Boyden’s The Orenda: All Bets Are Off

Against a Utilitarian View of Literature // Julienne Isaacs

The Orenda
Canada is burdened with a difficult history and a complicated present

You’ll forget. There’ll be lightning, then the sun will push out like an egg,
metallic and hard, before receding into redness. You won’t sleep long.
In the morning, the Battle River will sparkle nearly white,
a colour you recognize but it’s too much, your eyes can’t take that much brightness.

—Laurie D. Graham, “Battleford Gravesite.”

“Activism” can be loosely defined as “using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” By this definition, not many Canadian writers could be considered activists. For the most part, writers are not “campaigners,” and their work is primarily done in service of story before politics. Perhaps one of the luxuries of living in a nation that upholds free speech as a core value, and where literary arts find (albeit diminishing) footholds in national funding, is that writers do not have to “be political.” Continue reading

Kisses of Acadian and Gobs of Québécois

Duhamel’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” is Péquiste Politics // Jason Freure

Denise Duhamel
Dance me to the end of the Charter of Values

This post originally appeared on The Town Crier on April 12, 2014, five days after the Québec general election of 2014 gave Phillipe Couillard’s federalist Liberal Party a majority government. It was a response to Denise Duhamel’s poem, “Zou Bisou Bisou.”

When Megan Draper sang “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men, American television took some bite out of the Parti québécois’s political rhetoric. Denise Duhamel’s poem opens with Jessica Paré’s iconic moment. “Zou Bisou Bisou” appears in Issue 24 of The Puritan and name drops a number of Anglo Canadian actors in Hollywood whose Canadian nationality may come as a surprise. Her focus is that trenchant subset of Canadians, the French. Denise Duhamel herself belongs to the Québec diaspora in New England. Despite growing up with many Canadians on screen, Céline Dion was, for Duhamel, the sole Québécoise on the airwaves in the era before Jessica Paré and Régine Chassagne.

In 1968, René Lévesque described Québec as the only survivor of a French America:

“We are also heirs to that fantastic adventure—that early America that was almost entirely French. We are, even more intimately heirs to the group obstinacy that has kept alive that portion of French America we call Québec.” Continue reading

Review: Ken Babstock’s On Malice

“The Index of Grievances” // Scott Marentette

On Malice
Can poetic opacity answer the non-consensual gaze?

One of the most significant contradictions and ironies of the contemporary moment is that the proliferation of so many devices and programs devised for orienting ourselves has increased our sense of disorientation. In On Malice, Ken Babstock confronts this dialectic of disorientation by taking his cue from Walter Benjamin, the modernist cultural thinker who devised critical-aesthetic devices for re-orienting cognition in the modern period.

Registering the apocalyptic tone to which the present is attuned, Babstock braids together the various strands of anxiety running through the subjectivity, philosophy, politics, and poetics pervading our current condition of constant surveillance. Admirers of the directness of his earliest works, Mean (1999) and Days into Flatspin (2001), may find the obliquity of this work unrecognizable. Continue reading

An Interview with Liz Howard

Historical Inoculation and Activism // Jillian Harkness

Liz Howard
Acid rain from the nickel industry’s roast yards created Sudbury black rock

Liz Howard is the author of Of Hereafter Song, a rewriting of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Jillian Harkness interviewed Liz Howard for The Town Crier’s month-long investigation into poetry and activism.

Jillian Harkness: Your re-writing of the Longfellow poem, The Song of Hiawatha, takes on colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Is that your framework for the series? Is it in the tradition of writing back?

Liz Howard: I began writing Of Hereafter Song during a long poem workshop led by Jay MillAr in the spring of 2010. At this time I was early in a creative and psychic process to understand myself as a subject under erasure, as a daughter of assimilation. I was educating myself about my Anishinaabe heritage, its language, culture, and history. I also want to say something here about how formative books like Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, Erin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette were in my thinking around translation, the epic form and feminist poetics. Continue reading


A Story of Nunavut Politics at the Local Level // Napatsi Folger

The Multi-Faceted Capital of Nunavut

Taqaliq wakes up on the couch to the inane chatter of an early morning news show. Disoriented and still fully dressed, she rubs her eyes and stretches. The apartment is quiet. Kathryn must still be asleep. Taqaliq walks to the kitchen, puts on a pot of coffee, and slowly goes through the motions of her morning routine, getting ready for a long day at work, and dreading the evening that will follow.

She looks outside and checks her iPhone. The weather app flashes, “Iqaluit – Ice Crystals -34°C Real Feel: -49°C”. She’s glad she remembered to plug in the car last night.

Soon she hears signs of life from down the hall and braces herself for a curt greeting from Kathryn, but instead hears the shower turn on. She takes the chance to change clothes in their bedroom while Kathryn is in the bathroom. Continue reading

Review: Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood

Digressing to Arrive at a Reading // Andy Verboom

Oilywood reflects coastal life in Burrard Inlet

Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood, well-deserved winner of the 2014 bpNichol award, operates like a cut-up filmstrip of biographical and autobiographical reflections on coastal life in BC’s Burrard Inlet. The action is prompted by increasingly public and dubiously legal tar sand/oil industry incursions into the region. Spliced into this film strip’s em-dash cuts are a ticker tape of oil giant Kinder Morgan’s news releases and a scattering of terse, italic interjections—“hear something,” “fish on rocks,” “who gets to belong here,” “shifting baseline.”

