Saturday, May 29, 2010

Secret Influences 5: PWEI

When I read at Margaret Christakos's Influency series last Fall, one of the students in her class remarked that reading poems from American Standard/ Canada Dry felt modular. I thought this was a great observation as I often compose small poems as discrete units, which I then later fit into larger structures as I realize how they might interact with each other. In particular, she noted that reading the "American Standard" sequence reminded her of watching a stack of televisions piled atop each other in a grid, all turned to different stations. At the time I wasn't prepared to "out" my "secret influences," but that was the effect I was trying to achieve, inspired in part by this:

This video is, of course, riffing on the character of Ozymandias from Alan Moore's Watchmen who views multiple televisions at the same time, but I'm betting that Pop Will Eat Itself were also aware when making this video that Moore himself was gesturing to an earlier cinematic image--that of David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976):

Anyone know if this is really the genesis of this image, or are there earlier incarnations? Might be worth exploring in a McLuhanesque essay someday. And speaking of critical analysis, while much of the imagery in the "Wise Up! Sucker" video is dated, I still appreciate the latent (?) psychoanalytic elements going on in the video, with the megaphone functioning as the superego, attempting to awaken the lead singer from his television-induced narcissistic anesthesia: wise up!

I listened to a lot of Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI) in the early nineties, particularly This is the Day... This is the Hour... This is This! (1989), the album from which "Wise Up! Sucker" is taken. PWEI were one of the first bands to mix electronica, hip-hop, politics, and pop culture in one smart, infectious, and danceable groove, and This is the Day was their masterstroke, one of the best concept albums of the late 1980s, which perfectly captures the zeitgeist of fear induced by Reaganite/ Thatcherite neoliberalism, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of global media empires, with citizens being pacified by blockbuster films, computer games, and new recreational drugs.

Besides being a product of that period, what influenced me most about PWEI, and what I still love about them today is their pure dialogicism--lyrically, multiple voices and discourses clash and collide creating puns and connections beyond the surface and, musically, the samples and cinematic voice-overs spin intertextual references at a non-semantic level. I see similar effects in an album like Paul's Boutique, which is also another influence on my wordplay and poetics, but PWEI was certainly more underground and subversive than the Beastie Boys during this period.

A track like "Can U Dig It?" is probably a better example than "Wise Up! Sucker," taking its title and dominant sample from the 1979 cult film about street gangs, The Warriors, and moving to a full-on investigation of the influence of American imagery on global culture. But PWEI add their own Anglophilia to the mix, showing how British comic artists and musicians are just as influential and exciting as their American counterparts. A few of the kung-fu and action-film references don't appeal to me, but I love the conjunction of Schwarzenegger, Mark E. Smith, and Watchmen in the triplet "Terminator!/ Hit the North!/ Alan Moore knows the score":

I'll sign off with the third single from This is the Day, "Def. Con. One" which comes the closest to what I'm attempting in "American Standard," suggesting that connections (or "the con") between corporatism, junk food, nuclear war, and fascism are not far-fetched:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Barbara Godard (1941-2010)

A remarkable and inspiring intellectual, translator, academic, editor, and teacher, I feel privileged to have known and been a colleague of Barbara Godard.

I wish I could say that I worked very closely with Barbara over the years but, despite having many literary enthusiasms in common, as it happened most of our initial interactions were at a slight distance. For example, I regrettably didn't have the chance to take classes with her, or have her as part of a supervisory committee while a graduate student at York (although she did send me a lengthy and kind email after I defended my dissertation on Coach House Press, detailing some of things I might be interested in investigating further regarding the CH translation series and her willingness to guide me). After I joined York as a faculty member, however, I began to work with Barbara on a more frequent basis, initially on departmental business (I treasure another email that she once sent me complimenting me on some comments I made a meeting that I was feeling a bit embarrassed about at the time ... If you know me, you know I'm not overly vocal at meetings, so Barbara's gesture meant a lot), and later we had several conversations about Open Letter (ex. the Ray Ellenwood festschrift, the recent feminist poetics issue, and possible future issues). My fondest memory, however, is probably our trip to the Windsor Bookfest where we spoke on a panel on translation, and over the weekend there finally had a chance to talk candidly about many issues, including our admiration for Mallarme and bpNichol, as well as discussing her efforts at a troublesome translation in which she was attempting to find the proper French equivalent for "roadkill."

