Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Duty Free

The Canadian Poetry Festival (1980)
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By Alessandro Porco

Canada is a language without a dictionary.
                                       – Gerry Gilbert

If being associated with Buffalo doesn’t
bother Niagara Falls
why should it be a big problem
for you[.]
                                       – Ishmael Reed

At the time I was very aware that a startling event was taking place, that we were witnesses to an articulation of a new and genuine Canadian writing that had a factual claim on greatness.
                                        - Robert J. Bertholf

So now for the bridge, as in music, carries one over—[.]
                                       – Robert Creeley

In October of 1980, The Canadian Poetry Festival took place at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a North American hot-bed for the study of poetry and poetics. Funding for the festival was split between the school’s English department and the Canadian Consulate General; further support came from University President Robert L. Ketter and Brian Long of Canada’s Department of External Affairs.

Managing the poetry side of things was the late great American poet Robert Creeley — then Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters at SUNY-Buffalo and a dedicated reader of Canadian poetry — and Robert Bertholf, noted Robert Duncan scholar and, at the time, curator of SUNY-Buffalo’s famed “Poetry Collection,” the most comprehensive archive of 20th century English language poetry, including not only books but a vast array of broadsides, little magazines, manuscripts and letters. Canadian poet Victor Coleman, too, played a key role in “mapping out the beginning strategies,” says Bertholf, while Sarah Sheard and Stan Bevington, of The Coach House Press, managed some of the administrative minutiae.

Canadian Poetry Festival Poster

Canadian Poetry Festival Poster

Coach House produced the festival’s official poster. As Steve McCaffery (one of the participants) explains,

The poster designed for the event has an interesting genesis: Bob [Creeley] asked me to see if Stan could come up with a design and the one he chose was based on the figuration of the back of the Canadian $50 bill: a circle of mounted RCMPs. I used the occasion of it being on Bob’s office wall in 438 Clemens to elucidate its meaning as a ‘Newfoundland Firing Squad,’ which Bob found hilarious.

A copy signed by all participants remains in the archive.

The weeklong festival ran from the 15th of October to the 21st. The poets took part in scheduled readings, panel discussions and lectures. The readings kicked off at 8:30 p.m., panel discussions at 1:30 p.m. and lectures at 4:00 p.m. Events moved between locations, including the tremendously austere Poetry Library at the University and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House, one of Buffalo’s premier architectural attractions. George Bowering remembers the experience of reading in the Darwin Martin house as just “dreamy.” McCaffery recalls how Victor Coleman, upon entering the house, comically draped himself in the entrance way’s American flag — casually debunking the myth of Canadian politeness in an instant!

Darwin-Martin House

Darwin-Martin House

Fourteen poets in total participated: Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, Peter Culley, Gerry Gilbert, Robert Hogg, D.G. Jones, Daphne Marlatt, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje, Warren Tallman and Fred Wah, along with the aforementioned Bowering, Coleman, and McCaffery. Jones was the lone Montreal representative; the others were all Toronto- and BC-based. As Bertholf recalls, the group of poets got along swell:

At our house [at] 81 Highland Ave. Anne [his wife] and I put on a buffet dinner for the participants. It was a happy affair. BP Nichol [sic] played Rogers and Hart songs on the piano and sang them. The mood was almost innocent, gay, and very friendly, with no sexual intrigues at all. (The last point would make this party much different from a gathering of American poets.)

Bill Bissett told a story of being snowbound in a Canadian airport when the Queen was there, and then talked about drinking gin with her. “Mom” he called her.

More poets had been invited, including Margaret Avison. According to Bertholf, Avison declined due to a period of ill-health that made the prospect of travel impossible. She is, though, we learn, “very sympathetic to the whole cause.” And during one of the panels, Avison becomes the object of much praise: Wah qua Pound describes her poetry as the “dance of intellect”; Marlatt celebrates Avison’s “quickness,” “compression” and “density”; and Bowering describes her as “the sun around which everything important revolves.”

A few years later, in 1983, the festival’s proceedings are collected in a 300-page issue of Credences: A Journal of Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics (Vol. 2, No. 2-3), published by the Poetry/Rare Books Collection of the University Libraries at SUNY-Buffalo.

Included in the issue are 200 pages of poetry from all the participants — though not necessarily the poems they read at the original conference. For example, the issue of Credences has two lengthy prose-poem works by Steve McCaffery, “Table Talk” and “A Sirius Series.” But, for his reading, McCaffery turns to performance pieces from his oeuvre: “Poems for Arthur Cravan,” “a blackboard piece sketching out the boxing ring and transforming the poem into a grid of trajectories” and “Contributions to Futility No. 9: A Demonstration of the Principle of Equivalence Applied to Reduction and Maximization,” which “involved climbing a step ladder with a carton of eggs and dropping the eggs into a bowl below (managed by bpNichol).”