Over sixteen sections, a modest 1–3 pages each, the focus oscillates between reflection and news release, suggesting a tug-of-war between community and corporate discourse. However, the mood here is tension, not opposition. Where the two competing discourses are cut rapidly with interjections, for instance, the result is uneven but nonetheless unified terrain, easily navigable through code-switching: Continue reading

Interview With Maggie Helwig

On Language, Preaching, and Politics // André Forget

Maggie Helwig
Maggie Helwig is the author of Girls Fall Down and six books of poetry

André Forget interviews author, poet, and priest Maggie Helwig for her opinions on poetry, activism, and her role in a church with a tradition of radicalism.

André Forget: At least in the popular Canadian context, poetry has a reputation for being an elite art form, one patronized and appreciated by the bourgeoisie, if not created by them. As a poet, have you encountered this characterization? Is it fair, do you think? If it isn’t, whence does it arise?

Maggie Helwig: Well, here we have to unpack a few different concepts, because “elite” and “bourgeois” are not the same thing at all, and the poetries which would fall in those two categories are quite different. Bourgeois poetry would be, maybe, Maya Angelou? But on the whole, the bourgeoisie doesn’t really have much interest in poetry; it doesn’t have utility value, and it’s rarely comforting, so what’s the point?

“Elite” is a whole different kind of accusation, and strikes much closer to the truth. In most of the contemporary developed world, poetry is created and read almost exclusively by the intelligentsia, mostly by people with limited economic capital but very high social capital. Mostly, in fact, poetry is read by other poets. This hasn’t always been true, and it isn’t true everywhere in the world, but it’s the context in which a Canadian poet is inevitably working right now. At least some of this is the result of an educational system and a wider culture which treats poetry as a rare, difficult, endangered species. Any art form is hard to grasp until you’ve had enough exposure to get the protocols, but since poetry isn’t, for the most part, something people encounter early or naturally, the protocols seem mysterious and forbidding. If you grow up in a particular sort of family, you avoid that—I knew a great deal of “classic” English poetry from hearing it recited around my house when I was a child. But that in itself, in this culture, is an obvious sign that I grew up among the intellectual elite. I think about my great-grandparents, who memorized the same poetry, and they were self-educated, working-class people from the slums of Leeds, so it wasn’t always this way. But it’s the situation we’re in at the moment. Continue reading

The Myth of the Truth

Author of Toronto 2012 on Writing // Bänoo Zan

Toronto 2012
“Is this a happy ending to my story? If so, is my story happy that it has a happy ending?”

There is a myth that there is a story behind every poem, and there is a myth that stories need poetry to achieve the status of myth. Though poetry is the territory before and beyond stories, I have sketched a creation myth about how I came to write the poems, Toronto 2012 and Payäm-där. A word of warning, though: as all myth, it is an attempt at sublimating facts into ideal truth.

Toronto 2012 captures my feelings as an immigrant, a member of visible minority from one of the most misrepresented regions in the world. It is addressed to the eponymous city. The voice is ambivalent, as are the immigration and employment policies—the former welcoming difference, or, at least paying lip service to it; and the latter demanding full assimilation before it acknowledges the newcomer. Continue reading

Calling Out “The Ballad of Ferguson”

On Tone-Deaf Poetics and the Writers Who Expose It // E Martin Nolan

“The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”
Seidel fumbles his poetry of privilege on Ferguson

Frederick Seidel wrote a frown-inducing poem. There were some moments, you could argue, but ultimately, it was random and directionless. Not a great poem, but who cares? To apply a quote from the poem itself, you’d do well to “forget about about about it.”

Except he titled it, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” and The Paris Review published it online in the midst of the post-Michael Brown uproar, thus asking us to read it in that context. But how?

“The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” reads as if it’s cobbled together from multiple discarded drafts. It’s unfocused, and bounces between subjects. One of those subjects is race, and Ferguson: “Skin color is the name, / Skin color is the game, / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.” He also repeats a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and men turning to corpses and then to causes. But given the other subject matter—bars, drones, Mars, etc.—it’s difficult to know where Seidel is driving. Continue reading

Journalese vs. Poetic Language

From the Archives // Lisa Pasold

“Sadly, this rust isn’t limited to authoritarian regimes.”

Palestinian-American poet and journalist Sharif S. Elmusa has written, “Language under authoritarian regimes rusts, turns dull, loses its edge and luster.” Sadly, this rust isn’t limited to authoritarian regimes. The language of our Canadian media is also rusting—to the extent that whole segments of the machinery have fallen away and left Journalese.

Bluntly, we are losing the language we need to discuss the world. We need news coverage that expands our understanding of the world, news coverage that gives us space to consider our own experience alongside the vastly different experiences of others. A fully-functional metaphorical language is essential for this, yet our current mainstream media actively discourages such language. Continue reading