“From Scene to Community”: On Poetry Culture in the Chummy North

by Stewart Cole

Stewart Cole is the author of the poetry collection Questions in Bed, published by Goose Lane’s Ice House imprint in 2012. His reviews of Canadian poetry appear regularly at The Urge (theurgepoetry.blogspot.com). He is recently transplanted to Wisconsin, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

In June of 2013, about a year after starting my blog The Urge (and less than a year after my own first poetry collection was published), I moved with my wife and cat to the U.S. state of Wisconsin to take up an Assistant Professor position in modern British and Irish literature. As a trained academic needing to make a living, this was a boon: the job market in higher education is terrible—the worthy-candidate-to-position ratio is sadly astronomical—and so I felt (and feel) very lucky to have landed tenure-track employment. Cobbling an income together course by course in the shadow of massive debt had, within less than two years, eroded my negative capability to such an extent that I was becoming moody, compulsive, combative—a brooding denizen of uncertainty. I know this sounds melodramatic, but I feel like I’ve escaped some potentially gruesome fate. The years of precarity had left me feeling not just ill-equipped, but ill. Through the winter of 2013, I woke each morning feeling incoherent, my bodymindandsoul a jumbled amalgam of troubling symptoms.

So I cherish having a job I find rewarding. As a writer, however, the move to the U.S. has introduced new uncertainties. What most obviously distinguishes the poetry scenes of Canada and the U.S. is their relative size; one is a lake, the other an ocean. And so a shift south of the border confronts a poet with a degree of anonymity next to impossible to attain among those published in the chummy north. Teeming America places the newcomer face-to-cowl with the spectre (or should I now spell it “specter”?) of her or his own self-absence. Though I’m suspicious of the word “career,” with its bourgeois connotations of competitive striving and advancement, I do wonder where, for example, I should best try publishing new poems—i.e., whether I should embrace the liberating aspect of being newly anonymous and hope my work’s qualities prove seductive to U.S. editors who will never recognize my name (however dimly this happens back home), or whether I should work to expand however small a sympathetic readership I may have found in Canada, signalling my commitment to our literary community by continuing to submit to its journals.

“Teeming America places the newcomer face-to-cowl with the spectre … of her or his own self-absence.”

A similar dilemma confronts my critical side: The Urge is subheaded, “Reviewing New Canadian Poetry,” but doesn’t it make sense to begin rooting myself more firmly in my new home by reviewing American (or even Midwestern) poets? But given the fact that every review I produce of an American book would come at the expense of a Canadian one—so few of which are reviewed already—would this not constitute a kind of betrayal, or at least a minor spurning of a community to whose binding ties I have hoped to contribute some small strand?

These questions raise the deeper one of whether Canada’s poetry scene can be conceived of as a community at all—and if it can, what are its qualities? Superficially, we would appear to constitute an extraordinarily close-knit community; I’m no scenester, but based only on degrees of separation, I can’t think of a Canadian poet who’s further away than a friend of a friend of a friend. This would appear to offer us extraordinary opportunities to engage with (and even influence, through dialogue) each other’s work. I’m brought to mind of Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as an “imagined community,” which he explains as follows: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Conceived of as a kind of ‘nation,’ the communion in which we imagine ourselves partaking as Canadian poets is subject to none of the limitations Anderson sets out. That is, the longer one participates in the Canadian poetry scene, the more likely it becomes that one will hear of, meet, and eventually even know any other given participant. In other words, our “imagined” community is frequently lent the concretizing force of acquaintance (often, in my experience, over beer). My first impulse is to applaud such a state of affairs, to feel lucky at how often I’ve been able to meet and engage with fellow poets whose work I’ve been excited or intrigued by, and at how often the poets themselves have proven as compelling socially as their work was in solitude. And I do feel lucky at all this. But another part of me wonders if the potential for acquaintance and intimacy that distinguishes the Canadian poetry scene has actually proven erosive of our capacity to imagine that “scene” into a community. After all, why imagine when reality is right there in front of us?

