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Literary Review – Public Poetics


Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics

edited by Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
ISBN 978-1-77112-047-0

A critical review
by Kyle Kinaschuk


Emerging from the 2012 Public Poetics conference organized by Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics is the most recent contribution to the TransCanada Series.


The TransCanada Series opens up established modes of criticism in the field of Canadian literary studies by foregrounding interdisciplinary frameworks. Public Poetics, like other titles in the TransCanada Series, is grounded by collaborative encounters between academic and activist communities. Complicating nationalist approaches to Canadian Literature (CanLit), the TransCanada Series draws attention to the material and transnational forces of the market and their co-implication with the production, dissemination, and reception of CanLit. The TransCanada Series, furthermore, participates in an ongoing project of un-disciplining the discipline of Canadian literary studies by productively mobilizing dissonant engagements with the pedagogical, canonical, and disciplinary logics that govern Canadian literary studies. As such, the editors and contributors of Public Poetics enact the preceding topographies from a number of critical sites to think and act beyond accepted methods of scrutinizing the political and the literary.

Public Poetics generatively works through the conjunctive and disjunctive spaces between poetry, poetics, politics, and publics. Joining Kate Eichorn and Heather Milne’s Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics, a special issue of Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature Canadienne on “Poetics and Public Culture,” and a guest-edited issue, “Dialogues on Poetics and Public Culture,” of Open Letter, Public Poetics deepens twenty-first century conversations of publics and counterpublics in the context of Canadian literary and cultural production. While the subjects, texts, and events that Public Poetics engages does not privilege a certain genealogy, which is an example of the collection’s numerous merits, many of the contributors return to Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics. Warner’s seminal study becomes “a means of thinking through what we’re calling public poetics” (2). Mason and Wunker, in their introduction, evoke W.H. Auden’s well-worn line, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” to discuss “public poetics.” Mason and Wunker reread Auden to subvert arguments that distance poetry from communal and political praxis by noticing another line in Auden’s elegy where he suggests poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.”

Poetry, therefore, is a representative force: “Poetry makes publics; poetics makes speaking and thinking critically about those publics possible” (2). Poetry actively creates publics, whereas poetics are the sine qua non of the critical modes necessary for discussing publics.

Structurally, Public Poetics contains three major sections: “The Contemporary Field,” “The Embedded Field,” and “Expanding the Field.” Following the first and second sections, readers will happen upon two “clusters” of poetry, which proffer intermittent pulses that interrupt the ostensible authority of the critic and trouble the cognitive and affective boundaries between poetry and criticism. The first section features poems by Sina Queyras, Tanis MacDonald, Amanda Jernigan, Shannon Maguire, Rob Winger, and Vanessa Lent while the second section includes a poem by Kevin McNeilly as well as longer contributions by Kathy Mac, Erín Moure, and Brad Cran.

Mason and Wunker observe, “poems create interstices in the collection. They neither bridge the sections nor stand wholly apart from them” (18). Between Queyras’ aphoristic and quasi-confessional statements and Brad Cran’s plaintive image of a woman who invents an apparatus to give herself a hug, readers are certain to land upon new means to navigate—and enjoy—the porous constellations between the critical essays in Public Poetics. Perhaps, the collection is best read, to beckon Claire Parnet and Gilles Deleuze, as one would listen to a record. Some tracks unleash new capacities and affects—new lines of flight. Other poems and essays might decrease capacities to act. Nevertheless, additional openings and publics materialize upon every return and circulation of the text, as Queyras suggests, “The covers of a book feel differently after being read by others, more open” (25). The elegant cover of Public Poetics, too, invites the openness of exchange, as the cover exhibits derek beaulieu’s “Prose of the Trans-Canada.”

“The Contemporary Field,” attends to Canadian poetry and poetics during the contemporary instant by addressing topics such as the gendered body and the ways bodies occupy or do not occupy public spaces (Sina Queyras), systemic and institutionalized racism in Canada and Canadian poetry communities (El Jones), and pain in the publics and counterpublics of Canadian poetry, especially the desultory pains of making and unmaking “Canadian poetry” (Tanis MacDonald). Heather Milne examines the innovative compositional modes of early twenty-first century feminist poets and their varied methods of resisting and enduring the strains of late capitalism while rearticulating discussions of gender, globalization, and technology. John Stout’s essay, which concludes the section, speaks to the plasticity of form and genre in twenty-first century Canadian experimental poetics. All in all, the initial section of Public Poetics extends five wide-ranging surveys of contemporary CanLit that are as insightful as they are pleasant.

