Stephen Collis

Neighbouring zones

CWILA to the avant-garde

A new web project was launched last week: CWILA—Canadian Women in the Literary Arts—which offers a range of research on and responses to (including excellent interviews) the current interface of gender and critical reception. The work of over 70 Canadian women poets, novelists and scholars, at the core of the project are a series of colourful graphs and pie charts—the results of extensive research—that show just how slanted reviewing presently is in the country, in terms of how many more male-authored books receive critical attention than female-authored books (the total number of books published by men and women are remarkably equal).

Gillian Jerome, one of the project organizers, writes in her “Introduction”:

“The CWILA Numbers 2011 make clear that if we hope to foster a culture in which women’s intellectual contributions are valued as much as men’s, more critical attention must be paid to books written by women.”

Ethnographer Lorri Neilsen Glenn glosses the statistics:

“Like fish, we can’t always see the water we swim in.

Phyllis Webb at 85

Arriving at Salt Spring Island

A few days ago I did what I do several times a year: visited poet Phyllis Webb on Salt Spring Island. It’s not the easiest trip: I live near a ferry terminal on the mainland, so the first step is easy, but from there it’s one ferry for an hour and a half to Vancouver Island; then a second ferry (45 minutes or so) to Salt Spring; then a bus ride to the other end of the island; and at last a walk through the village of Ganges and up a hill to the assisted living facility where Webb, 85, lives.

From fugue to fugitive

David Herd's 'All Just'

While contemporary Canadian poetry remains the focus of this series of commentaries, I want today to shift to another neighbouring zone—contemporary British poetry—and look into David Herd’s recently released collection All Just (Carcanet 2012).

This is a book of mostly short lyric poems that at first glance seem largely observational explorations of the local—although something remains somewhat vague and indistinct about that “locale.” Contrast this with Herd’s sharp line breaks and compressed language, which recall William Carlos Williams, whose ghost is unmistakable in the poem “Fact”:

This is just to say—

when a detainee

from the Dover Immigration Removal Centre

applies for bail,

if he has a bail hearing—

which he is not entitled to attend—

though his lawyer is,

and the judge is,

and a representative of the Home Office is—

the bail hearing—


is officially un-


Fred Wah and parliamentary poetry

“The Snowflake Age”

My whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…but I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. God help me to make good my vow.” Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Daily News, February 7, 1952

She said looking through the monarchy of pronouns

Her halftone face profiles the moment

On our kitchen table headlines mourn the proper
Object of our common vale of memory and becoming

Dots of quiet morning snow outside the window 724
Victoria Street then Kootenay Lake the mountain

Mist-hackled town’s companion traced as Elephant
You take on the words new news so we too

Christian Bök and the quest for immortality

A recent issue of The Capilano Review focused on “ecologies,” gathering work that some people might want to assemble under the heading of “ecopoetics.” It is still not the easiest literary brand to define, with capacious boundaries and more questions than answers (which is what keeps it interesting, despite the fact that a lot of work that we once called, with a yawn, “nature poetry,” now cuts a more dashing figure under the heading “ecopoetics”). Nevertheless, I did find myself doing a double take at the inclusion here of Christian Bök’s “The Extremophile,” which was even the subject of a series of featured responses at the issue’s official launch.  Is Bök’s work an example of “ecopoetics” (whatever that might turn out to be)?

Of course, Bök is already associated with a strong brand—conceptualism—though that doesn’t mean he can’t double-down. But let’s back up just a bit.

“The Extremophile” is a poem that introduces us to deinococcus radiodurans, the “hero,” if you will, of The Xenotext, Bök’s ambitious and long-awaited follow-up to Eunoia. Radiodurans is the eponymous “extremophile” of the poem’s title—a bacterium so classified because of its resistance to, well, almost everything.