Let me give you an example. Back in December 2013, a friend informed me of an essay by Helen Guri around which some controversy had apparently been swirling for a week or so. Knowing Helen (and actually just having read with her on a visit to Montreal not two weeks previous), my interest was piqued, so I read the essay, revisited the review by Jason Guriel addressed therein, and looked over the two entries on the Véhicule Press Blog (along with their accompanying comment threads) that seemed to constitute the brouhaha’s epicentre. Frankly, the whole thing—not Guri’s essay and not Guriel’s review, but the ‘controversy’ part—struck me as silly: dubious accusations of misapplied rape metaphors, dubious imputations of misogyny, and clique-driven posturing all around. Notably missing from the discussion was any account of whether Guri’s analysis of Guriel’s review actually rang true, which I found odd because the main thing that struck me upon first and subsequent readings of the two together was how incredibly distortive the former was of the latter. And no, I don’t mean objectively distortive, I mean that in my opinion (which I hoped to clearly articulate as such), Guri’s essay effected an unjustifiable degree of distortion upon Guriel’s text, denigrating and effectively commodifying the evident work put into it.

This led me to wonder about the essential literacy of our literary culture.

I felt (and feel) that because this distortion was effected in pursuit of laudable ideological ends, it was ignored and even applauded by people who, if the distortion had been effected in the other direction (i.e., if Guriel had so obviously distorted something Guri had written), would otherwise have become very close readers indeed, and would most likely have been quite upset. This led me to wonder about the essential literacy of our literary culture, and so, motivated by this concern, and hoping to triangulate the discussion away from the pervading cliquishness and back to the words on the page (which are, Bishop Berkeley aside, objectively there), I wrote and posted an essay within a couple of days.

I’d like to share and respond to a few of the Twitter reactions to my piece, and through them get back to this idea that perhaps the very intimacy that distinguishes the Canadian poetry scene actually erodes our ability to imagine it as a community—that is, as rooted in the most positive sense of the Latin communis: what we share in common.

Lemon Hound ‏@lemonhound 19 Dec: “I respect Stewart Cole’s right to write yet more on the Helen Guri question, but I don’t like his prose at all. I would rather read Guri’s.”

I don’t at all object to Lemon Hound’s distaste for my prose; that’s a stylistic preference, and hey, even I can see how some might find my writing turgid. (Though the choice here to attack style without addressing substance is characteristic of the Twitter medium; substantiveness is tough to achieve in 140 characters or less, even for the deftest of Tweeters.) No, what most interests me here is the phrase “yet more.” Guri’s essay was posted to the CWILA website on December 13. I first read it on December 17, the day I heard about it, and posted my essay on December 19. In the six days between the posting of Guri’s essay and mine, some ‘discussion’ (most of it doesn’t warrant the term) had taken place on the Véhicule Press blog in the form of 19 mostly very short comments on two separate blog entries, dated December 14 and 16. Guri’s essay, Guriel’s review, and these blog entries and comments were all I consulted before composing my essay. This was the extent of the public dialogue on “the Helen Guri question.” What, then, makes Lemon Hound’s “yet more” warranted? Social media, of course.

“ ‘ … cliquish people talking about cliquish things in a cliquish way.’ ”

Once I’d drafted my essay, a friend concerned about my lack of ‘context’ showed me a 100+ comment Facebook thread on ‘the Helen Guri question,’ which consisted of the predictable boosterism and sniping interspersed with the occasional burst of (inevitably underdeveloped, given the venue) insight. It was in parsing this thread that I first conceived of the difference, central to this essay, between a scene and a community. I described what I’d read to the friend who showed it to me as “cliquish people talking about cliquish things in a cliquish way,” and I wondered, as I do now, how the face of our evolving poetry culture in Canada would be changed if poets used the time they spend in the pseudo-public spaces of social media to craft more considered, explicitly public contributions instead (i.e., contributions like Guri’s).