A few posts ago, I commented on feeling that I didn't work hard enough at my writing in reference to Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, but if one really wants to be put to shame, one need only look at the accomplishments of Barbara. This website is still in progress, but if you click on the translation and publication links you'll see the astonishing amount of work Barbara accomplished over the years. At the funeral yesterday Ray told an amazing anecdote about being graduate director and noticing that not only was Barbara supervising more students than any other individual faculty member in the department, she was supervising more than all the faculty members combined!

But it is not just the quantity that is remarkable, it is how important and influential her writing has been. For example, Barbara's translation of L'Amer as These Our Mothers, was the text that first got me excited about Nicole Brossard and, to my mind, is one of the most adventurous and innovative acts of French to English translation produced in this country. Similarly, I was thrilled to finally sit down last Autumn with the hefty and consistently-challenging collection of Barbara's academic writing, Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture.

What stays with me most from this collection is the introductory interview with Smaro Kamboureli, where Barbara recounts her efforts to create many of the subject areas in the academy that we now take for granted. It enlightened me as to how different the academic landscape was back in the 1970s, and how many of the fields that I currently work in wouldn't exist to the same degree without Barbara's contributions. What I mean is that I realized how pivotal she was in defining and constructing the discourses of Contemporary Canadian Literature, Literary Theory, Translation, and Women's Studies, in the academy and in this nation as a whole.

At the same time, the interview suggested how difficult this task was, how antagonizing the academy and its administration can be, how quickly these discursive victories can be eroded, and how we need to be constantly vigilant. Since reading that introduction I've often thought about how the academic terrain has shifted detrimentally and how there are still struggles underway. Considering a few of the areas that Barbara was most passionate about, in recent years I've been witness to attempts to amalgamate Canadian Studies into North American Studies, and seen Canadian Literature courses move from being mandatory to barely optional. I've watched the Harper government cancel funding for women's organizations and attempt to reposition the abortion debate, as well as seen many academic institutions diluting Women's Studies into Gender Studies. Similarly, fewer incoming graduate students appear to be interested in theory and less grants tend to be awarded to theoretical projects by government agencies. And, after all the efforts Barbara made over the years to introduce Quebecois literature to English Canada, when was the last time that you saw an anthology of "Canadian" writing that included both English and French Canadian writers in one volume?

Barbara's passing has made me realize how grateful I am for the work she accomplished, how my intellectual life has been enriched by her pioneering investigations, and has reminded me that, in being inspired by her example, I need to redouble my efforts to sustain the discourses that Barbara fought so hard to develop.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

After Exile

Following the truism that it's never too late to give notice to a collection of poetry, I wanted to note that I've finally had a chance to sit down with the collected poetry of Raymond Knister, After Exile, edited by Gregory Betts in 2003.

Since Knister died in 1932 at the age of 33 (before he had a chance to publish a full collection of poetry) his early promise and experimentation has made him a minor legend in Canadian Modernism. Certainly, in pieces like "The Ploughman," "Sumach," or "The Hawk" one can admire how he adapted Imagist techniques for the Canadian setting, eschewing the pseudo-Hellenistic (or Orientalist) imagery of peers like H.D. and Pound:

The Hawk

Across the bristled and sallow fields,
The speckled stubble of cut clover,
Wades your shadow.

Or against a grimy and tattered
You plunge.

Or you shear a swath
From trembling tiny forests
With the steel of your wings--

Or make a row of waves
By the heat of your flight
Along the soundless horizon.

Still, a little of this goes a long way, so what's much more exciting is some of the more experimental writing that Betts has managed to dig up, such as the urban prose-poems "Sidewalks of Toronto" (the first example of flaneur writing in Canada?) or the proto-concrete poem "Dragonflies at Noon" (1921) which is contemporaneous to e. e. cummings:

Dragonflies at Noon

Dragon -- flies at noon.
Dragon -- f f f f flies at noon noon
Dragon f f f f f fl lies fl lies
l l l l lies lies

But I suppose what I appreciate most about this collection is its handiness. Not only does Betts collect all extant Knister poems and variations, but he includes short critical responses to individual poems, a selection Knister's poetics, photos, letters, and a fairly detailed scrapbook of newspaper notices and condolences following Knister's drowning. In short, it's a great primer on Knister (and Canadian Modernism of the 1920-30s), produced with concision and with an eye to being readable and utilitarian. Here's to hoping that others follow Betts's example for the other neglected Modernists of the period.

