By Gillian Jerome
Click on this link to hear Donato Mancini speak about his book: You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence
Gillian Jerome: You observe in your book, You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, that most Canadian book reviews are based on plot summary and shallow judgement that turn criticism into either a game of “position-taking” or competition, and that very little critical reading is actually happening within the review. What we get instead is prescriptive judgement of the book based on the tastes and ethics of the reviewer who is often writing to an imagined and illusory Common Reader and conforming to a dominant, narrow set of literary values. You also refer to the mercantile pressures of the review genre. Is the genre of the (Canadian) poetry book review to be inherently distrusted based on its prescriptive rhetoric, its historically entrenched dominant values (what you call ideolect) and its role as a commodity in the literary marketplace?
Donato Mancini: It depends on what you mean by the “genre.” If you mean something like “relatively brief articles about or notices of new books,” no not at all. But if what defines the Canadian poetry book review as a genre is the ideolect I try to unpack, then yes it should be distrusted. (NB, for those who haven’t read the book: An ideolect is the language, the dialect, of an ideology. Every ideology has its own ideolect. In this case, it refers to an identifiable set of tropes, metaphors and critical frameworks that constitute the dominant language of value in Canadian poetry reviews.) I should underscore that the very same lexicon of terms and concepts can have very different ideological meanings and social valances in contexts other than the Canadian poetry book review. So I try hard not think in terms of inherencies, against a very strong commonsense push to think that way. It does seem to me, though, that there is a mistaken belief that the marketplace well-being of poetry can only be served by a very mercantile review practice, for which this ideolect provides the lexicon. The mistake seems to be in believing reviews can only help promote book sales if reviewers write about poetry books like any other cultural commodity. I sympathise (to an extent) with the desire to find more readers for poetry, but I really don’t think this kind of reviewing will help bring that about. Idiosyncratic treatments of value are more likely to entice people new to poetry to listen in on (as readers), and possibly join (as writers) the strange argument poets have been having for so long. In Canada and the US, poetry will never have mass popularity, and I think poets and reviewers should accept this as the condition they write in, while understanding that this minority status does not mean poetry is unimportant.
Gillian Jerome: You say that a fourth phase in the history of poetry reviewing started with the Literary Cage Match debate between Carmine Starnino and Christian Bök at Mount Royal University in 2009. For me, that debate is metonymic of particular dynamics in the field of contemporary Canadian poetry because it presents poetics as a competition whose outcome will reveal a clear winner and loser and because it reduces what is actually a very diverse, polyphonous discourse to tête-à-tête between two white male representatives of the Lyric and Avant-Garde. Why do you think the debate was seminal?
Donato Mancini: I don’t actually say that a fourth phase begins with the Literary Cage Match. What I write is: “A fourth phase may have begun sometime around the Christian Bök versus Carmine Starnino debate at Mount Royal University in 2009. If so, the new period remains emergent.” As you can see, I don’t even point to the debate directly, and only speculate about a possible new shift that might have been happening around the time of that event. I don’t think, and never said, that the event was seminal. I basically agree with how you characterise the event. For me another troubling issue was the falsifying equivocation it implied. I certainly think that literary value is certainly contingent, relative and historically situated, but it doesn’t mean that I think all positions are somehow equal, or equally valid. What the event implied to me is that the question of winners or losers is not what finally matters, because neither really matters. Everyone wins, everyone loses. Ultimately – and this is the ideological clincher – it implied such equivocation implies (and can enforce the belief) that everyone just wants the same thing. One of its ideological implications was that everybody is looking in the same direction – towards the celebrities. The reason that I speculate that a fourth phase “may have begun around the time of” (without suggesting that it was initiated by) that event is that this equivocation relates to other false equivocations I observe going on in other social fields. An example close to home might be drawn from the incursion of highend restaurants into the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. The pseudo philanthropy of restaurateur Mark Brand, for example, who gives out free sandwiches to the poor from one of his businesses, contributes a lot of juice to the obfuscating argument that gentrification improves the area “for everybody,” as if the needs and desires of Vancouver’s young entrepreneurial classes are (ultimately) identical with those of vulnerable DTES residents. Part of the intended message of framing the Bök versus Starnino debate in professional wrestling terms was probably something like “don’t take yourselves so seriously, boys.” (Professional wrestling, the source of the “cage match” analogy, is not an actual sporting contest.) While I do think it’s important to be cautious about how you imagine the social impact of poetry in Canada (the terms in which you conceive poetry’s value and importance), how far are you willing to separate the constitutive issues into Important and Unimportant piles? Or how far are you willing to think of differential positions as equally “valid”? Imagine, by contrast, a literary cage match between Dionne Brand and Michael Lista. To me the issues are all bound in a sequence, every part of which is important in its contributing way. Issues of gender representation that CWILA wants to address, for example, are directly related to valuations of poetry in masculinist terms, and these are necessarily related to broader issues in feminist struggle outside of the literary field.
