For a while now, I’ve been comparing poet Jim Johnstone’s editorial work—from his chapbooks through Anstruther Press to trade titles through Palimpsest Press—to that of fiction editor John Metcalf (formerly of The Porcupine’s Quill and currently at Biblioasis): you might not be interested in everything they offer, and the work has a distinct flavour to it, but much of it is of a high enough quality to impress. As editors, I trust their judgement, even if I might not care for the work of every writer or title on their roster. From what I’ve seen of the books and chapbooks he has edited, Johnstone’s interest appears to focus on highly crafted first-person metaphor-driven narrative lyrics. With Johnstone, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of, say, language-driven or ludic sentences or anything more experimental in those directions. While I’m not always personally drawn to such work, I’ve been drawn to a number of the Anstruther titles, simply due to the high quality of the writing.
With The Next Wave, Johnstone presents a handful of work by 40 early-to-mid-career poets from across Canada. As he writes in his critical introduction, he deliberately focused his selections on poets who began publishing trade collections after 2001, and have since published no more than three collections. I find the range of the poets in The Next Wave more varied than I might have expected. He includes poets such as Amanda Jernigan, Jason Guriel, Linda Besner and Alexandra Oliver, but also Jordan Abel, Aisha Sasha John, Sonnet L’Abbé, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Sadiqa de Meijer. On the surface, including Abel’s work, which is incredibly powerful, experimental and radical, might seem like an outlier, but the way the book is shaped allows for a broader range than what I had considered to be Johnstone’s field of poets. The book presents itself in the best way possible: here are poets doing something amazing, and you should be paying attention to them. More often than not, I would entirely agree.
The beauty of this collection is that it knows it can only highlight a small part of what has become wonderfully rich, diverse and impossibly legion. Gone are the days of a singular canon, or the McClelland and Stewart anthologies that attempted to provide an overview of emerging or established Canadian poets, simply because the range and number of contemporary writers are too large and too varied. Eli Mandel’s Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1971) might exist as a paperback small enough to slip into one’s pocket, but Dennis Lee’s follow-up, The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985 (1985), has enough heft to stun any burglar, and I’ve rarely seen a copy without a mangled binding (my copy is literally torn in half under its own weight). The only reasonable response in our current literature is to present multiple anthologies from different editors, each with their own particular fields of expertise and interest (with whatever overlaps between them).
Still, while I understand Johnstone’s initial caveat of excluding those he has put through Palimpsest Press, forcing his attention to go beyond his immediate pool of poets, I do think that by holding to that rule, he shortchanges his own judgement, his editorial accomplishments, and his own poets, any of whom would have easily fit into such a selection.
The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, rob mclennan 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 and 2017. His most recent poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019), Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2019) and Life Sentence (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019).
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.