derek beaulieu. How to Write. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010.
~ reviewed by Chris Jennings
I’m not sure it does anyone any good to say that procedural writing is poetry. That designation limits the audience for books such as derek beaulieu’s How To Write to an already fractious readership where debates about accessibility are common and often regress to the question “What is Poetry?” Similarly, I can picture the puzzled look on some commuter’s face if he/she found beaulieu’s book on a bus, and the look of dawning comfort that would follow the realization that, “Oh! it’s poetry, so of course it’s opaque.” In other words, How to Write will not help poetry’s reputation for being difficult. But procedural writing is something, an interesting and sometimes valuable something, and it functions closer to poetry than to any other kind of writing. Maybe it’s time to take back the term “language arts” from the school board mandarins who use it as a euphemism for reading and writing? To borrow Anne Carson’s notion of “painting with thoughts and facts”? Neither is quite right because the aesthetic of How to Write is as much scientific as artistic. The intellectual work in this kind of poetry, the creativity, goes into designing the procedure. The title piece is “an exhaustive record of every incidence of the words ‘write’ or ‘writes’ in 40 different English-language texts. These texts were picked aesthetically and to represent a disparate number of genres.” The first thing to notice here is “exhaustive”; this is a project made possible by computer-assisted searches. The second is that the piece itself resembles an extended entry in the Oxford English Dictionary absent the actual definition. Read the quotations, stripped of all context, and you have a lexical profile of this loaded verb as used in some carefully chosen, generally canonical texts (the list includes Marx, Wells, Austen, Orwell, Woolf, Eliot, Poe, and Lovecraft). The pieces generated by these experiments function as data not meaning, and their significance as “proof of concept” will depend on interpretation by beaulieu’s audience. This is how to write after reader response theory and the Death of the Author. “Wild Rose Country” is one of the simpler examples. beaulieu’s procedure here is simply to record all text on the streets within one block around his home. Such data collection results in a lot of text that looks like this: “Hyundai Elantra Alberta June Alberta WYD-869”. As topographical topos, it’s an extremely accurate textual portrait of a suburban environment, especially of contemporary Calgary, and the title picks up the irony of celebrating wild landscapes on vehicle plates. Like poetry, this type of writing depends on a reading strategy keyed to the significance of patterns – even accidental patterns – in language beyond the order imposed by deliberate choices in grammar and syntax. That is, the writing relies upon our habit of imagining the connective tissue between discrete bits of data and then conceptualising the shape that emerges. If you engage it on those terms, beaulieu’s book operates like a koan to get the mind moving. If you prefer to impose a definition of poetry on it, well, better to leave it on the bus.
[For a broader discussion of Canadian found poetry, including the work of derek beaulieu, keep an eye on arcpoetry.ca for a sample of “Reuse and Recycle: Finding Poetry in Canada” by Arc Poetry Editor Shane Rhodes, and look for the full essay in Arc Poetry Magazine 70 in Spring 2013!]
Chris Jennings is Arc’s Prose Editor. His book Occupations (Nightwood Editions) was released in 2012.