On the Canadian avant-garde

Edited by
Gregory Betts
Katie L. Price


Gregory BettsKatie L. Price

Already the renewed disruption of knowledge
spreads across the globe — Jordan Abel

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. — Walter Benjamin 

In November 2014, a representative sample of Canada’s avant-garde gathered in St. Catharines, Ontario, at the Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries conference to map out the state of experimental writing today and for the future. A major focus of the event was Indigenous poetics and politics, including the keynote address by Stó:lõ First Nations elder, philosopher, and author Lee Maracle. Her apposite message to the future-oriented, mostly settler audience was to remember: remember how and why your families came to Canada, remember who was here to greet them, remember the violence of displacement and the violence of the passage across the Atlantic. The turn to the past contradicts typical understandings of the avant-garde, which as Tyrus Miller has noted, is “constituted and defined by anti-historical impulses.”[1] To stand before a group of avant-gardists and point back in time was risky, but the fact is that Maracle’s message played into already mobilized undercurrents in the contemporary Canadian avant-garde that are moving poetic practice forward in new and necessary directions. It is an undercurrent that is deeply politicized, earnest, and radical, yet aware of its own complicities, indeed aware of the enforced complicities that arise from Western capitalist hegemony and racist legacies. Texts by poets such as Jordan Abel, Rachel Zolf, Shane Rhodes, Christine Stewart, d’bi.young anitafrika, Lillian Allen, Jason Edward Lewis, Kaie Kellough, and many others maintain such avant-garde signatures as linguistic playfulness, indeterminacy, and comfort with ambiguity. In contrast to the hubris and ego often associated with historical avant-gardists, these contemporary Canadians explore the possibilities of decolonizing themselves and their texts, and by challenging the basic assumptions of daily life in the country contribute to the more widespread political efforts to decolonize all of Canada. They position themselves as followers of Indigenous activists, not leaders in that revolutionary struggle, and are creating a point of intersection between radical politics and experimental art — the intersection that is, in fact, the proper place of avant-garde production. 

Decolonizing literature, in this context, reimagines the past and revitalizes the present — especially including the contemporary avant-garde. Decolonization from an aboriginal perspective means, as the Cree poet Neal McLeod recently wrote, a “return to our own conceptions and frameworks, and rage against simple conventions of mimicry”; the clearest reasons for decolonization are to “deal with our collective trauma as experienced in residential schools and the spatial diasporas from our own homelands.”[2] In the context of reimagining Anglo-môniyâw (Plains Cree for “European”) colonial society and the avant-garde writing traditions that have emerged within that population, decolonization means to remember the plurilinguistic and fragmented material conditions of culture in North America’s formation, and to endeavor to rebuild the present by reimagining and reremembering its past. Thus, Lee Maracle said at the conference:

You [in St. Catharines] are in the Treaty of the Dish with One Spoon. What does it make you want to remember? If you just swallow that idea, that one concept, you are going to change the way you see things. One dish, one spoon: that means we’re all eating out of the same pot and it means we’ve got to share. [… You were] brought here and expected to forget who you are. That is not possible. Then you experience shame when you try to remember. As immigrants you are expected to forget. […] Or we can sit down like an avant-garde and ask who we want to be. Decolonization is about recognizing that this is not England and never was and that Canada is really a Haudenausaunee name for village. […] If you deny your own memories, you won’t want to hear anybody else’s.

The possibility of decolonization only begins with the establishment of a postcolonial perspective on North American (Turtle Island) history and culture, and a reflection on the role colonization has played in the formation of North American national cultures. It is in that context and from that perspective that the conference used the term “avant-garde” to recognize artists who are unsatisfied by the present state of art and culture. Such a deployment of the term coincides with, but radicalizes, Agamben’s sense of those “who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable of perceiving and grasping their own time.”[3

The avant-garde are those who mobilize this dysschrony, this sense of disaccommodation with the ideological coordinates of the present. If the avant-garde isn’t fighting for something, for some revolutionary or radical change, the value of the term dissolves absolutely; thus, exclusively, it is the commitment to revolution that makes the avant-garde a useful category of art production. Given this frame, it is noteworthy that Canada’s avant-garde artists are increasingly attuned to the re-emergence of the Indigenous populations in Turtle Island (North America) and especially to their rising influence in Canadian culture. While the historical avant-garde had a problematic relationship with some of the darkest tendencies of European imperialism, fascism, and hegemony, a new avant-garde in Canada is emerging through the combination of art and politics specifically oriented to advancing anti-imperialism, combating fascism, and rethinking the racist underpinnings of Western capitalism. As Sonnet L’Abbé notes in her essay “Erasure,” “Canadian poets have been more eager than their American counterparts to deploy […] strategies of explicitly politicized cultural critique.” In particular, a subset of authors are mapping out a necessary reimagining of settler-Indigenous relations, thinking about new ways that settlers in Canada (those who came since the first settlements in 1604) can inhabit the land without erasing the Indigenous peoples and cultures who preceded them. 