“The Embedded Field” studies particular poets and their creations of publics. Amanda Jernigan advances a careful reading of Peter Sanger’s work to claim that Sanger dissolves the borders between critical and poetic positions. Will Smith’s contribution marks a turn to the regional and the civic, as he reads Raymond Souster’s “Ten Elephants on Yonge Street” alongside Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies to ask: “how might the essential qualities of the laureate role exist outside of employment, or more pointedly outside a level of government sponsorship?” (140). Geordie Miller’s essay considers the entanglements of activism and poetry in Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries with a sharp attention to form. Miller argues that the how of Brand’s long poem—its tercet stanzas, repetitions, enjambments, and reserved punctuation—harmonizes Brand’s radical politics. Emily Ballantyne turns to Sachiko Murakami’s Rebuild and Project Rebuild to stress the significance of her transformative poetic practices, which destabilize conceptions of poetry and poetics that depend upon voluntarism and ownership as their primary interlocutors. Through close readings attuned to the refrains of civic practice, activism, and cityscapes, Kevin McNeilly ends the section with an essay on Gillian Jerome and Brad Cran, which gauges the political possibilities of the lyric and its publics. Above all, this section, although demanding, imparts vital insights such as Ballantyne’s reminder: “Poetry is a type of cultural production, implicated in the discourses of power and ideology as a commodity for circulation and exchange in the global marketplace” (188). Certainly, these essays prove to be generous to the patient reader.

“Expanding the Field” tests the intelligibility of poetic norms, and, in the same breath, gestures toward an elsewhere past the nation. Andrea Hasenbank reimagines the potential of the pamphlet to invoke new and radical publics by revising the vitiated and marginalized history of Canadian pamphleteers of the 1930s. Katherine McLeod’s essay reorients the collection’s attention from the page to sounds and their archives in her discussion of a 1968 episode of CBC’s Anthology. McLeod brilliantly sketches a radio poetics of embodiment that takes seriously the process of listening as always already corporeal. Erín Moure and Karis Shearer continue this aural trajectory, as they thoughtfully read against the Canada Council and its guidelines for allocating funds to public reading projects, which are flooded by questionable assumptions of authorship (author as site of absolute presence) as well as market exercises of consumption that consider the creative and contingent nature of performing poetry.

By proposing a space for new paradigms of poetry readings as sites of composition, Moure and Shearer’s essay makes an important intervention, for they urge readers to approach poetry readings as affective, ludic, and open-ended processes rather than mere “repetitions” of what is already given on the page. Michael Nardone’s essay evaluates the poetics of the human microphone of the Occupy movement, its multivocalic modalities of live composition, and its evolving forms. Interestingly, Nardone introduces the possibility of “sonic disobedience,” which “seize[s] the aural space from the police” (307). Diana Brydon, in the section’s final essay, rethinks the terms “treaty,” “occupy,” “transmigration,” and “dwell” in the situated, yet fragile, contemporary contexts of poetics and publics. The third section of Public Poetics departs from the close analyses of the second to reflect upon what poetry might mean while contemplating the limits of national imaginaries. The essays collected in this section, to my mind, stage salutary interventions that expand the fields of poetics and publics in Canadian literary studies.

One of the most compelling aspects of Public Poetics is how the collection flags its own limits: “not all communities are recognized as publics. In short, Warner…requires us to look at the moments cited in this collection as examples of public poetics, not as a complete representation of instances of public poetics in this country now called Canada” (2). Accordingly, the first two essays of the collection illustrate how bodies inhabit space in radically different ways. Queyras and Jones contest reductive, liberal idealizations of a “universal” public, which are contingent upon scripts of whiteness, gender normativity, and able-bodiedness.

Queyras asks, “Is it really a risk for a white, male poet of a certain background to write a poem? To take up public space in poetry? To offer his opinion of anything, in public? Really?” (29). Jones, moreover, calls out the problematic norms of whiteness by affirming publics as necessarily plural:

It means that the public I speak about when I consider the theme of “Public Poetics” is not the same as the public you envision, not only because the faces in my imagination are not the same colour, but also because being a Black spoken word artist in Nova Scotia means that there has never been a time that poetry and performance have not been bound up with whatever we mean by the public, by the people, the ancestors, the collective. (44)

Mason and Wunker further problematize Public Poetics: “The lack of First Nations perspectives and the dearth of discourse about poetic publics in Quebec are but two absences that tell us much about the ongoing need for discourse and discussion across publics” (17). Hasenbank carries this through-line when she writes, “There remains a problem with the politicized narratives of this time, when ‘public’ still means ‘male’” (245). Hence, Brydon underscores the necessity of conceiving publics as “multifaceted, partial, and overlapping publics rather than a singular, monocultural public sphere, as is still idealized in many political desires for a homogenous nation” (313).

Public Poetics, like Moure and Shearer’s compositional view of poetics, is incomplete, partial, and always already open to revision. Public Poetics, then, does not fundamentally change existing stances on poetry, poetics, and their publics; rather, the collection performs what Smaro Kamboureli calls an “emergent event;” that is, Public Poetics is a “node” that is part of a larger constituency, which is modifying how poetry, poetics, and publics are to be encountered in Canadian literary studies. Such is its promise.

EDIT: Vautour had been incorrectly cited as the co-author of the introduction, which was co-written by Mason and Wunker.

Kyle Kinaschuk is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in journals such as The Capilano Review, PRISM international, filling Station, Canadian Literature, Studies in Philosophy and Education, and Poetry is Dead.