Stephen Collis

Some thoughts upon having re-read five of his books

Stephen Collis is an important contemporary poet, with ten books of poems published, at least eight of them as substantive book publications. To the Barricades (Talon, 2013) is one of the books in a trilogy going under the title “The Barricades Project.” Here the poet maintains a shifting or fluid form of social address (“on the run,” is what one reviewer noted), and this is the formal expression of the works’ content. Together, all the work seeks to form cities of words. The compilings of negativities (e.g. in a poem called “Threshold song” [p. 128]) suggest their hopeful opposites – spaces inhabited, or at least occupied, by the very coal ports, containers, parties, societies, and species that seem to have vacated. The project is clear and striking – holds out possibilities even through its negations.

Collis has noted that “The poetry I have written – as is the case with the poetry I have written about, and which I teach – is a poetry derived from extended research and active social engagement.” In several respects, this is the key assertion, the affirmation of which should be, in my view, the main basis on which any overall judgment on the impact of his writing — taken together — thus far rests. The first and most obvious point to make here is that the poetry and the critical writing are one. The poetry and the criticism are being done in parallel. They emerge from the same project and constitute the same investigation of modernism's legacy. I believe this is crucial because so often, otherwise, readers are implicitly asked to have a whole sense of a poet who has “also written criticism,” where the poetry is a lyric project that has little or nothing to do with the poet’s literary history or critical approach. As a matter of content, but of course also as form, Collis’s writing undertakes writing as research about poets who think of writing as a form of research. Collis indirectly refers to this aspect of his career when he describes, in connection with the work on Robert Duncan, “a poetics of ‘commoning.’” (This notion of commoning seems to be the focus on Collis’s newest work.)

Is there a scholarly connection between the artist whose creative art is research on the one hand, and social activism on the other? If readers of Collis can answer that question as a yes, then he has made his overall case. Certainly I, having just re-read the work altogether, say yes.

Reading Duncan Reading (University of Iowa Press, 2012) takes its cue about the importance of recursion or recursiveness from its clever but appropriate title. When we read Robert Duncan, we read a reader reading, notwithstanding that what we read is writing. Collis and Graham Lyons call this “the poetics of derivation,” and the term, obviously, does not have the usual negative connotation (“derivative”) and thus the book can serve a novice to the field as a primer to postmodernity – a postmodern that, to wit, does not break the continuity out of modernism, nor out of romanticism. It is a book – an excellent introductory essay by the editors, and a number of good essays by invited others – that could serve equally well as an entry into several topics: the survival of romanticism into modernism; the construction of authorship; aesthetic “solidarity” among members of poetic communities; and the problem of originality.

Dispatches from the Occupation (Talonbooks, 2012) is a fascinating document, a scholar’s intervention into his own impulse to approach change in a scholarly way. The original goal of providing a history of change across disciplines soon turned toward a rejection of disciplinarity in favor of direct intellectual response to what is or was either an anti-intelligentsia or at least anti-Academy movement. I know no writing about the Occupy movement more productively aligned, as a piece of writing, to the possibilities entailed in that rejection. I'm sure I have missed some work that matches this in its effort of writing occupation, but in any case this book is variously observant, engaged, distant, hyper-subjective, memoiristic, partisan, poetic, local, and theoretical. Further: I have only read one or two other books that might be classified as a scholar’s diary of scholarly engagement. Beyond the academic discipline, in an age of neo-liberal consolidation, is the “beyondery” Collis both describes and seeks himself to inhabit.