Winnipeg poet and filmmaker Jonathan Ball and Vancouver poet Ryan Fitzpatrick’s new anthology, Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry, was built to respond against the idea that poetry can’t be taken seriously if it is funny. At nearly three hundred pages of work by forty-three contributors, it provides an essential counterpoint to so much of the “serious work” of Canadian writing, constructed out of a pervasive seriousness and earnestness that takes much of the fun out of language. bpNichol’s work is famous for the obvious fun that he derived from it, something that so many of those influenced by his work seem to have missed, resulting in, quite often, the charge of “overly serious” experimental work. As Ball and Fitzpatrick write in their introduction: “Humourlessness is the most galling failure of experimental poets, because it is the most galling failure of poets and poetry overall.” They continue:
We balk at Starnino’s implicit suggestion, which is that experimental poetry is, in a general sense, more humourless than conventional poetry. In fact, when conventional poetry is funny, it is often funny because it has incorporated lessons from experimental poetry (usually, earlier avant-gardes). Often, these avant-garde movements and authors take themselves seriously, or two seriously, but then lighten up and begin to fall into self-parody as their assumptions and techniques are incorporated (or mocked) by the mainstream – Surrealism is the most obvious example. More recently, we have seen the opposite trajectory with the American post-avant Flarf writers, who began by parodying bad conventional poetry but ended up taking the joke more seriously and more politically as bad conventional poetry became a primary way to address the national trauma of 9/11.
In other words, galling humourlessness is not a defining trait of experimental poetry – the work is often intentionally funny, because it uses humour in particular ways, or unintentionally funny, due to its relative strangeness or how removed it seems from something we should take seriously. As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language, experimental poetry may even have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour than so-called “conventional” poetry. But why? Where’s the beef?
It seems curious that the introduction would set up so deliberately against a comment leveled by Montreal poet, critic and editor Carmine Starnino, as though this the main purpose of assembling the anthology, instead of the editors producing the book for its own sake. Really, the title of the anthology is deceptive; there are some incredibly funny works included, but the collection stretches across a broader consideration of “serious play,” with poems ranging from the out-and-out hilarious, to dry, wry, and simply playful. Some of Dennis Lee’s work for children would fit quite well in such a collection, and I don’t find his work to be particularly funny at all (far too earnest, in fact). What does make this anthology impressive is in realizing just how much lively poetry is currently being produced in Canada by a wide array of authors, including Annharte, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Gary Barwin, derek beaulieu, Louis Cabri, Margaret Christakos, Ray Hsu, David McGimpsey, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and some three dozen other contributors, each of which are afforded a paragraph or two (presumably composed by the editors) to introduce their particular works included. This anthology has far more in common with the anthology Boredom Fighters (Tightrope Books, 2011), edited by Paola Poletto and Jake Kennedy, than any specific anthology of humour. Stephen Cain’s “ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!,” taken from his children’s book of verse, I Can Say Interpellation, is wonderfully playful, but not particularly “funny,” per se. What this anthology does, and does well, is to introduce readers to a wide range of possibilities in poetry that aren’t always obvious in the serious journals, produced and edited by the serious editors and poets. There is plenty of fun to be had with language, so why not play with it? Fitzpatrick and Ball know well about play, and have compiled an anthology of some of the best contemporary examples of such. I, for one, thank them for it.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
ARC: A MAGAZINE OF CANADIAN POETRY