For my money, the best damn poetry in Credences is by Gerry Gilbert — who apparently read for an exceedingly long time at the actual event — and Victor Coleman. Gilbert’s “Friends and Loving in Faro: For Rolling Stone [rejected]” is an engrossing travelogue mix of verse and prose that argues poetry, ultimately, is not about originality or newness but “caring” for each other. Poetry “heals,” as Gilbert writes. (His subtitle is a nice tip of the hat to Jack Spicer.) And below is Coleman’s totally caustic and sonically brilliant “Man or Manogamouse,” a poem till now unpublished:

I trashed a great love
to accommodate you
and now you’re cool

as a cute
cumbersome hump
on the lip

of my liberty
like Herpes
rampant on a field of boredom

too dependent
on Eat Out
and manual labor

a little baby oil
some fingers:
better than a man.

The event’s four lectures are printed: Warren Tallman’s “The Only Way To Be Irreverent is To Be Irreverent,” D.G. Jones’s “Canadian Poetry, Roots & New Directions,” George Bowering’s “Reaney’s Region” and Steve McCaffery’s “Language Writing: From Productive to Libidinal Economy.” The knockout lectures are McCaffery’s and Tallman’s. McCaffery’s is one of the foundational critical essays on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E phenomenon, composed at a moment when L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry was still fomenting. The lecture explains the dialectic of utilitarian and non-utilitarian reading and writing practices at the heart of the movement’s politics. (The lecture would later be printed in his North of Intention: Critical Writings, 1973-1986).

But Tallman’s talk is the tour de force, a Joycean “riverrun” of language in defense of dynamic localism:

I think I mean we turn from them more than we might think, the nations, regions, districts, provinces, states, even the towns and cities which happen to contain us. We turn from the horrendous languages they use, misuse, abuse. We turn not even so much to the various language of America— French, English, Spanish— as to our America of Languages, Mercury to sooth, sway, warm, charm and protect— as rivers run. See George Rogers Clark, that man has the makings of a first rate official, paddling sturdily, steadily west, but where is that Meriweather now, there he is, hurling himself, hand-glider fashion forth from yon high promontory, into, just ahead of the ardent clasp of hot-breathed Grissly Bear, hopefully some River, taught-me-dancin Inahurry. Some bear. Or head North on the Mississippi as it flows south; or south on the Mackenzie as it flows north; or west on the St. Lawrence as it flows east; or east and north on the Fraser as it flows south and west, soft SSSHHHH of the river, that will last forever. Then Huck jumped in.

Tallman’s lecture goes on to hilariously parody the notion of CN Rail as a nation-making literary symbol. That D.G. Jones’s lecture sincerely depends on rail thematics makes Tallman’s essay all the more timely and cutting. Tallman also locates an alternate-universe start point for Canadian poetry in Whitman’s voracious lexical appetite. Later, he jokingly suggests that Canadian poetry suffers from a creative “ENERGY CRISIS” more disastrous than the actual energy crisis of 1979. Lastly, Tallman defies the essay genre itself — his precedent for generic irreverence is the example of Emerson’s “disreputable” sentences, which capture the “Topsy Turveyness of things.” Emerson toured through Canada, back in the day, giving lectures, leaving his Pragmatist or Transcendental mark here and there, and so he’s a rather fitting model, I’d say.

And, of course, Tallman can’t help but present his own canon of favorites, not a flock of geese so much as “a flock of ecstatic Canadian river rats,” who “wash in the language and shine in the sun, skinny dippers, looney for the lady in the green bikini — We’ll never forget — Gerry Gilbert, Victor Coleman, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, bill bissett.”

Of equal interest are the panel discussions, including “The State of Canadian Poetry” (October 16th, 1980) and “The Roots of Present Writing” (October 20th, 1980). (Two other panels were not transcribed.) Admittedly, the conversations are sometimes confusing— as when Bowering attempts an impromptu explication of the difference between Creeley’s and Marlatt’s uses of the comma— and, other times, very incisive, as when Coleman observes the repeated mis-application of the word “projectivist”: “They’re still using that dumb term.” Amen! (Oh, and by “they” he means, specifically, D.G. Jones, who apparently misuses it a few nights earlier.)

Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley

“The Roots of Present Writing” panel includes only Marlatt, Bowering, Wah, Culley, Coleman, McCaffery, bpNichol, American poet Joel Oppenheimer and co-organizers Creeley and Bertholf. (Oppenheimer would later go on to cover the event in his Village Voice column.) And the panel’s interesting insofar as many of the poets make a point of staking claims to the field of Canadian poetry.

