Eds. Derek Beaulieu, Jason Christie, and Angela RawlingsThe Mercury Press, 2005 ISBN 1551281163 192 pages
Shift & Switch is an anthology of contemporary, experimental poetry, written by young poets under forty years of age. The book attempts to redress a recurrent oversight in our literary history by showcasing the work of upstart writers who do not subscribe to the lyricism of the personal anecdote, but who instead aspire to extend the boundaries of expression into unusual regimes of linguistic innovation. Such poets often go underexposed, if not unrecognized, in this country, despite their influence in other literary cultures.
Derek Beaulieu, one of the three editors, argues that, for far too long in Canada, lyric poems of both “confession and reflection” have become “flattened into a sameness,” reiterating the same forms of nostalgia in the same tones of quietude—but despite this monochrome, stylistic sensibility, most anthologies of poetry in Canada have nevertheless portrayed such traditional verse as the most progressive genre, marginalizing alternate varieties that interrogate the formal limits of such linguistic convention.
Jason Christie, one of the other editors, goes on to argue that many anthologies of poetry in Canada have also concerned themselves with definitions of cultural identity (one usually defined in opposition to the literary legacies of both America and Europe)—but while the writers in this collection are Canadian, their aesthetic interests extend beyond such national concerns: “their nationality is not a distinguishing feature of their poetry.” Such poets, instead, subscribe to an eclectic ensemble of marginalized, cosmopolitan styles.
Angela Rawlings, the last of the editors, reiterates some of these polemical arguments in a manner far more flamboyant (if not more incoherent) in tone, suggesting that, if the “cacophony” of this anthology has any cogent, poetic agenda, it must reside in its “enthusiasm for questioning what a poem may be.” The anthology thus juxtaposes varied genres, all influenced by a smorgasbord of avant-garde writers, including, among others, concrete poets, feminists, and pataphysicians, language poets, oulipians, and conceptualists.
Greg Betts, for example, has submitted excerpts from his poem If Language, a collection of correlated paragraphs, each one a lengthy anagram that completely recombines the letters from another passage by the poet Steve McCaffery. Betts highlights the potential of such permutations when he uses the letters from McCaffery to requote a passage from Shakespeare, rearranging the word “Honorificabilitudinitatibus” into “Hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi”—a famous Latin phrase, attributing authorship of the plays to Bacon.
Jordan Scott, on the other hand, submits excerpts from his poem Blert, a work that attempts to turn the linguistic impediment of his stutter into the basis for a poetic genre. He gathers words that use phonemes too difficult for him to pronounce (because of his stammer), and then he recombines these glottal phrases into sound poems that, when performed by him, engage his body in a powerful struggle for expression—a kind of “mandible chatter, a gatling hopscotch:/ herring clatter buccal cove, yokel coconut acoustic.”
Sharon Harris also offers excerpts from her much awaited project Fun With Pataphysics, a work that attempts to explain poetry in the kind of low-tech, gee-whiz lingo found in science classes for kids. Harris rewrites science manuals, replacing a keyword like “world” with another word like “poems,” so that, when asked, “What would happen to the world as we know it, if poems were hollow?” she discovers that, “we would be in danger of death by suffocation, thirst, frying, starving, freezing, and drowning—in that order.”
Chris Fickling is among the many visual poets showcased in this anthology, all of whom generate pictures from letterforms, producing texts meant to be seen more than read. Fickling, for example, arranges letters on the page in such a way that they reproduce celebrated paintings from the history of art, including “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli and “Starry Night” by Van Gogh. Such witty texts illustrate the degree to which the “imagism” of poetry has always had to compete with richer, visual traditions in the world of art.
Carmine Starnino (one of the lyric poets who might impugn such an anthology) has already complained elsewhere that the poets in this book exist in “a state of permanent adolescence,” unaccountable to the more mature, more formal, nuances of official lyricism—but his jibes at the avant-garde have always struck me as an expression of an ongoing anxiety: the fear that posterity is going to punish his generation of lyric poets for their own lack of imagination. (Starnino just does not seem to have the Klingon heart of a poet.)
While this anthology does arise from the exuberance of youthful editors, ready to break from the decorum of editorial protocols (going so far as to include examples their own work—which is in fact quite respectable in quality), the anthology nevertheless sets, in most cases, exemplary standards of excellence for its selections, and such work certainly provides a “core sample” of innovation in our literature. You may not yet recognize many of the poets in this provocative compilation—but chances are, you soon will.