Gillian Jerome: Since CWILA launched last spring, many Canadian writers, editors, publishers and scholars have told me informally that they think that the calibre of Canadian book reviews needs serious improvement. You argue in your book that most reviewers of poetry haven’t caught up with literary history and theory, despite the fact they work in a culture in which postmodern Canadian poets produce best-selling work that is internationally regarded. Why haven’t critical practices caught up with artistic practices in Canadian poetry? Is Frye’s notion of the “garrison mentality” still one of complex forces are at play in the preservation of what you might call our anachronistic and/or conservative reviewing practices? You say that postmodern writing is not only antithetical to the dominant critical values (uniformed form, national voice and address, expression, passive form, fixation on judgement, etc.) but to core received notions and values in Canadian literature. Tell me more about this idea that postmodern poetry is at odds with the core values of Can Lit and criticism.
Donato Mancini: What I’m really talking about is Pierre Bourdieu’s model of cultural fields determined by discursive field positions, a model you are familiar with. Actors in a cultural field identify themselves by defining their positions in relation to other positions, a process which can only be accomplished through a series (however short or long) of negations. You take a position by defining yourself against other positions. Even if you’re on the same team, you have to play outfielder while your ally is manning first base. Positions are always defined differentially. The socio-linguistic mechanisms that produce differential alliances are ultimately the same as those that produce to-the-death hegemonic struggles between political factions. The whole process through which a new set of discursive possibilities takes shape is one of definition against what is already present. The types of formations that have been called “avant-garde” define themselves by rather more extreme negations, negations of an often longer series of values that had been core, commonsense, given. In the early 1960s, the writers I (problematically) call “postmodern” do this in a way that is specific to the conditions of Canadian poetry in their moment. Regardless of whether they are consciously “being postmodern,” they attempt to create a poetry that can be valued on principles other than those dominant in their time. To do that, they have to explicitly (by example in their poetry, or in their critical statements) negate many of the value categories they have inherited. The constitutive categories of the ideolect I critique include most of those principles.
As to Frye’s remark about “garrison mentality”, I mention it in the context of summarising arguments of Frank Davey, Linda Hutcheon and E.G. Blodgett about why the postmodern creates such a flashpoint in CanLit. It’s maybe something I would now rather have left out. It’s too quotable. It seems to offer an easy characterological solution to complex sociological and historical issues. It can be, and has been, taken to permit turning critical attention away from forces of production and reproduction in the literary field, towards national character essence. Dropping a bon mot like “garrison mentality” into a discussion like this can be like citing the astrological sign of the Canadian collective subject. But no: there is no Canadian character or essence, and for that reason I don’t really think Canadian writing evidences a “garrison mentality.”
The relative stability of ideolect might be due to the sum of determinants I name in the book. The ideolect has a good habitat made up of the combined external cultural pressures of economism and the internal ideological administrative apparatus of aesthetic conscience. Another factor contributing to make this habitat might be the initial association for most readers of poetry with social training and character judgment. Most people in Canada first encounter poetry in the coercive environment of the classroom, especially the high school classroom, where poetry is introduced to them as a token by reference to which a teacher can judge their character, intelligence and talent. (And such judgments can have fatal consequences.) Poets wonder why so many people think poetry is no fun. Well, many initially encounter poetry in the mouth of an abusive judge. Given the overbearing association, it is only that much harder to let yourself experience poetry in a non-adjudicative way. Poetry is instrumentalised for fatal character judgment in schools, while it doesn’t have a significant enough cultural life in Canada outside of schools to effectively counteract its association with that use. So maybe reviewers cling to the ideolect because it offers a discourse with which they can get an indirect revenge on the apparatus (the school) that destroyed some or all of the pleasure of poetry. Or maybe the highly adjudicative review can be seen as a cruel revenge on poetry itself, which is introduced to so many people as an instrument of torture.
Gillian Jerome: You argue that particularly conservative critical voices in Canadian poetry dominate the reviewing culture—Michael Lista, Carmine Starnino, Shane Neilsen, Robyn Sarah and Zachariah Wells—and that they do so in reaction to the postmodern plurality of voices and redistribution of critical authority. Do you think these critics—critics you call “arch-conservatives”—have a particular agenda? If so, how do you see these factors played out in the literary field?