Culley and Wah, for example, are very critical of poetry that fetishizes the referential image, thus remaindering the expressive plenitude of language as a raw material of poetry. This critique is as much the product of who is not present in the particular panel as who is: absent are Atwood, Jones and Ondaatje, the three poets of the fourteen who, it might be argued, rely heavily on the image and would have defended such a image-based poetic practice. (To be fair, at least Ondaatje, in his poetry, seems aware of the “complex ambiguous grain” of his images and relishes their inevitable optic opacities; his selection of poems in Credences illustrate this very point.)

As the discussion continues, Wah’s firing on all cylinders: “I get tired of going to poetry readings in Canada quite frequently because they tend to be storytelling sessions and joke sessions and self-masochistic, I’m-no-good-type of Al Purdy comparing himself to a dwarf.” Here, Culley’s image/language split opens up to a Purdy/anti-Purdy divide, which is, ostensibly, a yea or nay referendum vis à vis storytelling, apparently. As far as Wah’s concerned, he’s tired of people “using the poem as a way to tell more stories.” Of course, it’s preposterous to think poets can’t or shouldn’t tell stories in new and refreshing ways. (David Antin, anyone? Slick Rick, anyone?) And Wah only arrives at his conclusion because he mistakenly — and dangerously — conflates Al Purdy’s brand of storytelling with all storytelling.

Thankfully, Daphne Marlatt pipes up, announcing, “I’m in favor of storytelling… I love stories.” But she adds a new twist: the problem isn’t storytelling per se but a decided emphasis on “certified Canadian content,” which, through the ideological exercise of its invisible force, relegates to the margins the stories Marlatt — woman, lesbian, feminist — wants to tell and the language with which she may potentially tell them.

If the terms of debate I’ve sketched above seem, paradoxically, a little naïve and also very slippery – as well as covert power plays for positioning – thankfully Steve McCaffery enters the discussion to make that very point and rescue the participants from themselves:

You know, I think this is an area, actually, I don’t totally agree with what the people said. I think that’s a very simplistic, banner thing to you can see between, sort of the language oriented writers and content or image oriented. I’m thinking of people who have come out of one discipline into [another], a Maury Schaefer, for instance, who is actually much more than a Canadian composer, much more than a musician in the way that Maury is dealing, well, with research, in sociology, in word, and in music and is incredibly informed [. . .]. It’s much more complex, the genealogy, than just this group here. This way it can get very easy.

Another topic of interest is the vexed relationship between audience, publishing and aesthetics. This comes up in “The State of Canadian Poetry” panel. Most participants are willing to note the helpful hand of the Canada Council, especially in terms of funding readings and covering travel costs for poets. There was once a Golden Age for such things in Canadian poetry! But Ms. Atwood argues, ominously, that there is a dwindling “audience” at these readings precisely because — surprise, surprise — the poetry isn’t very groundbreaking, i.e. not like it was in her day (“I don’t find a lot of innovation. I don’t find many young poets who are doing things different from our generation”). Like Atwood, D.G. Jones complains about the quality of poetry produced in Canada, connecting that problem to the excess of government-funded literary magazines. Atwood, then, even dares Ondaatje, a fellow panelist, to name five great poets under 30, with the implication being that, well, none exist.

Ondaatje names Culley, by the way— and if you’ve read Culley’s recent Age of Briggs & Stratton, you know Ondaatje was on to something back then, as was Creeley, who hand-picked Culley for the conference. Creeley saw Culley read during an open-mic portion of the Words, Loves festival (organized by Barry McKinnon), which took place in the spring of 1980 in Prince George, BC. Culley recalls how

afterwards RC made a point of coming over, hugs etc. Upshot of which, a few months later I get a letter from him inviting me to this big conference in Buffalo. Like a big chunk of the Canadian Literary establishment, plus me. As I later heard it I was a last minute addition because Margaret Avison had pulled out for reasons of health.

Seeing me as some sort of “rising star” I guess, Oolichan Books, a local publisher rushed through printing of my first very short book[,] Twenty-one, so I had something to bring & give way & trade with people… I arrived in Buffalo & was met by the Creeleys (& Alan de Loach perhaps) at the airport & invited to stay at their house for the whole week! Penny was about 6 or seven months pregnant with their first child... [Creeley] was kindness itself...

Of course I'd never met anybody like that before & haven't since.

Daphne Marlatt also makes a complaint, though it’s of a different order altogether. She doesn’t worry about quality control; instead, she worries that “we talk about marketing and distributing, historical animosities and alliances, but there’s this big black hole in the center which we keep circling around”— that is, the writing itself.

