The whirlwind known as The Walrus Poetry Prize competition has now come and gone, and it went to two very deserving and lovely poet-people, Meira Cook and Bardia Sinaee (you can still read all of the poems here). Equally as accomplished is the wonderful Nyla Matuk, fellow nominee who actually had two poems in the competition. I think it’s fantastic—although it seemed to go unreported?—that in a national blind competition, 4 out of the 5 poems were by women, and with a top female judge, Karen Solie, too.
The Walrus Prize nomination was momentous in ways than I can’t probably describe at the moment. It has provided a great deal of positive exposure, and also gave me my first bittersweet taste of critical feedback. As someone who also works as a critic, I’ve always known I’m going to have to be able to eat what I dish out. Yet, I felt like I’d ingested something a teeny bit “off” when I read this recent description of the nominees by Stewart Cole—whose work I absolutely love, by the way—as part of a review of Nyla’s new (and great) book:
Though of course distinct in crucial respects, all five Walrus Prize finalists broadcast their cosmopolitanism in flashing lights, foregrounding foreign places and/or non-English words while rhetorically favouring modes descended from the sort of urbane associative deadpan first bequeathed to English-language poetry through Eliot’s transfigurations of Laforgue, and later made inescapable in a more digressional form through the rise to prominence of the inveterate Francophile Ashbery….the finalists as a group advertise less the diversity of poetic practices ongoing in Canada than aspects of a coalescing fashion.
This characterization made me think hard about what defines me as a poet, which are of course the same things that define me as a person, but I’ve tended to depersonalize my work (as much as that’s possible)…And I realize now I should be more cognizant and expressive of those qualities so that they are clearer to myself and others. I decided to write about them here and now, in part because these reflections also dovetail nicely with my forthcoming chapbooks, called Royal and Ringsend.
Cosmopolitanism as an orientation described above could probably not be more alien to my person. I wrote the Walrus Prize nominated poem “Rip Torn” on my first trip overseas, at age 35, where I went to Ireland (where my family’s from, but where I’ve never been), and also spent a few days in London, England. Not very cosmopolitan of me—one trip, ever!
Ireland is for the most part rural, pastoral, lush and lonesome, a place where a poet can “take the weather so personally” (in the words of J. D. Salinger). Dublin is a bit more congested than other towns and villages, sure, but the people are warm and hilarious…they will offer to walk you straight to where you’re trying to go. Cab drivers play Leonard Cohen and tell you about getting stoned in Dingle and sleeping out under the stars… leaving their satchel in a bar, and coming back a day later to be heckled by the barkeep but find their belongings totally intact… And bookstores, everywhere…
Ever since that trip, I’ve spent a good hour a day reliving aspects it, and am attached to a certain desk job for the twisted reason that the mossy building I stare out at makes a good proxy for an Irish view. Can you picture it—an entire country with only 4 million people in it? There are 8 million people in LONDON alone. Ireland is a place the mind can breathe. There’s something epic about the horizontal plane that we’ve forgotten—that cities have eradicated, etc. More on all of that one day…
London, on the other hand, felt like one of the realms of hell to me. When we got off the plane, people were literally running through the gangplank tunnel-thing. After all the shit-shooting in Ireland, I thought, “Right on…this place is efficacious!” but I soon doubted that instinct…For one thing, those three days cost nearly as much as 11 days all over Ireland. It’s no city for poor men, as I guess most cities aren’t.
In London, I saw a street brawl with 6 guys punching each other in the heads, and I tried to notify a totally indifferent shopkeeper to call police, but he merely shrugged and turned; someone on a motorcycle almost hit a man in a wheelchair who had the right of way, and then screamed “fuck you” at him for good measure; every iconic red phone booth was strewn with postcards selling porno and prostitutes, like a hamster’s wood chips, and stung your eyes with ammonia-rich piss. Damien Hirst is at the Tate, where it belongs I suppose, but still—eww. And don’t even get me started about their television programming—Britain does America better than it does itself. Yes, I’ve heard the saying, “When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.” But the life I want doesn’t have signs warning you to watch for purse snatchers printed IN the menu, you know?
I’ve always cloaked my distaste for cities because city-love seems to be part of what defines the Literati and intellectuals in general… Joan Didion and The New Yorker and all that jazz… with the rural being cast not merely as non-sophisticated, but anti-intellectual. In a way, it’s been easy to suppress the words I don’t even have for how revolted I was by New York (twice), the teeming, scheming aggro futility and filth, the vicious inequality …
When I think about the life that invigorates me, I go on MLS and hunt around up on Bruce Peninsula, where the listings turn post and beam and get scarce, or houses on little islands in windy rivers that will freeze over for winter and snow you in… And I sit and marvel at the resolve of writers like Robert Frost, Alice Munro, and Phil Hall—I think of Jane Hirshfield, who was silent for ten years or something!—People who don’t need to see and be seen… but just work and work until their work is undeniable, a beacon.
How foreign is foreign?
I can’t speak for others in The Walrus Prize competition, but what seems “foreign” in my poem is actually quite close to me, ethnically speaking. My family is mostly Irish and British, Mi’ikmaq in part on two sides, and a good dose of mutt. The Irish trumps in sheer numbers, and in gift of gab, and, thus, in influence. Therefore, ambivalent feelings about the Monarchy are part of my DNA.
While I was in Ireland, the Queen was going to shake the hand of a reformed IRA man, Martin McGuiness, and this photo-op was a sensational story consuming most folks on both sides of the pond. It consumed the mind of an Irish Royalist tour guide who took us on an unfortunately politically-charged voice-over trip to the world heritage site, Hill of Tara (which is…kind of just…a hill…). Boy, she loved Kings, dead ones, alive ones–you name it. In trying to write about my experience overseas, I did find it hard to top this perfectly summative graffiti I saw en route: “STUFF YOUR JUBILEE LIZZIE.” But I tried to channel something of that energy in “Rip Torn.”
The upshot is, as foreign as Ireland and England may seem, they are not internet-scoured metaphor-props, but core to who I am—closer to who I am than so much souvenir shop Canadiana. And if that’s not in my work, part of me would be lacking. I already mentioned how pastoral Ireland is, and as an aside: If we must label everything, I’d prefer to speak of “internationalism” over “cosmopolitanism,” because it doesn’t hold that all foreign influence in poetry is completely city-centric.
To me, what is present in these Walrus-nominated poems may say something about an emerging ethnic/cultural diversity and sensitivity in Canadian poetry—which I think most of us could agree could be valuable. In that sense, I think of “cosmopolitanism” in poetry not the comfort woman of globalist forces, but as the caged bird who knows exactly why it sings and won’t be silenced.