Saturday, May 08, 2010


So here are three sections from a 10-part sequence that I wrote about television and that, having shown to a few people, no one seems to like. I thought it was somewhat amusing and that it might be a good piece to perform at readings, but maybe not. Since, in all of my books, I had written poetic responses to various popular media (music, films, video games) I knew at some point I'd need to write a poem about television. The problem is, however, that while I own a television, I never watch it. I don't have cable, and even when I did a few years ago, I didn't watch anything but the CBC news and sometimes a documentary on TVO. It's not really from any moral or ethical decision, or from an attempt to resist the Spectacle, I've just never really been able to find the time to watch TV and, when I do, say at a friend's place, I don't find it that engaging.

To make this blindspot a strength, I came up with the idea of trying to write 10 declarative sentences about 10 popular television shows I've never seen. Honestly, I've not seen one episode of the following. But I wanted to see how much popular culture seeps in despite not having direct access to it, or what sort of humourous conjunctions might arise from my ignorance. It might say something about the hegemonic power of television, or reveal some underlying ideological aspects of the popular media during the last decade.

I've titled the sequence "TV, I" in a gesture to both Iggy Pop's "TV Eye" and Bowie's "TVC 15" (which was also apparently inspired by Iggy Pop), as well as Hitchcock's I Confess. I imagined it was like my television testimonial: as if I was under interrogation from the Cultural Studies police and I had to tell the absolute truth about all I knew about these programs. It's also related to identity: my relationship to television, or else how we often define ourselves and our peer groups by the television programs that we watch.


People sing and are eliminated each week. There are a group of judges who make sarcastic comments about the singers. One is Simon Caldwell, and another is Paula Abdul. The first American Idol was Kelly Clarkson. Another was Clay Atkin. Some of people who don’t make it to the end sometimes still have careers like William Ho, while some winners don’t even get a recording contract. The show is still on, and very popular. There is also a Canadian Idol spin-off. The judges on the Canadian version are Sass Jordan, Maestro Fresh Wes, and someone named Zack. There are probably Idol shows in other countries too.


It’s about a group of people who are on a desert island. No one knows why they are there and each episode reveals clues about how they got there and what will happen to them. It’s not like The Prisoner, it’s more like Sartre’s No Exit. The show has literary pretensions and one of the episodes is based on Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. The cast is mostly young and the women wear bikinis. It might be like Survivor in that way. People like giving their theories of what’s really happening. It could be that everyone on the show is dead and the island is like Purgatory. Or it could be something like an alien life form has captured these people to observe them, like in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. It might all be a dream.


It’s a constraint-based TV show. It takes place in “real” time with each episode being an hour long and the projected 24 episodes making up an entire day. It maintains the Aristotlean unities and is still in progress. The plot is about a bomb that will be detonated in the 24th hour. Or maybe it’s about a hostage who will be killed within 24 hours. It stars Kiefer Sutherland and is filmed in Canada. He plays a morally-dubious character. He is a single dad and an alcoholic; he makes “bad” decisions in order to solve the crime. Some of the cast, especially the minor characters, are Canadians. It might actually take place in Toronto.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Secret Influences 4: Gentlemen

Ok, it's probably not that secret, as I reference Greg Dulli in Double Helix, and the line "I'm a gentle gentile man," from Torontology, is my homophonic take on the title of the Afghan Whigs' fourth album.

But still, Gentlemen, although released in 1993, was really the secret soundtrack to my poetic composition in the late summer of 2001, a time I was dealing with the turmoil of a romantic break-up and struggling to control several addictions.

Gentlemen helped provide the catharsis that I needed to move from the emotionally-sprawling, and somewhat cavalier imagery of my first two poetry collections, to the more politically-aware and formally-controlled poetics of American Standard/ Canada Dry. So one might consider Gentlemen the transitional intertext from my poems composed in the 1990s to those written in the new millennium.

Thanks to one of the most unsettling album covers of all time, and tracks such as "What Jail is Really Like" and "Fountain and Fairfax", Gentlemen also convinced me that any residual adolescent conceptions of masculinity and neo-Romantic notions of what a male poet should be needed to be re-examined and transcended--something I've continued to work at doing for the last decade.