Quill and Quire

Sina Queyras

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What the poets are saying

Sina Queyras and Adam Sol on form, critical discourse, and the state of Canadian poetry

Sina Queyras and Adam Sol (photo: Hudson Hayden)

Sina Queyras and Adam Sol (photo: Hudson Hayden)

It is virtually impossible to argue against the notion that Canadian poetry has come of age. If F.R. Scott was able to say, as recently as 1976, that when he and A.J.M. Smith launched the McGill Fortnightly Review in the mid-1920s “there was not a single Canadian poet we paid much attention to,” no such attitude could prevail in 2014.

From Ken Babstock to Karen Solie, from Erin Mouré to Elizabeth Bachinsky, poetry in Canada has obliterated the boundaries set for it by the Confederation poets, and announced itself, both within and outside our borders, as heterodox, vibrant, and thriving. At least one volume, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, has achieved bona fide bestsellerdom, and Anne Carson has attained something resembling rock-star status.

Sina Queyras and Adam Sol are two prominent figures in the current landscape. Queyras won both the Pat Lowther Award and a Lambda Literary Award for her 2007 collection, Lemon Hound, and has been at the forefront of poetic discourse in Canada as a result of her online literary magazine of the same name. Her 2009 collection, Expressway, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award. Queyras lives in Montreal, where she teaches in the English department at Concordia University.

Sol’s 2004 book, Crowd of Sounds, won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and his follow-up, Jeremiah, Ohio, was nominated for the same prize. Sol is a tenured professor at Laurentian University in Barrie, Ontario, teaching courses in literature and creative writing.

With new books out this season – Queyras’s M x T, from Coach House Books, and Sol’s Complicity, from McClelland & Stewart – the time seemed right to get them together for a broad discussion of where Canadian poetry is at present, and where it might be headed. – Steven W. Beattie

What is the current state of Canadian poetry?
Sina Queyras: Canadian poetry is young, dynamic, and wide-ranging. It has been having its moment for a few years now; it’s nice that more people inside our borders are beginning to see how exciting it is too.

Adam Dickinson’s The Polymers was probably the most exciting book of English poetry published anywhere last year and it’s a uniquely Canadian book, born of a dynamic and ongoing poetic discourse. We have a massively talented field of young poets – in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver – and I think we’ve created a space (online, in print, and in reading series) for a range of poetry to happen at a level of craft, and with promotional and critical support, that is unprecedented in our country.

Adam Sol: I agree that it does seem like a very good time for poetry in this country. We have a diverse, vibrant, competitive, feisty, well-read talent pool with a bit of a chip on its shoulder when it comes to its reputation on the world stage, and this is producing some really fine work. I’d also agree that there are probably more thoughtful and intelligent readers of poetry than ever. There’s a community, and while we don’t have many celebrations (besides the Griffin Poetry Prize party) and often do bicker amongst ourselves, we nevertheless provide each other a deeply engaged readership.

What are the preconditions for a healthy poetry environment?
Well-read, committed individuals in practice and conversation across geographies, borders, generations, and aesthetics. A willingness to write against the grain, against the status quo. A willingness to take risks.

What does it mean to take risks? Writing outside of one’s moment is a risk. Writing too close to the bone. Being too subtle, too honest. Writing an unlikable female character. Writing outside, or against, fundable models. Paying too much attention to language. Writing earnestly about one’s nation, or anything, really. Caring too much. Ironically, in the Rob Ford era, lying is not a risk, but writing about love is.

It seems to me that literature should lead the way, not follow things like markets, editorial boards, or funding bodies. If I could say one thing to the Canada Council, it would be that.

AS: People have to think that poets have something to contribute to the society we live in. Which makes them take poets and poetry seriously.

You can argue that there are a lot of people out there who don’t seem to believe that poetry is significant. But on the one hand, we don’t need everybody all the time. We’re perfectly happy on most days to talk amongst ourselves with the people who have the somewhat rarefied tastes that contemporary poetry often demands.

But I also know that in moments of crisis or conflict or confusion or grief or spiritual longing – which everyone feels sometimes – poets can speak to the larger community, and fulfill a need for a heightened language that can – rarely, in the right circumstances, and with frequent qualification and frustration – elevate the soul.

Of course I should mention that my new book is full of poems that are full of doubt about the purpose of art and the efficacy of poetry, so take all of my confidence with a few grains of pungent salt.

Do you consider the reader when you are writing? How do you balance thoughts about a work’s reception with your own investment in the material?
Yes, I totally, totally, think of the reader, and I want to create an experience for him or her. But I don’t think of the reader as “audience,” or as strangers, or as outside of myself. I think of the reader as someone I don’t necessarily know, but am speaking to directly. It’s very intimate; it can feel very vulnerable. But so much poetry – and I don’t just mean avant-garde or conceptual poetry – flattens, or evades, or makes short work of feelings, pinching them into a quaint “A-ha!” moment at the end, if it includes them at all.

And there is the habit of deflection. We are so ironic, and in Canada in particular, so focused on hip syllabics, that we forget what poems can do: really allow people to descend or ascend (as you wish) into feeling. There’s something very physical about a poem that goes all the way. If I read a Paul Celan poem in class, you can feel the air gather and swell, even if the poem is in German and the students can’t understand the words. They feel it.

