Rocksalt, “the first anthology of British Columbia poetry since 1977,” as it’s billed in co-editor Harold Rhenisch’s introductory remarks, includes the work of 108 contemporary Canadian poets who lay some claim to being from our most westerly province. The writers here range from established voices (John Barton, bill bissett, Gary Geddes, Daphne Marlatt, Susan Musgrave, P.K. Page, to name but a few) to lesser known poets.
In her brief foreword, Mother Tongue publisher Mona Fertig explains how Rocksalt has rejected “the traditional [anthology] format of recycled older poems” and included only previously unpublished material. Each entry comprises a brief biographical note, a single poem, and an artistic statement. Taken together, these artistic statements reveal the varied uses of poetry to its practitioners: therapeutic exercise, divine communion, political platform, fine art.
Sadly, few of the artists’ statements are enlightening enough to warrant inclusion. While some writers articulate the nature of their craft quite well, others sound like exuberant pre-game athletes, compelled to spout a stream of clichés for the camera, declaring their intentions to give 110% for the team. The space would have been better given to poetry than to manifesto-like ramblings – and, in so doing, would have allowed readers to make up their own minds about each poet’s artistic preoccupations.
Aside from this, the book suffers from a failing common to anthologies. By placing equal emphasis on each of its many contributors, it imposes a false democracy of talent; it suggests that each voice included is no better or worse than any other. Truth is, there are some very good poems herein (including Carla Funk’s “Highway 16 Sonnet,” Michael Kenyon’s “Courtyard,” Patricia Young’s “Boys”), and many best omitted.
Despite its failings (among which are some curious omissions: Lorna Crozier, Joe Denham, Patrick Lane, Barbara Nickel, Elise Partridge, just off the top of my head), it is at least a starting point for anyone wishing to look further into B.C.’s recent poetic output. Still, I can’t help but think it represents a missed opportunity to introduce readers to B.C.’s best instead of B.C.’s bulk.