‘Modern Canadian Poets’: An Interview with the Editors


by Maurice Mierau (originally published in issue 2)

Evan Jones and Todd Swift have edited the new anthology, Modern Canadian Poetry, the first such collection published abroad in five decades, this time by the prestigious Carcanet Press in the UK, where they both live. Jones and Swift are also notable Canadian poets; Swift’s latest book is Mainstream Love Hotel (2009), and Jones’s first book, Nothing Fell Today but Rain, appeared in 2003. In addition Jones has edited Daryl Hine’s landmark volume Recollected Poems (2007) for Fitzhenry and Whiteside in Canada.

Until a somewhat dismissive review in the Globe and Mail last week, Modern Canadian Poetry was almost completely ignored in this country, except for last fall’s unlikely couple of Leah McLaren in the Globe , and the brilliant young poet Michael Lista’s column in the National Post.

The sad truth is that, in Canada, this anthology appears in a cultural vacuum where critical debate about poetry, and indeed even the simple act of book reviewing, are on life support. In our current climate anything that anyone calls poetry gets published somewhere, almost no one gets read or reviewed, and yet there are more glittering prizes and awards for poetry than ever.

As I’ve unoriginally observed in another context (Maisonneuve on-line), Canadian poetry lacks the kind of mainstream that exists in the UK and the US, and therefore any attempt to define a mainstream will arouse heated controversy. Anthologies are attempts to shape literary history, of course, and if Carmine Starnino is right when he wrote recently that Modern Canadian Poets “conjures an altered historical outcome for Canadian poetry,” it is still an outcome that deserves consideration.

Rather than write a review in which I weigh in with my own peculiar complaints about the introduction, or grouse about the omission of various familiar names (Atwood, Ondaatje, Cohen, Purdy, Birney, Newlove, Kroetsch etc.), I decided to ask Jones and Swift to let me interview them so they could speak directly to the issues involved in creating their anthology.


One of the things that never stops amazing me about CanLit is how long it took before Canadian writers noticed or were influenced by modernism. But there are a few happy exceptions. In that context, can you talk a little about choosing two poets most of us have never heard of, W.W.E. Ross, and Alfred Bailey to open your anthology?

The ‘belated modernism’ you mention is common in many cultures that were not in direct correspondence with the great cultural centres of the West (London, Paris, New York). It takes time for ideas to make their way around the world, and what’s much more interesting is that Ross was in there so early, rather than that modernism arrived late in Canada. He and Bailey are two poets who are often anthologised before the Geddes era. Ross one sees being dismissed as an ‘Imagiste’ and little else, and certainly, as imagism goes, he was a late contributor. But there is much more to him. Bailey, similarly, is a fascinating figure. His voice is unique in Canada—and the world. There’s an argument that he sounds more postmodern than modernist, if such distinctions can be made. And he founded Fiddlehead, of course.

Another happy exception to the pseudo-Edwardian twilight of early twentieth century CanLit was A.M. Klein. Can you talk about the importance of Klein, and of the poems you chose to represent his work?

We make a claim in the introduction for Klein as the major modernist poet of Canada. It’s funny how few have addressed that point in reviews (though a number of the early reviews we’ve seen were written by people who hadn’t yet read the book). Is there disagreement? Who else has the range, the oeuvre?

As editors you’ve chosen poetry that puts a premium on linguistic and formal performance, rather than a set of themes or ideas. That choice is clearly related to the work of younger critics like Carmine Starnino, who probably made the most elegant demolition of the poetics of Canadian nationalism back in 2004 (A Lover’s Quarrel). But unlike Starnino’s anthology The New Canon (2005), which looks at younger poets, you’ve produced a smaller book and chosen to limit yourselves to poets born in 1962 or earlier. Tell me about how this anthology embodies your vision of modern Canadian poetry, and also what the significance is of it appearing in the UK with Carcanet.