It often seems that we no longer think of art as something universal (in the sense that we think of Shakespeare’s plays as being universal). Is it even possible, in our post­modern era, to attempt universality?
AS: If we live in an age of doubt, then we need to write about doubt. If we live in a world of contingency, then we need to write about contingency. Because if our world is truly fragmented, then the one thing we can all connect to is fragmentation. From a structural or formal point of view, poets have a challenge to somehow evoke that doubt not just in subject matter but also in form and/or medium. This is in line with some postmodern art that both utilizes and interrogates inherited forms, which is one of the things Sina’s work does so well, in my opinion, and it’s what I think I’m trying to do, too.

SQ: I tend to start out wanting to do very specific things, with tight constraints: Expressway was originally meant to contain 10 sections of 10 poems of 10 lines; M x T was to consist of descriptions of footage my sister shot in the final months of her life. Neither of these projects turned out as I originally conceived them for a number of complicated reasons. The work devolves, then evolves into something else.

When I think of constraints I consider the gamut from couplet to sonnet to Oulipo to dramatic forms. It took a long time for me to understand form – and constraint is form. Of course, then I realized that I was only going to use form to break it, but at least I understood it.

What does that mean on the page? I constantly need to fake myself out, get myself out of the way of the work. I will often end up knitting together two projects begun at different times, under very different constraints, to create an entirely new structure. If things are proceeding according to plan, if I feel very secure and confident about the work, I get very worried.

Do you see yourselves operating within a poetic tradition?
I’m from the U.S., and my teachers and mentors and models were mostly American until I was in my late twenties, so my relationship to “Canadian poetry” as such is always a bit slanted and incomplete. This can be a good and bad thing.

I came to Canadian literature belatedly, and so have a bit of a complex about not having had experiences with certain texts, events, and landscapes when they would have been very useful to me. On the other hand, I had seminal experiences with other texts, events, and landscapes, and I bring those to bear in my relationship with Canadian literature.

When I moved to Canada in 1998, the sum total of Canadian poets I knew were Cohen, Atwood, and David Donnell. No Layton, no Purdy, no bpNichol, no P.K. Page, no nothing. I found Don McKay in the sale bin at Book City on Bloor Street. I met Al Moritz through a mutual friend from the U.S. I chanced on a joint reading by Purdy and Dennis Lee at the Imperial Pub on Dundas Street. I sat in on a class at the University of Toronto taught by Ted Chamberlin and got introduced to a bunch of poets. And then I had to get to work. I still feel like I’m catching up.

SQ: The work that I love (Lisa Robertson, Louise Glück, Mary Ruefle, Gertrude Stein) has a quality of immediacy and distance: that is to say there is a sense that you are at the front of the train, watching the poem unfold before you, much the same way the writer must feel when writing. Everything is happening right now. I think this can happen when one is attentive to form and craft. You build a vessel so that what’s inside of it can churn and remain alive.

What is the function of criticism in a healthy poetry environment?
The simple answer is it keeps us honest. When it is working well, a healthy critical environment serves as a corrective and foil to a healthy creative environment, pushing it, challenging it, asking for proof. A healthy critical environment doesn’t cater to established reputations but also doesn’t take potshots at our heroes just for the sake of the spectacle. It can call our attention to the little known, and can expose us to new ways of thinking about our work.

Writers of poetry criticism and writers of poetry tend to overlap. The risk is the formation of cliques or schools that can be calcifying or self-justifying, and are too closely connected to personalities or friendships. I’d say that right now, with Twitter as a main distribution source for reviews and commentary, there’s a bit too much focus on “instant crises” that usually generate more heat than light. But I’d rather have a lot of heat and a little light than a lot of light and no heat. You need a bit of heat to live.

SQ: At its best, poetry criticism offers context; it helps make sense of the world the work is written in, as well as the book at hand; it provides points of entry for the uninitiated. At its worst, criticism offers a platform for the critic to advance his own career.

You are both teachers: what has your experience with students been like in the new millennium? Are they receptive to poetry and poetics?
The work that goes on in my workshops is really exciting. I hold my students to high standards and they constantly rise to them. My undergraduates are generally more willing to take risks. Once they start thinking about a career and publication, I find students have generally decided they are finished learning.

AS: This semester, I’m teaching an honours seminar about the lyrical “I” in contemporary poetry. When I originally planned the course, I had been thinking about starting with Plath and Lowell, and trying to get very contemporary very quickly, but it turns out that my students weren’t comfortable enough with the Modernists to see where Lowell and Plath were coming from. So I had to take them back to 1912 and start again.

I don’t think it’s ever been easy to teach undergraduates about contemporary poetry, because contemporary poetry is always engaged in a conversation with what came before, and undergraduates are justified in feeling intimidated by joining a conversation that has been going on a long time before they arrived. As a teacher I’ve got to give them enough background about the subjects of debate, and a bit about who the most interesting speakers are, so that they can join the conversation.

Can you look into your crystal ball and try to predict where poetry is going in Canada? Does it have a promising future?
If we aren’t afraid to let young poets play, if we allow them to create work that makes us doubt we know what poetry can be, if we don’t try to hold them to an outdated or restrictive idea of what poetry is while respecting the breadth of poetry and poetics, and if we can diligently maintain and even raise our expectations of what poetry can accomplish, then I think we’re in for some fabulous surprises.

AS: Compared to our environment, economic equality, political discourse, local sports franchises, municipal infrastructure, privacy, publishing industry, and diplomatic reputation, poetry in Canada is extraordinarily healthy.

From the April 2014 print edition