Saturday, December 12, 2009

When I saw a link to Christian Bok and Carmine Starnino's November 29 Mount Royal University debate on contemporary Canadian poetry, my first thought was, What took them so long? It was only while waiting for the download that I imagined the outcome would differ little from what these two have already said on the topic, and that a master rhetorician like Bok would no doubt crush an opponent who (and this was borne out) only comes to life when deploying his well-rehearsed aphorisms.

That the moderator had asked Bok to speak first put Starnino in the position of respondent -- so what resulted was not dissimilar to what walked out of the transporter in the 1958 version of The Fly: one part statement, one part defense; neither of which resembled anything beyond a reactionary cri du chat, with Starnino performing more like Louis Dudek's successor than someone we might look to for a reading of contemporary Canadian poetry.

As the debate progressed, it became clear that, although both poets know something of the current Canadian poetry landscape, both are conservative in conception and approach. Bok, who did not challenge the moderator's depiction of him as an "experimental poet" (in fact, he embraced it), is interested in equivalencies between poetic and scientific methodological composition, while the diffident Starnino prefers a poetry where emotion is to the garment what syntax is to the clothesline. Neither question the ideological construction of the structures they inhabit, and only barely did Starnino refer to Eunoia's "success" as defined not by critique but by the market.

On the topic of Eunoia, I remember when Bok was writing it, how his excitement returned me to its source -- (the translation of) Perec's Avoid, a novel without the letter "e". However, that the "e" is the most ubiquitous vowel in both English and French -- and therefore the most difficult to avoid -- diminished my appreciation of Bok's effort. If only I had not known? No, I prefer to know -- just as I despair the not-knowing Starnino promotes when saying that he looks at a poem from the sixteenth century in the same way he looks at a poem from today. That is, void of the social and historical forces that shape poems (not to mention our reading of them).

Starnino's critique of Eunoia is that it is "a prank." Where I live, the response to Eunoia is related to the author's democratic distribution of the vowel conceit (Chapter A, Chapter E, Chapter I, etc) and therefore its reduction of Perec and his translator's achievement. Although I enjoy reading and listening to Eunoia, it is not what I expect from someone who refers to himself as an "experimental poet". For me, the experiment has more to do with locating poetry in new and convergent forms, something Bok is open to. Indeed, Bok's experimental approach seems better served by his current Xenotext project: the writing of poetry into the genetic code of bacteria. Bok's strongest lines recognize that the poetry of today resides not in magazines like The Fiddlehead but in ad copy, or social networks like Twitter.

Starnino is the consummate aesthete, a connoisseur, the likes of which could only be supported by an Anglo-Montreal bourgeoisie (think: the French plantation owners in Apocalypse Now Redux). He either "likes" things ("good," "best"), or he doesn't ("bad," etc.). Bok, on the other hand, can at least see the landscape and its endless replications, not unlike the scientist in The Fly after he emerges from the transporter. Recall the scene where the scientist, his head now a fly's head, approaches his wife. Not her response, which is predictable, but the scientist's POV, as a fly might see her -- multiplied.

Where Starnino wants to charge into the landscape and plant his flag atop the highest hill (think: James Cameron's Academy Awards acceptance speech for The Titanic), Bok is content to repeat (with some variation) the soil tests of others, indifferent to the life forms the soil supports, yet faithful to the laws, both natural and economic, that govern our survival.

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