Donato Mancini: I don’t want to speculate publicly about peoples’ motives or agendas. In my book I am really only writing about the ideolect I see constituting the specific reviews I analyse, not the personal forces influencing writers’ decisions. During the research, it was actually an important point of principle that I not read too many of any one reviewer’s reviews, because, again, the commonsense push towards imputations of motive or agenda or character is so strong. If I knew a reviewer’s whole review output, it would be very hard to refrain from such judgments, which would only have drawn attention away from thinking through the implications of the language of a specific review text. All the above named reviewers might be perfectly pleasant, gentle, peaceful, just people when performing other roles than that of the Severe Reviewer. Furthermore, the different registers of ideology (language, idea, affect, identity) don’t gel consistently enough to make ideology critique a reliably predictive practice in that sense. To paraphrase Stuart Hall, to think they do would be astrology, not science. As I say in the book, in reference to the discursive positions of the Hard Heart or the Beautiful Soul (which, again, are discursive positions, not personalities), the most bullying, vindictive reviewer might fully believe he/she is a virtuous monster-slaying tyrant-killer, a freedom fighter. A reviewer who doesn’t write in this ideolect at all might be a vicious control freak, a power-monger who adopts an emancipatory critical discourse for purposes of righteous self-aggrandisement. Motive, desire, agenda or whatnot don’t necessarily have anything do to with the social effects of the discursive positions produced in texts. In a materialist ideology critique, it is important to try to rigorously avoid pointing back to questions of motive or character or personality. Neoliberal political spectacle has amplified this commonsense tendency quite enough; what is discussed are not, say, the ideas or policies of Silvio Berlusconi, and the effects of those policies, as much as his public persona of the mad, bad clown.
Gillian Jerome: Your analysis of Canadian poetry book reviews is valuable because it addresses core ideological premises, tropes and rhetorical patterns of criticism, but it also sets the bar really high for a practice that is so poorly paid. I was thinking about your arguments when reading in the Globe a brilliant review of “Masters of the Word” written by Canadian experimental poet and critic Darren Wershler. Is part of the problem of the “Arch-Conservative Poetry Police” a result of the relative absence of postmodern poet-critics from the review pages of the national outlets? Many postmodern poet-critics in Canada, who possess the kind of critical acumen and erudition that you are calling for, have relatively well-paid jobs in the academy. Whose responsibility is it to make our critical discourse on books better? What is stopping more postmodern, experimental poets and novelists, or scholars, from writing more book reviews?
Donato Mancini: These are questions the book tries to investigate, and I don’t have specific answers. But no, I don’t think that the problem is an absence of postmodern poets from the pages of organs like the Globe and Mail. It is a more general problem of culture, language and ideology; that’s why I approach it as such in my book. I am fully aware that some of the readers I hope to reach will find the use of critical theory in the book off-putting, difficult or alienating. Indeed, reviewers sometimes blame writers when they come across unfamiliar references or new terms. I don’t expect or want everyone to become a theorist, but to blame thinkers for using language, ideas or references you don’t already know is absurdly parochial, if not anti-intellectual and anti-educational. “Jargon” is just a term in a technical language that condenses specific sets of concepts to facilitate discourse—the word “stanza” is jargon, the word “chapbook” is jargon, the word “quatrain” is jargon. As for the references to thinkers or poets who might be unfamiliar or new, I hope readers will welcome the introduction. Most importantly, as I argue in the epilogue chapter, commonsense is incredibly difficult to cut through without the tools of theory, and so my own conscience won’t let me approach important problems like this in any other way. One of the fatal risks of not using theory is that you wind up (because of the limitations of everyday language) pretending that there are simple answers to complex questions. No—a complex problem has to be thought through in complex ways. Certain crucial ideas are impossible to even conceive in everyday language. Some acceptance of the contribution of theory is, therefore, imperative in the project of improving the critical discourse, even if not every reviewer or thinker or writer should be expected to take up theory with equal interest. One of the points the book makes is that none of the institutions or outlets will really change unless the language of reviewing changes. Yet in asking reviewers to develop new languages, I don’t think I set the bar too high. Although my own approach is rather theory heavy for the reasons stated, the book is ultimately only trying to get people to write poetry reviews in practically any other language except the ideolect that I map and critique. Poetry reviews can be written in countless other ways. What has to be broken is the commonsense that that specific ideolect (and its imperatives) provides the true, idiomatic lexicon for valuating poetry. Everyone who writes reviews is responsible for making the discourse better by making this break.