By calling the spaces of social media “pseudo-public,” I mean to get at their ambiguous relation to the public/private divide: a person’s Facebook page is rooted in her or his individual identity, and yet also provides a platform from which she or he can offer opinions on issues of wider concern. The genius of Facebook lies in allowing individuals to craft their private selves for semi-public consumption, sculpting a nuanced image out of likes and dislikes, priorities in current affairs, snippets of travelogue, domestic ephemera, and carefully curated (because everything from fashion shows to cheese plates get “curated” nowadays) streams of images. Facebook is communal narcissism, somehow drained of paradox. Which can be fine. But the consequences of this for our poetry culture in Canada are ultimately erosive for several reasons.

First, Facebook (as does its midget cousin, Twitter) encourages the knee-jerk; there’s nothing wrong with spontaneity, of course, but when first or truncated or undeveloped thoughts—the only kinds Facebook really encourages—come to take precedence over considered, crafted, elaborated discourse, discussion is so impoverished that it no longer warrants the name, becoming mere chatter.

“This strikes me as symptomatic … of an alarming attention deficit.

What do I mean by “take precedence”? Well, Lemon Hound’s “yet more” is explicable only within a social-media-driven mentality—nor should she in particular be singled out: several other poets cited to me the ‘emotional exhaustion’ that had already set in around the ‘Guri question’ by the time I posted my essay six days after hers. This strikes me as symptomatic not only of an alarming attention deficit—when a cultural conversation can’t last as long as a week without becoming wearisome, we have less a culture than a disconnected string of fleeting amusements—but of an often dubious degree of emotional investment placed in exchanges undertaken on social media that by their very nature tend to stifle, truncate, and distort, permitting not so much expression as a kind of venting more proper to steam pipes than people.

Which brings me to the second erosive impact of social media on our poetry culture: it blurs the necessary line between intimacy and civility. Because Facebook, for example, is rooted in identarian expression and is therefore only pseudo-public, objecting to someone’s opinion on Facebook becomes difficult to distinguish from objecting to the person tout court. Everything is inflected with the personal, and as a consequence, civility—that is, our essential democratic capacity to relate to one another impersonally, as public entities bound by a mutual respect arising from shared interests (what Hannah Arendt audaciously terms our “objective” capacity)—is eroded.

Lemon Hound ‏@lemonhound 19 Dec: Can we get someone else to write a review of this essay about the review? http://theurgepoetry.blogspot.ca/2013/12/meta-meta-on-guri-on-guriel_19.html …

I think this is a productive suggestion, not because I want a response to my essay (but hey, sure, that would be neat), but because it solicits the kind of considered public discourse our poetry culture needs more of if it is to evolve from being a scene into a community. In addition to being someone who seems to spend a lot of time posting on social media, Sina Queyras also presides over one of the most prominent public venues for considered discourse on poetry and poetics in Canada at lemonhound.com—a site which crucially serves to undermine all my talk about “Canada” in this essay, so insistently does it remind us of the fluidity and contingency of our literary borders—and this should be applauded. I’m more interested here in the responses to Lemon Hound’s suggestion:

Lorri Neilsen Glenn ‏@neilsenglenn 19 Dec: @lemonhound Twit review of a review of a review: everyone is ideologically motivated, honey. Welcome to the world.

Several aspects of this prove germane to my argument here. First is Neilson Glenn’s statement that “everyone is ideologically motivated.” This presumably intends to respond to my claim that in analyzing Guriel’s review, Guri proceeds by “citing the details that fit her ideologically motivated argument and distorting or discarding those that don’t.” But Neilson Glenn’s retort is incoherent. Taken to its logical conclusion, “everyone is ideologically motivated” implies that because ideology is everywhere, nothing is more ideological than anything else, and therefore ideology should never be highlighted or discussed. This is little more than pseudo-theory. Even if we somehow grant that “everyone is ideologically motivated” contains cogent meaning, it fails to actually respond to my claim about Guri’s essay. If everyone is ideologically motivated, then Guri is too, and so my point stands not just unaddressed, but supported. This is akin to responding to someone’s statement, “I don’t like artichokes” with “Nobody likes artichokes”: such a response contains neither truth nor relevance.

