Thursday, September 3, 2020

Geoffrey Nilson : Praise is not a shallow thing: poetry reviewing in late-capitalism

Hello Shane. It’s Geoffrey Nilson, your (almost) surname twin from the opposite left coast of the nation. Long-time reader (since 2001, your review in Event Magazine), first-time letter-er. I write poetry reviews too! What a small world, two guys in one country with (almost) the same last name both really in to poems? What even are the odds?

There are two reasons I believe your book Constructive Negativity to be required reading for anyone interested in poetry in this place called Canada. The first is that you have, as you write in the introduction, “landed on sure footing by writing the first book of Canadian literary criticism that covers dis/ability in a substantial way” (13). You address significant problems that plague our literary culture in spite of the exposure to yourself or your reputation, whether ableism at the heart of diversity, the proliferation of weaponized pain metaphors, or the ubiquity of alcohol in our industry. I love, too, that you have written about your poetics in spite of a reticence to do so. It has inspired me to write about my own and my family’s experiences with dis/ability (as well to engage my poetry reviews with dis/ability), which I think was probably one of your main goals of putting the collection together. I wish I could speak now to the immense importance of the materials on your own dis/ability and about poets who identify as dis/abled (particularly Roxanna Bennett, Alden Nowlan, and Marc Di Saverio), but that is another letter.

Which brings me to the second reason why Constructive Negativity is required reading. Overwhelmingly, the book leans toward an overall critique of what you call “prize culture,” composed mostly of previously published essays and poetry reviews in your unique and often satirical “negative register” (15). Why I think reading this material is so very important is not exactly why you might think. Poetry needs literary criticism like yours so we can know what antiquated forms to move away from. “You must change your genre,” (15) applies to you as well.

I admit I have a soft spot for the dis/ability section, given my own history of mental illness and drug addiction (a sector of dis/ability you seem to have left mostly out of your profile). As well, it hits home because both of my maternal grandparents were dis/abled: my grandfather a WW2 amputee, my grandmother chronically-ill from multiple sclerosis. Grandma lived in a long-term care home and Grandpa was like my official babysitter, the one who introduced me to poetry. He liked to read aloud from Dickens, Shakespeare, and one of his favourites, Robert Service. Back then I had no idea “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was supposed to be “bad” poetry. I didn’t know to scoff at the ballad form or the obvious rhymes. I just loved the sound of the words.

Sure, reading the poem now, it has not aged well, and Service’s casual racism in other places is inexcusable. These flaws however have not stopped “Sam McGee” from being added to the Canadian canon, given its continued editions, notoriety, and anthology inclusions. Beyond the aesthetics of opinion, the poem has this whole time been important. From the first stanza after the refrain the reader understands Sam McGee “was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell” (In Fine Form), captured, incapacitated, willing to die from icy hubris for the capitalist wet dream come to life that was the Gold Rush Yukon. Even a die-hard CCF socialist like Grandpa could be seduced by myths.

Like writers with the myth of prize-winning poetry. What does prize-winning mean? Can you fill me in, Shane? I don’t believe you have given a strict break down in your book. I can’t tell you the five top qualities of a prize-winning poem, even though I’ve written a few. Here’s what I do know: it has nothing to do with if a poem is “good.”

The first time I won a writing contest I was twenty years old. It was also my first publication. Well there was that creative writing award at eighteen, but this seemed more important because it didn’t come from my high school. Appearing in subTerrain in the summer of 2001, “jack-knifed” was winner of the 10th Annual Last Poems Poetry Contest (now the Lush Triumphant Prize). I’m still shocked my fever-dream of a depression poem was chosen, cringe-worthy teenage violence and Lord of the Flies reference et al.

No, what I remember most is not that I wrote a “good” poem that was objectively better than the others that were entered, but that my specific poem made a connection with the right audience. When Maritime poet and fiction writer Tammy Armstrong, then living in Vancouver and editor at subTerrain, revealed she had championed my poem during the editorial process, it taught me an important lesson. Prize-winning doesn’t mean the “best” or what everyone likes. Prize-winning means the particular choice on the particular day the particular decision is made.