Gillian Jerome: When writer-critic Alan Reed reviewed your book on Lemonhoud.com, he took exception to your privileging of postmodern over the lyric aesthetic and ideology in poetry, and argued that you diminish your ethos, as well as the book’s potential to change literary discourse, by questioning the pertinence of lyric poetry. But I read your book as an argument in favour of aesthetic diversity and critical approaches. You often point out cases in which postmodern poets (rob mclennan) write reviews that are antagonistic to their own poetics, for example, or lyric poets (Al Purdy) who demonstrate a more open aesthetic. Do you think that lyric poetry is inherently anachronistic and irrelevant? And, by extension, do you equate lyricism with conservatism? Is lyric poetry potentially just as transformative, transgressive and radical as the postmodern?
Donato Mancini: My friend Alan Reed really misunderstood my argument. So let’s revisit the main passage in question. Here is the passage:
In the view of many poets, the forms of literary subjecthood presumed in the self-assured lyric I “secure in its place” steadily erode through the 1960s. In this view, the continued production of lyric poems is anachronistic. The cultural conditions and relations of production, emergent after the so-called postmodern turn, disintegrate the social subject I posited in lyric poetry. After this turn, lyric poetry can only have continued pertinence (if any pertinence at all) within the ideological terms of a contested literary field. Radically non-lyrical alternative poetries have to develop, to give lyric poetry a productively defining antagonist, or there remains no reason for it to exist. And those alternatives develop abundantly.
As you can see, what I actually say is that to many poets – summarising others’ arguments, not presenting my own – lyric poetry comes to seem anachronistic in the 1960s. And I suggest that those poets might have been right, in a historical sense, if no other modes of writing had developed against which lyric poetry could continue to define itself. My own view on what it means to write lyric poetry today is more complex than dismissively calling it anachronistic, regardless of whether or not I enjoy reading contemporary lyric poetry. As my book demonstrates, my critic’s view (somewhat different than my poet’s view) of the literary field is not vanguardist; it is historically relativistic. The above passage, however, does situate the real pertinence of lyric poetry after the postmodern turn within a more-contested-than-ever literary field. Take this point mainly as a dimension of my critique of the trope of the Common Reader.
It is not important to my arguments about language whether or not I read contemporary lyric poetry, or which poets I like. Yet it would have been unethical of me to hide my investedness behind a blank mask of academic facelessness. It would have been a betrayal of my own ideas about ideology to pretend to neutrality, in the same way that it would have been remiss of me (in this kind of text, which is not a manifesto) to simply blow the horn for one camp or bark from a given local position within the field. I had to find some perspective between the disinvestedness of the cultural sociologist and the principled drive of a working poet with overdetermined tastes. One of the characteristics of my book is its stylistic restlessness, which partly comes from the difficulty produced by my ethical decision to not pretend to be merely above it all, while at the same time trying to read the social meaning of fine linguistic detail from a wide historical vantage.
Whether or not any art practice is transformative or radical or whatnot is an effect produced mainly on the reader’s side, within the historical context of its production and reception. The text or object itself could be practically anything. A dada sound poem could become a cultural trinket or it could spark a race riot. The most formally predictable quatrain could be an effective revolutionary chant. Within the historical context of the Canadian literary field, writing lyric poetry does have certain social implications, however. What is referred to here as “lyric poetry” has been the set of poetry genres that have been most used in the project of trying to produce a Canadian cultural identity. So if you are writing in lyric genres in Canada, you should probably keep in mind that these have historically had a birth bond with officialdom, and that fact certainly conditions the extent to which those genres can function as transformative, transgressive or radical. There is, after all, now a bronze statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park—which should be a joke but is not. Rather than glorifying Purdy or poetry, that statue could make Purdy’s work unreadable. Its existence may well bias people to read his work for features that confirm a certain construction of Canadianness, while biasing them to filter out disconfirming features. Similarly, what about bpNichol Lane? Is bpNichol Lane a parody of poetry’s relation to officialdom, or is it just that relation itself, in a different denomination? Does bpNichol Lane make it harder to read bpNichol’s writing unCanadianly?