The second thing that interests me here is the marked hostility in “Twit,” and the condescension in “honey” and “Welcome to the world.” People simply can’t help themselves in resorting to ad hominem dismissals on social media; this is due, I suspect, not only to the pseudo-public nature of their spaces (i.e., the fact that a personal Twitter account remains yoked to one’s identity even while providing a social platform, and so works to blur the distinction between rhetorical disagreements and personal ones), but to the binaristic logic they enforce upon their participants. Too often, Twitter (and to a slightly lesser extent, Facebook) is like a faucet with two taps labelled ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike,’ permitting little in between and thus effectively forbidding nuanced thought. Neilson Glenn’s reflexive jerk precisely embodies the collapse of civility into misplaced intimacy, and of discussion into chatter, that too often results from allowing the reactive spaces of social media (rather than the truly responsive ones of more explicitly public venues) to funnel us into literary discourse.

Jason Christie ‏@meesterchristie 19 Dec: @lemonhound we’re just introducing them to a larger market, helping them increase traffic for their personal brands. It’s not worth it.

Every time I encounter a response like this, I want to quit—especially because such responses often come from people who seem to spend significant portions of every day in the blatant self-advertisement of the Twitterverse. Lemon Hound returns to tie the thread up thusly:

Lemon Hound ‏@lemonhound 19 Dec: @meesterchristie Seriously. Helen Guri’s essay is getting traffic. Better take her down. Oh, CWILA is getting traffic, better take her down.

The insistence on “traffic” in both these responses is fascinating. I don’t give a shit about “traffic,” or my “personal brand,” or “tak[ing]” anyone “down.” The cynicism on display here—and again, it isn’t just these particular people: I’ve heard this stuff a lot—is both staggering and deeply demoralizing, and illuminates the core difference between a scene and a community.

“In a  ‘scene,’ people have time only for what might win them the right kinds of friends—that is, those who may lead to future accolades.

A “scene” finds its members so concerned with personal accolades and advancement, so inured to the bourgeois glamour-capitalism of the literary world at its worst that a) they can’t imagine that anyone might be motivated otherwise, or b) they allow any seeds of such alternative motivations in themselves to go unfertilized for fear that their own advancement will be impeded. In a “scene,” people have time only for what might win them the right kinds of friends—that is, those who may lead to future accolades. Those in the “scene” roll their eyes at anyone who might have the audacity to set forth an opinion without prefacing it with some version of ‘I could be wrong, but…’; those arrogant enough to presume to change people’s thinking or teach people something are marked out for particularly scornful eye-rolling.

The members of a community, on the other hand, acknowledge one another as complex fellow human beings, capable of motives that transcend sheer mercantile self-interest. Accepting that their knowledge of each other is often at best superficial, those in a community recognize one another as compatriots without requiring friendship, and uphold civility as the appropriate default mode of engagement among those united by shared interests. Communities, like functioning democracies, are participatory; a cultural community requires of its members the imagination to envision themselves as part of an unseen structure greater than any one of them, and the dedication to devote real time and energy to building that structure through considered public dialogue. This is the kind of poetry community in which I hope to participate, and which much of my critical and creative energy goes into helping build.

“I envision a community that privileges civility over cynicism, sociality over narcissism, artistic and intellectual integrity over capitalistic striving.

I envision this community as one in which, for example, my compatriots will actually believe me when I say that in starting The Urge, I initially planned to post my reviews anonymously to avoid any accusations of personal branding, but that I chose not to do so knowing that in our climate of hype and envy it would eventually have the just the opposite effect. I envision it as one in which it can be readily accepted that although I believe CWILA to be the single most important addition to our literary culture in recent years—an organization with the potential to serve as a bastion of civil and truly civic literary discourse for generations to come—I happened to disagree with some elements of an essay published on their website, and because this disagreement raised important issues for me, I articulated it, without at all wishing to cut into their “traffic.” Put simply, I envision a community that privileges civility over cynicism, sociality over narcissism, artistic and intellectual integrity over capitalistic striving—a community that accepts opinions as inherently subjective, without mandating that its members outline the precise contours of their subjectivities before offering their voices. In this I am proudly utopian.