I’ve had a few almost-wins, too, in the spirit of full disclosure. Honourable mention for the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize in 2015 stands out. Funny thing is, you won that year, Shane, for your then unpublished New Brunswick. I remember reading your familiar name on the announcement. I wasn’t disappointed to lose to you. I’m a fan! Most of all, I was pleased with any recognition for my strange, anti-capitalist ekphrasis, coming at a time when I really needed some positive reinforcement to bolster belief in my practice. Even if I had been upset, when I got around to reading some of the poems, how could I be disappointed with lines like: “Your bosom of earth is strewn with heavier shadows, New Brunswick” (CV2)? Please.

Maybe I’ve seen you as a sort of literary older brother, someone to follow out in the world, if not an influence per se, at least a guide for how to be as poet and critic. But I think following your lead might be over, now. Not knowing at all of this pseudo-brotherly arrangement we had, I do not blame you. Our poetics diverged; our critical practices are no longer alike; the only thing similar between us is that last name differentiated by a single vowel.

And that’s ok. The only constant in poetry is change. Or did I mess that up? No matter. I want to place a flower in the barrel of your gun. Prize or no prize, you will find your reader. You’ve got use your power for good. Shane, you are at your best as a critic, then; it’s right there in the words of Constructive Negativity. Not stifling your rage, but directing it at the power and structures which would keep your people (the dis/abled) subjugated, second-class product of the brand that is CanLit.  

Pushing an exclusive view of what poetry is, by deeming some poetry “good” and some “bad,” is nothing more than cultural poetic colonialism of the type perpetrated by settler-state syllabi for centuries. Furthermore, I believe this “evaluation” only matters to the market. And the market doesn’t care about us. The market cares about upholding the status quo only insofar as it continues to be profitable, and when something outside the status quo becomes profitable, the market quickly moves to adjust and capitalize. Negative aesthetics as the righteous voice against “bad” poetry has certainly been profitable. You have published hundreds of reviews (and many books) over twenty-plus years. Whether the capital accrued is monetary, is not the question. You have power in Canadian literature. 

You would love a negative review of Constructive Negativity, even calling for one in the text (73), but I don’t roll that way Shane. That approach would simply confirm the value you place on negativity as a critical tool. Instead I lean toward Robert Bringhurst who writes in the forward for Dennis Lee’s Heart Residence: Collected Poems 1967-2017: “Politics, when humanely conceived and practiced, is not a mode of social combat; it is friendship on a systematic scale.” Ditto for poetry reviewing.

Let’s halt the pretense of aesthetic evaluation and call negative reviewing what it is: promotional opinion writing, the stuff of business. Negative reviews sell. They get clicks and engagement. They promote the writer of the review and the publication in which it appears as much or more than the art they engage with. The most egregious hit pieces disguised as critical engagement (ex: the Roy Miki review in Constructive Negativity) speak in the same register as a Pitchfork music review. You use The Fiddlehead as a benchmark in your justification of the negative review, it being a journal that because of its practice of negative reviewing “quickly became a coveted place to publish poetry in Canada and remains so today,” (163) seventy-five years on.

It was the same with Pitchfork; from tiny music blog into multi-million dollar culture giant (now Condé Nast property) on the simple stock of one thing: the negative review. Their hyperbolic negativity, inclination to rip major artists, and obvious shifting preference for certain genres/styles are all legendary in the music business (taste a few here). Sure, I love a good skewering as much as the next reader. The whole point is that they’re extreme: no one believes them to be honest appraisals. They’re entertainment. Take the review for the sophomore album by Australian band Jet, whose biggest crime seems to be sounding like an AC/DC cover band trying to play The Beatles. Giving a 0.0 rating and making the review just a video of a chimpanzee peeing into its own mouth is crude, juvenile, and, yes, I have to admit, funny, but it isn’t healthy. I consume this kind of stuff and I want more in a toxic loop, like cultural junk food I regret the moment it hits my stomach.

