and poetically, contextualizing their contribution to BC poetry and giving the reader the feeling that the editor had thought through, at some depth, his motivations for promoting each of these chosen writers. Most crucially, Skelton's introduction underlines the fact that, in BC, "the past impinges dramatically upon the present" (14), whether it is in the relentless encirclement of sea and mountains, the traces of industry's ruins, or the ghosts of First Nations peoples, of early immigrants.

Conversely, Rocksalt, through the editors' ahistorical aims, appears to desire an effacement of that very past, that natural legacy embodied in tales told, songs sung, genealogies imparted in context, with some respect for linearity and origin. There is simply no sense, in Rocksalt, of what Harold Bloom called the past "from which we might spring." The book confuses, as did the Candelaria introduction to New: West Coast in 1977, the new with the worthy, still seemingly desiring to contrast the fresh West Coast with the stale and ancient East, a gesture to provincialism rather than an homage to poetry. Regrettably, the anthology only contributes yet another drop to the forgettable bucket of ephemera that is becoming the state of Canadian verse in the 21st century. If there remains a need for the provincial and the regional voice in this globalized world, and I believe there does, particularly in the realm of environmental poetics, then any anthology that chooses to emphasize the productions of a specific area must do so with the regional considerations that lie at the core of its poems, not merely toss together random configurations of its potentially temporal poets.

Other recently published western anthologies, such as Writing the Land: Alberta through its Poets (2007) and Verse Maps of Vancouver (2009), at least center the impetus for their existence under a more valid regionalized umbrella than solely the decision to present a sampling of unpublished verse from poets currently residing in BC. Writing the Land is shaped by an urgent honouring of a region threatened by the destruction of nature that attends the oil industry's invasions. All of the poems thus invoke the environment, whether from rage, sadness or commemoration. Verse Maps too strives to cement a place-consciousness, in this case by the poetic act of naming urban landmarks and intersections. Both these anthologies express a clarity of intent, a vision that is crucial if literary regionalism is to gain, maintain, or still hold any currency at all in this century, both for Canadians and those outside of Canada who hope for some comprehension of the diverse forces that shape this immense land.

Yes, there are poems in Rocksalt that refer to the encompassing natural environs of the seventeen ecosystems that comprise BC and the islands. About 33 poets of the 108 make reference to a west coast landscape. And there are powerful poems, generally speaking, in Rocksalt too: Geddes' "Vodorosli," Funk's "Highway 16 Sonnet," Hayes' "Where Have you Gone," Higgins' "Avatar," Lawrance's "Interrogation," Page's "How to Write a Poem," Thornton's "Nest of the Swan's Bones," Wayman's, "Snow Right to the Water," Wells' "Heron, False Creek," and Wong's "Return," among several others. Yet, in the end, I wanted more than a sprinkling of token elements representing the land I was born and raised in, more than a scraping from the surface of this vast and historied region. Instead of Rocksalt, a title evoking the core, indicating solid foundation and support, Rhenisch and Fertig should have more accurately called their anthology Top Soil, a title emphasizing the increasingly depleted, decontextualized realm from which they have drawn their version of BC poetry: a literature without a past whose future now floats away, dry grit in the wind, "isolated gestures, ahistorical accidents" that, in Starnino's prescient words from his essay on international assessments of Canadian poetry, "will soon be forgotten" (39).




TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

Facebook page

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.