We do argue for a set of themes and ideas in the introduction, not just ‘linguistic and formal performance’. We were looking for poets who inhabited a Canada that does really exist: a place where, rather than reject the influence of the UK and the US, poets take on both, revealing a tradition inflected by its cultural position between two more dominant ones. The Irish poet John McAuliffe joked with us that by this definition Thom Gunn could be a Canadian. But it isn’t that easy. He’d have to have been a citizen, as well, and that would have changed who he was. As for Carcanet, well, who could ask for a better home for such a book? It has a long tradition of publishing books which challenge notions of what the dominant poetry culture should be. We’re very fortunate to have the interest of an editor like Michael Schmidt—who knows quite a bit about Canadian poetry and has very keen-edged opinions on it. British poetry presses haven’t been kind to Canada in the past. This is changing somewhat, but perhaps a breakdown will give Canadians a better idea of what the view is over here. Some Canadian poets with poetry books in print available from UK publishers: Anvil: Marius Kociejowski; Arc: Don Coles, Patrick Lane; Bloodaxe: Alden Nowlan, Esta Spalding, Priscilla Uppal; Cape: Robert Bringhurst, Anne Carson; Carcanet: Lorna Goodison, Eric Ormsby, Norm Sibum; Peterloo Poets: Brian Bartlett, Gary Geddes; Reality Street: Lisa Robertson; Shearsman: Erin Mouré, David Wevill. A note here: Christian Bök’s Eunoia was published as fiction in the UK.

I am going to ask about the particular set of exclusions I mentioned above, and that was your decision not to include anyone born after 1962, which as Lista noted last fall (LINK) meant that the best younger poets such as Suzanne Buffam, Christian Bök, Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, and David O’Meara are not represented. Why that particular cut-off?

In our early discussions, working towards a table of contents, we found that we disagreed more the closer we got to our own ages. This in retrospect is a natural thing: a sign to us that our own generation needs more time to develop, for reputations to cement. Also, very importantly, we didn’t want to cross over ground covered in other anthologies. The poets you mention exist in an anthology: The New Canon.

I especially like the capsule biographies of the poets in front of each selection in Modern Canadian Poets. A name that keeps coming up in these bios is Northrop Frye. Perhaps at this juncture we’ve forgotten about both his international prestige and influence on writers in this country. Maybe we only remember him now in terms of his concept of the garrison mentality, as filtered through Margaret Atwood. How do you think Frye shaped Canadian poetry, and how does that show up in your anthology?

Glad you like the biographies. This was very important for us. Remember, the anthology is an introduction for British readers: those are necessary. We wanted critical introductions, which would give some historical perspective and allow us to say something about the poems. As for Frye’s influence: it has been downplayed, because he is unfashionable these days in lit crit circles. But, as a critic of Canadian poetry, he was very sharp. Towards the end of his life, he wrote that he didn’t regret his negative criticism, but he did regret some of the praise he’d given. It’s well-past time we turned back to him. He wasn’t always right, but he was never wrong.

You include only three of Irving Layton’s poems, and your summing-up of his career strikes me as quite judicious in its perception of his long-term impact:

“Irving Layton was once almost as well known for his many love affairs and marriages, his swaggering messianic self-directed persona and sloganeering broadsides, as for his poetry, published at a prodigious rate. Now, his work is still respected, but his star has waned somewhat. A hugely energetic writer, Layton had, in his day, the backing of William Carlos Williams, and managed to write a handful of near-perfect lyrics, both formally and rhetorically as strong as any work of the period.”

Immediately after two pages of Layton’s work, you include four pages of the much less-known George Johnston, showing his astonishing technique and modest surfaces. Johnston was a scholar and translator of poetry in Old Norse, modern Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, and I’m tempted to draw a line between the much more flamboyant Jeramy Dodds, who has similar scholarly interests and technical reach, and the quieter Johnston. More Canadian poets should be reading this guy. What do you think makes him worthy of twice as much space as Layton?

I wouldn’t go counting pages. We weren’t thinking comparatively between entries as we edited them. We were aiming to be representative, poet by poet. Those three poems sum up Layton, really.

Please comment on the poems you chose to represent Anne Carson and Lisa Robertson. In both cases you’ve chosen some pieces that differ from both of these writers’ reputations as experimentalists.

Both are extremely difficult to anthologise. What we aimed for was wholeness. In Carson’s case, that meant taking stand-alone pieces, rather than chunks of longer pieces, which we might have preferred if we could include them whole. In Robertson’s, the opposite is true. We took snippets of longer poems, presented them, we hope, as fragments, knowing that the fragment itself is important to her work.

I just love what you say about Elise Partridge, a poet many more people should read. Here’s part of your intro to her work:

“Her poetry is both deeply autobiographical and reticent, building a sensual intimacy with the reader, while maintaining authorial detachment. In this way, and in their clean, precise language, her poems are heir to the work of Elizabeth Bishop: she is less a poet of extremes, than one seeking to return from them.”