Shane, your critical tone may be shaped by Orwell, Eliot, and Swift, but your negativity, I believe, has more in common with Pitchfork, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs, that kind of critic unafraid to sacrifice an art form they profess to love on the altar of taste. Your fervour to separate “good” from “bad” poetry does not acknowledge that aesthetic appraisal itself serves capital, the position that only if something is “good” is it “worth” our attention (and our money).

You understand the risks of “the dark side of evaluative criticism” that “sometimes masquerades as a pure aesthetics” (164), but it seems to me that you don’t care unless it hurts you or one of your own. You ridicule “post-modern questions like who is doing the judging? and who am I to speak? that are literary identity politics updates on John 8:7” (166), yet at the base level of humility, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is a pretty decent way to be in the world and, in contrast to some shit the Bible has on offer, sage advice.

Since I know you appreciate a little bit of critical inflammation, I counter with my own scriptural reference from Mathew 7:5: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.”

“Prize culture” is not for poetry; it is for marketing books, for fundraising, for tax credits, for building subscription numbers. Prize culture is a manifestation of the capitalist realism Mark Fisher describes “as a belief—that there’s no alternative to capitalism,” that “all we can do is accommodate ourselves to the dominance of capitalism, and limit our hopes to contain its worst excesses…Capitalist realism is about a corrosion of social imagination and, in some ways, that remains the problem…we are only just beginning to be able to imagine alternatives” (k-punk).

To imagine an alternative reality free from neoliberal ideologies and dominance inherent to the market—of dis/ability, of diversity, of book publishing, of poetry and reviewing, of reading and of thought—to imagine that future possibility, is a radical, transgressive act. Let us be radical, then. Let us have our poetry culture shed its compulsion to dominate. Let us sing our poems to each other. To sing each other’s praises. Praise is not a shallow thing in a world without capital. I can feel that truth in my fucking skin.

For me, a new poetry is created with the publication of each new poem. I approach my critical assessments always with this fact in mind. I remind myself to come to a poem on its own terms, to let the poem be just what it is rather than what I prefer or believe to be “good.” I must find what it offers to teach and listen to how it expresses that knowledge. I must refrain from speaking at all until the poetry and I communicate. The critic has nothing without this.

Unless you and a poem are in communication, you can know nothing about it except what you put upon it. Unless you and a poem are in communication, you have no authority to pass judgement on its literary merit. When you and a poem are in communication, you will have no desire to judge at all. You will be in love.

“Leave us alone or be kind to us” (266), you write. Your fellow poets ask the same.

Shane, the exclusion practiced by Canadian literature and its prize culture toward the poets and poetry of dis/ability is the same exclusion you practice with your aesthetic battle against “bad” poetry. The battle itself is a manifestation of capitalist realism, where it is more conceivable to attack those with which we share fraternity than to challenge the system that pushes us to each other’s throats. It is a failure of imagination.

Thankfully, poets do imagination quite well.

ur pal in pomes,

A small note on form and citation: Much of the discussion around reviews and literary prizes takes place online, this essay included. Following Robert Creely’s dictum that “form is never more than an extension of content,” I leverage search marketing methodologies and Google PageRank to transfer “link juice” or “link equity” to the quote references. When my article links to a small press or literary journal the links pass PageRank. The more quality incoming links to those sites, the better they perform in the “eyes” of the Google search ranking algorithm; the link becomes more than logistic or navigational, it becomes an act of generosity (cultural and monetary) and the review an act of community that circulates the capital it accrues in publication and readership.

Geoffrey Nilson is a writer, editor, and the founder of poetry micro-press pagefiftyone. The author of four chapbooks, his writing has appeared recently in Coast Mountain Culture, Hamilton Review of Books, filling Station, and as part of Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds (Caitlin Press, 2020). Nilson is the BC-Yukon Regional Representative for the League of Canadian Poets and lives with his daughter in New Westminster on the unceded territory of the Qayqayt nation.

most popular posts