Marlatt appears unwilling to recognize that if the field is an epiphenomenon of the writing, the writing is also an epiphenomenon of the field, which involves things like marketing and distribution, reading series, literary journals, academic positions, government-sponsored events in Buffalo, etc. In other words, the hole is the whole and vice versa. They are mutually imbricated, a fact that Creeley later proposes as a topic for discussion, though none of the Canadian poets wish to pursue it. (The silence is as telling and damning as a perfectly-placed Creeley line-break circa For Love!) Only Gerry Gilbert really tackles these issues head-on, in his long poem, “Friends and Loving in Faro,” where he talks about writing, printing and selling his own books of poetry and then condemns the Canada Council for its disenchanting effect on the arts by virtue of administrative rules and regulations.

The event and its print rendering suggest how scattered Canadian poetry can be — even amongst the closest of poet-friends or within a given generation. Some participants aren’t even interested in the “Canada” question so much as in localism or the phenomenology of language or literary community. Some participants seem, at times, completely uninterested in or marginalized by the parameters of debate altogether. (Atwood, it’s reported, didn’t even stay for the full festival and when she was there wasn’t much of a “presence.” D.G. Jones has the thankless task of trying to remind festival-goers of the burgeoning formalist movement in Montreal.) In the end, mercifully, there doesn’t appear to be any desire to dutifully represent the “cause” of CanPo as a unified Maple-syrupy front of sweet golden goodness for the pancake of Buffalo.

So, I leave you with this: If Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have been posited, historically, as the major centers for the production, distribution and circulation of post-centenary Canadian poiesis, how might that change if we include Buffalo— a borderland outpost— and its University’s poetics program in that matrix?

Damn The Caesars

Damn The Caesars

Such Peace Bridge borderblurs, which began in the 1960s with Creeley, are in clear (institutional) sight with the Canadian Poetry Festival of 1980 and continue well into the 1990s and 2000s, as numerous Buffalo poets — including Charles Bernstein, Michael Kelleher, and Jessica Smith — appear in Toronto’s Queen Street Quarterly (Ed. Suzanne Zelazo), for example. While, in the last couple of years, the fantastic Buffalo journal Damn the Caesars, run by the incomparable Richard Owens, has included poems by Canadians David McGimpsey, Stephen Collis and Kemeny Babineau. BookThug has recently published a chapbook by Buffalo’s Steve Zultanksi, titled This & That Lenin. Not to mention the numerous Canadian poets and critics who have studied at Buffalo: most recently, Angela Szczepaniak, author of the wonderfully innovative genre-bending novel-in-verse Unisex Love Poems (DC Books, 2008), Geoffrey Hlibchuk, author of Variations on Hölderlin, and Lori Emerson, co-editor of the most recent bp Nichol selected poems and a Nichol-focused issue of Open Letter. And, of course, Buffalo is where Daniel f. Bradley and Gustav Morin famously performed their “Torched Village Anthology” action-piece, in the parking lot outside of Allentown’s Rust Belt Books. (They are, by the way, regulars at Buffalo’s Small Press Book Fair.) And Bradley’s now defunct fhole zine published Buffalo’s own badboy poet par excellence Kevin Thurston.

Unisex Love Poems

Unisex Love Poems by Angela

In 1998 and 2001, two more Canadian Poetry Festivals took place in Buffalo, though these were certainly more “minor”: single evenings as opposed to week-long engagements. On the February 7, 1998, Christian Bök, Lise Downe, Beth Learn, Dan Farrell, Peter Jaeger and Darren Wershler-Henry read at the Cornershop Gallery. On April 14, 2001, Stephen Cain, Natalee Caple, Paul Dutton, Neil Hennessy, Scott Pound, Mark Sutherland, Steve Venright and Suzanne Zelazo read at the Tri-Main Building. 2001 also saw a caravan of Buffalo poets travel to Toronto, reading as part of Paul Vermeersch’s I.V. Lounge series: Rosa Alcalá, Christopher Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Joel Bettridge, Mike Kelleher, Linda Russo, Jonathan Skinner, and Roberto Tejada.

So, the Canadian Poetry Festival of 1980 is just one part of a bigger constellation I’ve begun to map. But it’s clear that Buffalo ain’t just a popular Greyhound ticket, my friends. And it ain’t one way — it’s round-trips.

Buffalo people live so in Buffalo houses
Buffalo apartment buildings are so empty there aren’t any
Buffalo sky got so big by eating all Buffalo mountain
City Of No Illusions
where the deep-fried chicken-wing flies & you’ve got to read
                 between theeeyes
where the best is poetry & the rest is tiring (Gerry Gilbert, “buffalo lows”)


*Thanks to James Maynard, of the Poetry Collection at the State University of New York at Buffalo, for providing the image of the festival poster.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press. He’s also the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in Spring 2010. Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is writing a dissertation on hip-hop poetics and American poetry. He writes a hip-hop column, “In Extremis,” for Maisonneuve Magazine online.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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