The emergence of Indigenous-avant intersections is not new, but the current activity marks a pronounced development from previous gardes in Canada. For instance, bpNichol, Captain Poetry, the man who, as publisher and poet, functioned as the center of the vortex of CanAvant production for over two decades until his death in 1988, was deeply concerned with the roots and origins of language. As part of that investigation, Nichol wrote about the Indigenous people in Canada. In a humorous long poem on the Métis rebel Louis Riel, one of his native characters observes a waitress ignoring a native man and quips that doing so is “as Canadian as genocide” (“The Long Weekend of Louis Riel”). His own unsettledness is mapped out in his life project, the nine-volume work The Martyrology, which documents his traveling back and forth over “a flat country of uncertain boundary” unmooring his language and knowledge, until he wonders, “maybe it’s me who’s out of place / displacing air by my very presence.”[4] Successive generations of Canadian avant-garde authors and artists, from Lawren Harris onward, have mined the negative potential of such indeterminacy and placelessness. Increasingly, though, contemporary writers use avant-garde techniques to expose this recurring motif of unsettledness in Canada and Canadian literature as an attempt to supplant and displace the previous inhabitants; in short, to erase them from their own land. Where once Canadian authors like Sir Charles G. D. Roberts dreamed of European Canadians becoming the “autochtons” of the land — the naturalized natives, that is — many contemporary avant-garde authors now reject the colonial violence of that desire and through earnest humor and serious play begin to map out a decolonized imaginarium. Steve McCaffery’s paper responds to Nichol’s efforts to place language somewhere in the flux of human experience. Christian Bök’s paper highlights the politics of the micropress gift economy that Nichol championed in the Canadian context. In the intolerant glare of colonialist capitalism, the simple, generous act of giving away your work for free becomes a radical gesture, one to which many conceptual poetries pay homage. It is a mark of both outsider status and evacuation of privilege. There is a reason the Canadian state outlawed potlatch ceremonies, for the enormous challenge they posed to the logic of Western economics and social-politics.

In thinking about the intersections of Indigenous decolonization and the avant-garde, it might be instructive to think of the avant-garde as a kind of pun, pointing backwards to that legacy and century-long tradition as much as forwards to the work that remains to be done. The pun hinges on the difference between avant and avant: the French adverb for earlier or before and the French adjective for forward or in front. If the avant-garde are those in front, the future-oriented soldiers of a better tomorrow, the avant of Canada also refers to those who came before Canada — including the begetters of the colonial legacies of British and French settlements and then also the Indigenous populations who long preceded and coexisted alongside them. The before-Canada and the avant-garde met for the first time in the eighteenth century, when the conscripts, derelicts, and convicts of the new colony were compelled to fight on behalf of the European powers alongside Iroquois warriors. The earliest use of the term “avant-garde” in Canada dates back to 1704, in reference to the “coureurs de bois” and “des Sauvages”: Indigenous warriors, Métis, and French Canadiens sent to battle at the front (avant) of the French military. They were the sacrificial lambs of battle, the first soldiers sent into hostile territory, and those most likely to be killed. The before-Canada and the avant-garde meet again in contemporary times when the legacies of the European revolutionaries intersect with the politics and poetics of decolonization. Avant and avant, the essays included in this feature also look back as they look forward. They reread the ideological foundations of the present, unsettle them, and by doing so, open up new possibilities for a reconfigured future. By engaging with selected highlights from the conference (themselves embedded in the feature), these essay responses extend the necessary conversations already underway in Canada and open up those discussions to broader North American and international frames of reference. Like the avant-gardes the conference explored, this feature invites you to look back as you look forward.

1. Tyrus Miller, “The Historical Project of ‘Modernism’: Manfredo Tafuri’s Metahistory of the Avant-Garde,” Filozofski vestnik 35, no. 2 (2014): 88. Italics in original.

2. Neal McLeod, ed., introduction to Indigenous Poetics in Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004), 4–6.

3. Giorgio Agamben,  What Is an Apparatus?: And Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

4. bpNichol, The Martyrology Book 5 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1998), Chain 3.