Why '1996' is one of the most important Canlit books of 2013

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Digital and lexical grooves bring a new voice to Canadian poetry

In an age where the Beiber tearing world of internet fan hysteria never wanes, it’s safe to say in no version of reality will Canadian poetry ever experience the same sort of fanaticism.

Yet, if you know a poet, or better yet, if your sister or brother is dating a poet, you might have heard just enough to confuse you about the entire industry. Regardless, poetry books exist, are published, discussed, promoted and marketed on a daily basis.

The statistical side of Canadian poetry is something philosophical, a bit frightening and at times, tedious.

With so many poetry books being published, so few spots for top dog in prizes and the chatter around vanishing review opportunities -- as a former books editor we received approximately 60 poetry books a year and reviewed 12-20 annually -- perhaps local hype is the only hope for a singular poetry title from an unknown to make it up the poetry charts so to speak.

Like any genre within an industry, Canadian Poetry itself is a perennial water cooler topic bubbling all the live-long day. Every year a crop of poets new and old make short lists, are heralded as must-reads and get lauded by cart-wheeling editors and peers.

Over the last decade, with awards such as The Griffin Poetry Prize, The Walrus Poetry Prize and The Montreal Poetry Prize, and small press initiatives such as Tightrope Books Best Canadian Poetry in English series or Rob Mclennan recently editing the Canadian section for the US journal New American Writing, poetry as a subject of book media attention is anything but a marginalized and neglected genre.

In his The Globe and Mail column a few months ago, novelist Russell Smith charted poetry’s recharged batteries in Canada. Listing off examples like an episode of Law & Order, Smith also cites the internet as panacea to poetry’s quiet riot.

"Quite simply, it is easier to read and share poems now, and people are actually doing it," he muses. Add the "poem a day" app, the return of TTC poetry series and poets becoming more active on social media putting an end to the stereotype of poetry being something distant and intangible for other crowds.

Recreation, visitation and the idea of slumming it in one’s own self identity could be the best way to describe a new movement in Canadian writing.

The autobiographical element in poetry is perhaps more visible these days simply because poets are riffing off their own digital and lexical grooves to find their poetry. Diaries, emails and conversational shrapnel find their way into this modern voice.

Take Elizabeth Bachinsky’s I Don't Feel So Good. It is a thin volume comprised of material selected from the handwritten journals and notes she went through from 1986-2012; one example of the riffing off the self. The collection’s voice is personal, inventorial and at times densely subjective and self-parodying.

And that brings us to 1996, poet Sara Peters debut collection, wherein the poet moves from first person confessional to portraits of boys and girls with distinct voyeuristic conjuring, all the while playing with voice, age and context -- all key to Peters work.

In these pared down vignettes of human intensity, the book feels as though it could be ushering in a jump in the Canadian poetry voice, moving away from the flip flop of language poetry and abstraction to an honest voice that, as Leonard Cohen once wrote in his poem "A Kite is a Victim" is "lyric and pure."

The poem "Red Cloth" revisits and perhaps re-imagines a random party. From the opening lines the reader becomes a fly on the wall, seeing a guest in orange glasses and following him to the beach. The poem’s interior relies on a cunning polarity between desire and situation, between the unavailable and excess, the absurd and the normative without becoming overtly surreal.

"I sat in the sand and counted my bracelets. The man in orange glasses said Cape Breton’s so green -- like living inside a big salad!"

In "Romance" Peters exhumes a teenage tryst, adding bucolic dialogue to lift us away from an otherwise shy teen spirit language. "The air smells like the mulch of primeval concupiscence! I cried, and what could you do but agree?"

In a poem where the sex is described as athletic and wise, the setting rural but wired, the poem is a contradiction in charm, desire and memory.

In "Abortion" Peters doesn’t decorate the landscape with acuity and turbulence: "One poster featured a twenty-two week fetus, its head held by latexed fingers, an American quarter" while outside "the gravel shoulder was bright with trash."

While some poets bemoan the continuous shrink of actual book review pages, a deluge of dedication to the critical side of Canadian poetry is alive and well in literary journals nationwide including: Canadian Notes & Query, Matrix, Arc, The Puritan, subTerrain, The Rusty Toque, Canadian Literature and The Antigonish Review.

The drawback to larger newspapers doing less coverage on poetry is microscopic when you consider the amount of review opportunity a poetry book actually has in this country. However, the legitimacy and visibility of a review in a national newspaper seems to overshadow the debate.

As for those who don’t swim in poetry channels but might be susceptible to the genre’s charm, how would anyone expect a typical Canadian working class nine-to-fiver to hear about the latest poetry books without the help of a larger media outlet?

While discussion around Canadian Poetry is alive and well in independent and community generated book factions, it has still yet to catch on in a consistent manner in the mainstream. The shrinking to non-existent coverage in larger-read media outlets means those not "in" the poetry crowds are losing a chance to be exposed to it.

A panacea may be on the rise with the fusion of contemporary poetry and the new book media accessibility with new poets like Peters who use the art form to explain a form of the self with a calm, direct and honest balm in regard to personal story and identity instead of that old adage of maintaining a clear divide between mainstream and indie, or in this case, poetry and other genres of literature.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of the poetry collection Let’s Pretend We Never Met. He just completed his second book of poetry Planet of the Apes and is publishing his novel Savage 1986-2011 in October with Vancouver’s Anvil Press.

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