I don’t envision myself participating in such a community in the U.S., both because I am an ‘alien’ here (that is indeed my official status according to Customs and Border Protection—a status under which I can never fully participate in the democratic process), and because the sheer size of the U.S. poetry world frankly overstrains my imaginative capacities. We have a unique opportunity in Canada to forge a literary culture rooted in mutual awareness, engagement, and respect—even amid sometimes voracious disagreement. And make no mistake, I acknowledge that such a culture is already being forged, as the emergence in recent years of public venues like CWILA, Lemon Hound, and Canadian Poetries as well as the continuance of such venues as Michael Lista’s column for the National Post, the Véhicule Press Blog, Northern Poetry Review (and of course literary journals like The Puritan) attest. At the same time, however, it seems clear that too much of the limited energy that might be used to craft contributions to such public venues is being squandered in engagements with the broadstroke, binaristic, too often uncivil, and ultimately insubstantial pseudo-public spaces of social media.

“We have a unique opportunity in Canada to forge a literary culture rooted in mutual awareness, engagement, and respect … 

While such spaces often serve as powerful tools of dissemination (indeed I myself have been directed to interesting articles, books, etc. by peeking in on people’s Twitter feeds, and my own reviews get widely shared on social media), as platforms for considered discussion they present us with dead ends. So I’m simply encouraging my compatriots to consider funnelling some of their social-media minutes into more public venues.

I’ll close by offering a political analogy. Here in the U.S., citizens wishing to exercise their democratic rights by voting in federal elections are left with essentially two political choices: the party entirely beholden to the interests of corporate brutalism, or the party slightly less beholden to those same interests (or at least less willing to admit it). The situation is such that the country’s deftest political commentators (Chris Hedges, for instance) have begun to adopt a bleakly apocalyptic tone. Given this political scenario, one might see the prevailing binaristic Like/Dislike logic of social media (and the alarming rapidity and seamlessness with which it has been integrated into people’s daily lives) as serving to efficiently acculturate the populace not only to the fact of having two choices, but to there being very little room (literally) for discussion.

In Canada, our elections still retain some semblance of an authentic political spectrum: we have five federal parties realistically competing for seats in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, as evidenced by decades of election results nationwide at all levels, from federal to municipal, one of our own two corporatist parties routinely garners at least 30-40% of those who vote, ensuring that a vote for any of the other parties often ends up being merely an expression of personal preference, with little hope of concretely impacting legislative decision-making. (For example, Fair Vote Canada estimates that just over half of voters cast wasted votes in the 2011 federal election.) Our first-past-the-post system seems to be urging us toward one of two political destinations: a) a de facto U.S.-style two-party system, or b) proportional representation. The former is of course favoured by the corporate and financial interests who benefit most from the neoliberal policies of the Conservative and (largely) Liberal parties, because it would likely entail the virtual abandonment of any leftist, progressive, or meaningfully ecological agenda.

So proportional representation will have to be fought for against staunch (i.e., rich) opposition. How does social media factor into all this? Well, as with the U.S., social media may serve to acculturate its participants to a binaristic logic, perhaps helping to inoculate them against the level of alarm they might otherwise feel at the narrowing of our political spectrum. Also, it’s a distraction.

“ … and this will not happen in impassioned status updates or 140-character bursts.

On the other hand, if the movement for proportional representation is to succeed, social media will no doubt play some crucial disseminating role. Equally crucial, however, is the almost certain fact that the key arguments in its favour will not be mounted on Facebook or Twitter. Does this all seem like a stretch? No doubt it does, but what I’m asking for—in poetry as in politics—is that we maintain our spectrum: and this will not happen in impassioned status updates or 140-character bursts.

Stewart Cole is the author of the poetry collection Questions in Bed, published by Goose Lane’s Ice House imprint in 2012. His reviews of Canadian poetry appear regularly at The Urge (theurgepoetry.blogspot.com). He is recently transplanted to Wisconsin, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.