(Part Two of an essay written for Geist)
Who were these poets who had appeared in such numbers? At a glance: women and men in equal numbers; youngish and slightly older, new poets and old poets; lyric poets, formalists, traditionalists, avant-gardists, nature poets, and perhaps even landscape poets and at least one geological poet. Those of us who are not poets (it seemed to me that we all resembled poets) wondered what it would be like to be a single poet among so many others.
The book tables in the foyers were strewn with poetry titles; just to see so many pristine volumes awaiting their first owners was an unexpected thrill. Poets and non-poets strolled in the hallway, browsing through the books, conferring in twos and threes: everyone seemed to be surprised or delighted, at the very least to be on good if not best behaviour; some seemed bemused by some perceived absurdity. I could discern there to be no typical poet or archetypical figure who could stand for all, a fact that was confirmed for me by A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Foreman, a copy of which I picked up at the book table, and in which there is no Poet-type to be found, although poets no doubt can be found within the types listed in its pages, among the woolgatherers, underdogs, sweethearts, snoops, piano tuners, house-sitters and adulterers among the lovesick, innocent bystanders, couch potatoes, control freaks, doormats, day traders, eulogists, frequent flyers, history buffs, late bloomers, optimists, optometrists, etc., etc.
Of the literary disciplines, poetry is the most economical; it requires the least space, the fewest pages, the shortest duration; it pays the lowest rates. Poetry lacks the focussed attention of a large public; it is forever seeking an audience with ears to hear; its practitioners are dedicated to clarity rather than meaning, and the struggle for clarity is itself troubling and uncomfortable, and can lead into the arcane, the complex and the weird. The poets invited to speak on the panels were new enough to the art or craft to have had their first books published after 1990; older poets gave keynote readings; over the four days dozens of sonnets were read aloud, several rants, poems of love and loss and geology; one poet, a Canadian from Brooklyn, plucked a thumb piano as he read aloud, a response (thumbs up or thumbs down?), he implied, to the avant-gardists and their arcane attentions to constraints and controls, technologies of erasure, grammar, syntax, genetics, artificial intelligence. A poet from Montreal proposed a tactical rather than a procedural approach to achieving clarity: that being simply to track every moment of melancholy sadness. The politics of the family was not much in evidence until a poet from Commercial Drive observed that so many present were parents as well as poets, and that for them the task of poetry was informed, surrounded, blocked, circumscribed, by the task of parenting, the uncomfortable, difficult gerund derived from the Latin, to bring forth. Someone in the audience proposed that poetry is a dialogue with the dead. I love this question, said one of the panelists. The border between yes and no is porous, observed another poet in another context (the context of poetry implies all contexts); the same poet spoke as well of my dear, difficult, departed ones.
Poetry is inherently of the moment—the moment of composition, of memory, of speaking aloud; the moment extends far from the present instant, from the poet’s desk, this keyboard, this podium, this lectern. A poem yearns for space in which to be uttered, in which to be received. At the Poetry Conference such a place was staked out in these halls once intended for shoppers and bankers, all of this, as we learned, on unceded land, land that remains in a profound way unowned. Poetry within itself is also contested: genre wars are part of the struggle for clarity; excavation and discovery are applied to the body of poetry, as well as to one’s experience of the world, and to continents and subcontinents. A poet who applied an eraser to a sonnet by Shakespeare came up with nothing / is more / beautiful. On introducing it, he said, this one is for Wall Street, and thereby reassigned it to a moment in hand.
On the evening of the third day I walked over to the art gallery and observed the Occupists in the plaza using the wind-it-up signal in their general assembly; the human microphone was in evidence as well, and slow ripples of speech moved through the crowd. A repertoire of hand signals had been drawn on a sheet of cardboard, indicating consensus, disagreement, point of process, repeat, block, clarify, but the wind-it-up sign was not there. Among the tents and the loitering police officers were signs of occupation exhorting passersby to occupy their minds and hearts, to have hope, to $top corporate power, to wake up and smell the oppression, and citing, among other things, the contested status of unceded Coast Salish lands. The art gallery, with its ionic columns and vast central dome, is another recyled venue: it had originally housed the Vancouver Courthouse and served as a point of public display for visiting kings and queens; after its conversion (when the city began post-modernizing itself in the 1980s), it became a contemporary site of protest and demonstration; it retains on its exterior staircase a pair of enormous African lions carved en couchant from Nelson Island granite and whose stern, sightless gaze, fixed on the limitless domain of Empire, disregards equally the demonstrators, the police, the passersby and the passage of history.
(to be continued)