Partridge, like a number of the poets in this anthology (Hine, Kociejowski, Eric Ormsby among others), has spent a good portion of her life outside Canada. This may explain the neglect by a critical establishment that’s still frozen in time with the early Gary Geddes anthologies. Can you comment on how these writers, many of whom have published internationally, are influencing Canadian poetry now?

This is a very complicated issue. A friend, approaching an important Canadian magazine, asking to review Hine’s Recollected Poems, was told by the editor that he didn’t consider Hine Canadian. So, yes, this goes some way to explain neglect. But there’s more. Canadian poets who live and publish outside of Canada are made more aware of other trends in poetry—international trends. These often problematise if not outright contradict national goals. This should be good and healthy, the two coming into contact as spaces of great creative energy—and should lead to great poetry. Instead, it seems, in Canada, the overall response has been to ignore this as a kind of international background noise which is interrupting our project. Can you imagine what Atwood would have made of the New Formalists in the 80s? Ah, yes, cultural imperialism and we’re done here.

You include Steven Heighton’s remarkable work, and in the Canadian context he’s much more visible as a novelist. I was struck by how ambitious he is as a poet when I read the acknowledgements of his latest book, Patient Frame (reviewed on TWR here), which shows him placing poems in the London Review of Books, and Poetry London, among numerous other places. Why do you think it’s important for poets to publish widely in literary magazines?

While almost everyone complains about the lack of readership for poetry, too few reach the many other English-language readerships which do exist. Why is that? A poet who is publishing only in one market needs to re-think what she is doing. If so-and-so is such a good poet, as good as any publishing right now in the world, why aren’t her poems appearing alongside those poets in the LRB, New Yorker, PN Review, Poetry, TLS? Well, of course, there are a number of reasons as to why this might be. But it is not lack of interest on any of those fine journals’ parts. About Heighton: We aren’t stirring too much up by suggesting, as we do, that he is really the progenitor of the current generation of more formally inclined poets. He was doing it first, connecting to British models in his poetry when it was unfashionable. Others have picked up the baton and carried it very well, but Heighton is running a marathon not a relay race.

A quick count suggests that at least eight of the poets in your (much shorter) anthology are also in the latest Geddes anthology, 15 Canadian Poets X 3 (2001). Do you see an emerging consensus, even God help us a mainstream, at least with more recent Canadian poets?

The latest Geddes is now ten years old. If there’s some consensus, it’s because our anthology was not created out of the blue. With few exceptions, every poet has been anthologised in Canada before—in major publications. There are other anthologies than the Geddes—Atwood, Birney, Lee, A.J.M. Smith—and we also went to international anthologies, like John Hollander’s Poems of Our Moment (1968), which included poets from English-speaking countries around the world, such as John Ashbery, Frederick Seidel, Jon Silkin, and wherein Canada was represented by Daryl Hine and Jay Macpherson. The Smith, really, is the last major survey of Canadian poetry. The Geddes is not a survey—it is a teaching anthology, which I propose as both a defense and a criticism. Our book also needs defense and criticism. It is not the final word, but a first reconnection.

In your introduction you say that “Our aim here is to …begin establishing a beachhead of a poetry that we feel a British audience can understand and relate to.” Can you comment on the intended audience for your anthology, and how that shaped your editorial choices?

One of the puzzling aspects of the reaction to our anthology, in Canada, is how the directly-stated editorial purpose of the book is overlooked—namely, to introduce British readers to Canadian poets they might not have read before. What we’ve found in the UK is a more balanced reading, one that addresses our introduction at the outset and agrees or disagrees from there. Now, a Canadian reader is going to see this list differently. We realise that. But our starting point was to draw connections between two traditions. Our ideal reader is someone interested in English-language poetry, in poetry of the Commonwealth, in post-colonial poetry of a high calibre. We spoke with poets and critics, editors of magazines and presses in the UK to see which Canadian poets carried sway. This, often as not, presented us with a list of figures completely different from the usual reading of Canadian poetry. Here, we might have argued that so-and-so must be known and included her. But we are not apologists. Instead, we followed a different route, and said, Who is known? This brought us, interestingly, to Klein, to Page, to Avison, to Hébert, to Coles, to Sibum, to Robertson. These names are spoken with awe and wonder in weighty conversations about poetry.

To add just one final point: a nation will always look differently from outside. This is as true of Canada as it is of the UK, the US, Germany, Japan and New Zealand. There is no reason for poets to expect their tradition to resemble itself when viewed from another country: context has changed. We, as editors, are outside looking in; we have different expectations. Yet, we’re not interlopers. We have a direct connection and we see things differently, that’s all.

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Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.