As a dual citizen of both the United States and Canada, and as a poet who publishes in both, I play a constant compare and contrast game as I navigate between the two literary cultures. Americans often think of Canada as just another state north of the border, though Canada has its own entirely complicated culture. Canadians look down to their southern neighbors with mystification marbled with hauteur and jealousy, the way someone who lives happily in a small house on beautiful acres looks at a neighbor who's built a McMansion right up against the property line. Yet occasionally there's an American literary idea that intrigues Canadians, if uneasily.
The idea of collecting the best poetry of the past year is one of those distinctly American ideas that has been adopted, but adapted in the great North, where people are nervous about ideas of THE BEST. Yet Tightrope Books, a small press (yes, in Canada a small press can have a very large reach) under the valiant leadership of Halli Villegas, has undertaken to launch a Best Canadian series. 2008 was our first year. As an admiring copycat of David Lehman, I am the General Series Editor. Our first judge was the young, super well respected Stephanie Bolster, a poet all Canadian literature followers know, but who is not known in the US, where the few Canadian poets known are two better recognized as prose writers (Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood), one better recognized as a lyricist (Leonard Cohen), and of course, the inimitable Anne Carson.
Our first volume of The Best Canadian Poetry in English is as different from its US counterpart as Canadian poetry itself is different from what is written to the south. Same language. Contrasting ways with it. The poets of both my countries look inward for their communities; very few poets trespass across either border. Canadian poets, accustomed to looking to the south, know the names of American poets; but American poets don’t know about their Canadian counterparts. They wonder, Who are these people?
All this week I'll be trying to tell you by introducing Canadian poets from The Best Canadian Poetry in English, with heaps of thanks to Stacey Harwood. Here's the first, by Margaret Avison, one of my faves. It has a Marianne Moore-ish prickliness, and it unfolds as a metaphysical conceit. It doesn't completely hit you at first, and I'll have more to say about this unwillingness to hit a reader on the head tomorrow. I've kept the Canadian spelling -- yes, we keep the "u" in armour (and in glamour, too).
A plague of locusts is
a reminder that the
focus on knees and thighs
in stringy and gangling
insects can inspire in-
chain-armour (below) with an
upside-down carapace (shellacked),
adoptable fashion trends.
The elderly, too,
are scant in under-
unlike locusts, these
swarm very seldom. Each may
go with a stick; a plague, perhaps first to
themselves, Yet, their
undemanding pleasure in the
world out under such a
mysterious (some days dazzling) sky
may be a to-be-
by Margaret Avison
from The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008