Stephen Collis

Neighbouring zones

Poetry and/as revolution


Poetry doesn’t make anything happen

I’m not interested in a revolution you can’t dance to

This machine kills fascists

Things happen, and poetry is a thing, a making, and sometimes a happening

Where “thing” (ding) once meant “meeting place”—“assembly”—so we are such “things” as revolutionary dreams are made of

Mayakovsky: “the presence of a problem in society, the solution of which is only conceivable in poetic terms”



In the mid-1980s I rode in a zodiac up an inlet in Clayoquot sound with a man who had been a student activist in Chicago in 1968, and had helped organize the protests at the Democratic National Convention. We were going to tend his oyster farm, and we talked about Neruda (his favourite poet), Chile (where he’d lived after fleeing charges in Chicago), and Neruda’s Memoirs (which I was then reading).

Poet's prose

Robertson and Farr

Lisa Robertson’s Nilling (BookThug 2012) and Roger Farr’s IKMQ (New Star 2012) offer two very different examples of poet’s prose—but both books are enthralling reads, with deceptive depths hidden in their slim volumes. Robertson and Farr are also two writers I feel I have perhaps learned the most from, and been most deeply challenged by, as a poet, and I continue to read them, eagerly, as a friend, student, and interlocutor.

Robertson’s volume is a collection of seemingly occasional essays (for gallery catalogues, invited talks, and contributions to journals) which nevertheless hangs together nicely as a series of brief excursions into the social heart of language and the complex ways in which identity is both overdetermined and, in the clashing multiple forces of that overdetermination, allowed a clinamen’s swerve towards freedom. As we’ve come to expect, Robertson’s language is luxuriously lyrical and a pure pleasure to read, regardless of what she has to say (my summer reading this year has been Proust, and I so often find myself thinking, “I don’t care what any of this adds up to—these are just such good sentences!”). But there are real depths of thought here—form and content never leave each other for too long in this dance—and there is a wonderfully idiosyncratic drift in the direction of Robertson’s argument that does indeed read more like a novel than most essays we are used to now.

Maged Zaher: Poetry and revolution

Early on in the Arab Spring, we began to hear rumors about the role poetry was playing in the uprisings. In Egypt especially, as Elliott Colla reported as early as January 31 2011 (in a piece entitled “The Poetry of Revolt,” from, people “would never dare to protest publicly without an arsenal of clever couplet-slogans.” A catchy example provided by Colla: "Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr" ("Egypt's Police, Egypt's Police, You've become nothing but Palace dogs"). “This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising,” Colla concludes—“it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.”

Into this matrix of poetry and revolt steps Seattle based, Cairo born Maged Zaher, with his new collection, The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me, published by the redoubtable TishFish Press. The title only just recalls Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” except that in Zaher’s version it is less a structural problem of the revolution’s mediation than it is a personal problem: “you didn’t call me.” When a revolution happens in your hometown—and you are in exile—it’s not a matter of the personal being political, but the political becoming all too personal.

Oana Avasilichioaei's 'Beasts'

Oana Avasilichioaei’s We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn 2012) proposes a linguistic wilderness where her last book — Feria (Wolsak & Wynn 2008) — laid out a “poempark.” The wilderness we are returned to here is the one formed by language on the edge of wildernesses long gone—the liminal space of fairy and folk tale, where we stare back at the animals we try to deceive ourselves we no longer are. Voice drifts into voice, language into and out of language—words are birdcall in dense forest where a strange chimera called the Wolfbat (who joins other “characters” — the Tyrant, Dawn, a “maiden”) inhabits a “culture of creatures” and “pastures the pulsing of nontales.”

There is much to say about this book — its play with folk tale tropes and traditions, the wisps of narrative that dissolve into thickets of opaque language, its staging of gender and sexuality, reeking with hybridity, multiplicity and an animal desire to, well, fuck any and all comers. There’s also the book’s fascinating “beastly taxonomies” that graph aspects of a surreal world surrounding and sometimes intersecting with the book in hand, the interruption of a book-within-the-book (“Spelles”), complete with different paper stock, and the way the book’s serial poems entangle and interrupt each other (somewhat reminiscent, structurally, of Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia).

George Woodcock and aesthetic tactics

The wonderful Vancouver poet Daphne Marlatt was recently the recipient of the 19th annual George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award (administered by the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Public Library). It was also Woodcock’s centenary, and I was asked to say a few words about him.

I imagine that there are fewer and fewer people who remember George Woodcock, who died some 17 years ago. He was a highly influential Canadian “man of letters” (as they used to say) — a poet, critic, travel writer, and author of biographies and other popular works of non-fiction. The founding editor of the journal Canadian Literature in 1959, Woodcock was also an influential political thinker, whose books on anarchist philosophy perhaps did more to popularize that ideology than any other publications in the decades immediately after the Second World War.

What interests me about Woodcock is the fact that these spheres of activity — the literary and the political — appear to have remained fairly distinct and discrete for him, throughout much of his career.