Gillian Jerome: I’m interested in your argument in which you theorize aesthetic conscience as an extension of—or even equivalent to—ethics, but also a site within the wider territory of conscience that is rich with transformative potential. Writers and critics can choose, by aesthetic conscience, to work against dominant cultural forces, and toward transformative change in artistic and critical practice to produce for example, more transgressive art and/or more thoughtful criticism. But, as you argue, historically, at least in Canada, aesthetic conscience has been taken up by critics in moralistic ways so that certain critics are more likely to use their aesthetic conscience in service of their own self-anointed moral/poetic genius as well as the values of their “group”, rather than in service of complex reading and analysis of the books in question. At the same time, these critics, who come from various aesthetic “camps”, as you point out, often disguise their agenda within the rhetoric of heroic martyrdom, i.e. the superhero critic working diligently and selflessly to save Canadian literary culture. Did I get that right? Are you hoping that this book will transform the choices that Canadian writers and critics make? It seems to me that the very critics who stand to benefit the most from reading your book likely won’t (i.e. “conscience reacts by adaptation or rejection”), which is unfortunate. Who are you hoping to influence? What do you want your best readers to do?
Donato Mancini: Aesthetic conscience is not really something that one can take up. You inevitably act on its dictates, as it is a determining aspect of our ideological condition. It is not a tool or a device. It is something you normally just serve, but at best you can learn to consciously negotiate with and, yes, perhaps transform. What I might want the book to do for others is something like what the process of researching it and writing it did for me: severe itching powder in the folds of my brain. Maybe I want it to be irritating enough to be transformative. The Itchiness Unto Death? Maybe so, but I would not presume even to imagine what shape such a transformation would take. It will hopefully provoke people to stop using that ideolect in poetry reviews. Beyond that, it’s up to others to fill in the blanks. I started the project in order to scratch an old ideological itch of my own, and instead of quelling the itch I now feel a lot itchier. In fact, I considered answering this question by writing about the many and difficult effects the process had and is having on me, but thanks to aesthetic conscience that would almost inevitably read like a list of the effects I want the book to have on others. No, I don’t want to be so prescriptive. One thing, though, is that I’m sincere when I say that the book was written for the glory and good of poetry. The main reason I wanted to do the book with BookThug, rather than with an academic press, is that it is intended as a gift (an admittedly difficult, even explosive gift) for other poets. It seemed to me that it is more likely to be read attentively by poets if it comes to them through a poetry press, rather than from the “outside” of the poetry field. If published by an academic press it would have been far easier to ignore the thinking it documents as alien to the concerns of working poets.
Gillian Jerome: You say that Canadian reviewers often evaluate poetry according to its “accessibility,” but that that term is problematic for a variety of reasons. Is accessible poetry necessarily fraught?
Donato Mancini: There is a section on accessibility in the book. It’s an important term in the ideolect I write about. What matters here is that I don’t think accessible poetry is necessarily fraught. The problem is the concept of accessibility itself. As I discuss in the book, accessibility is generally a hostile demand made through an empty concept. In exactly the same way that poetic value is contingent, legibility is itself contingent. Poetry is never accessible, in the sense that the concept is used. The experience of accessibility is itself an ideological effect, an effect of forgetting how much elaborately specific knowledge (or common ground) a reader needs in order to experience a text as accessible. Understanding, or as I prefer to say “grasping,” any cultural object requires a lot of ingroup or localised knowledge, tacit understanding, cultural affiliation and shared feeling. The forms of writing often put forward under that mantle of accessibility are usually, in fact, very specific poetries, ones carefully designed in the service of specific affiliative social ends. The potentially urgent politics of such poetry can be very badly distorted if you call it accessible. In a different way, accessibility is often used to demand that somehow the real social meanings of poetry should be not only available to anyone, but should, in some sense, be the same for diverse individuals and groups across contexts. The demand of accessibility is often one of a form of universality that is not grounded in any social reality. It even evinces a desire to see context—the very thing that gives meaning to language—erased. Cultural production is always attuned in complex (not necessarily positive or good) ways to group needs and a collective exigence. So it is not that accessibile poetry is fraught, but more that it doesn’t really exist.
The interdisciplinary practice of Donato Mancini focuses mainly on poetry, bookworks, text-based visual art and cultural criticism. He has published four books of procedural and visual writing, Ligatures, Æthel, Buffet World and Fact ‘n’ Value. His first book of critical writing is You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, just published by BookThug. Two more books of poetry are in progress: The Young Hate Us and SAME DIFF.
Gillian Jerome‘s first book of non-fiction Hope In Shadows, Stories and Photographs from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (with Brad Cran) won the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Award and was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize. Her first book of poems, Red Nest (Nightwood), won the ReLit Prize for Poetry in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2010. She teaches literature at UBC and edits poetry at EVENT.
Published July 5, 2013