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Seeing in the Dark

Interview with Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy

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Why would a poet write a radical poem and what is it?

Poets, like the rest of us, become radicalized when they become dissatisfied with the status quo. In the realm of poetics, that means writing poems that challenge dominant worldviews, values, and aesthetic practices. Throughout its long history, poetry has always had its share of such challengers. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, for example, Gertrude Stein noted, “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” Radical poets in the late twentieth-century also challenge “what is seen” and remind us that what we see-dominant subjects and subjectives- “depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” To foreground counter-dominant subjects and subjectivities, such poets “do” their poetries differently. Working against centrist, often imperialist models, they not only explore but also develop alternative forms, knowledges, and values that are grounded in diverse locations. They also foreground the linguistic and social processes that assign value and construct meaning. This is “process poetics.”

When did Canadian poetry become radical?

Radical poetries have existed in English Canada at least since the Modernist poets of the 1920s and 1930s. Our book begins with the poetic disturbances of the 1960s, which started with a small group of upstart poets in Vancouver who challenged the dominance of central Canada with TISH: A POETRY NEWSLETTER, VANCOUVER. We follow the trajectory of this poetics as it moves from the geographic based localism of TISH to counter-dominant positions inflected by class, race, gender, and sexuality. TISH poets George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, and Frank Davey are discussed, along with other experimental poets whose work has have been variously intertwined with the TISH node. They include Robin Blaser, bpNichol, the Toronto Research Group, Roy Kiyooka, concrete and sound poets, Erin Mouré, Claire Harris, Jeff Derksen, Robert Kroetsch, Lisa Robertson, and Nicole Brossard.

Why do you include a chronology of little magazines and small presses?

We want to position radical poetics within its material, discursive, and community contexts. So we begin the book with an historiography of the radical and then provide a chronology of the little magazines, small press publishers, literary festivals and other such sites that have sustained poetic experimentation even as they have also been generated by that experimentation. We also want to emphasize that these various sites comprise a rhizome-like network, that there is more than one “line,” more than one group at the forefront at any given moment. The rhizome concept posits neither the supposed equality of liberal pluralism, which masks oppressive and exploitive systems, nor the single line of avant-gardism which privileges one group. Rather it suggests a network of provisional and critical positions. It also usefully counteracts the nationalist “line” which collapses multi-directional activities into an homogenous Canadian literary family, complete with a genealogy of mothers, fathers, and rebellious or derivative sons and (mostly) dutiful daughters.

Why did you write this book together?

We decided to collaborate because of our differences as much as our shared interests. We are a generation apart: Susan Rudy went to graduate school in Toronto in the theory-based 1980s, Pauline Butling in Vancouver in the experiential 1960s. Butling’s interest in poetry began with personal friendships and later extended into her professional life; Rudy’s developed in reverse order. Rudy’s formation as a feminist took place in the 1980s; Butling’s a decade earlier. However, in the late 1980s we both moved to Calgary where Rudy is a professor at the University of Calgary, Butling at The Alberta College of Art and Design. We became friends almost immediately and two years later started work on this book, prompted by our shared feminist politics, a love of poetry, and a desire to share those interests with others in print form. We also wear the same size shoes!

How do you address the difficulties of reading radical poetry?

In our critical essays, we explore how unconventional punctuation, interrupted syntax, variable subject positions, repetition, fragmentation, and disjunction generate productive excesses in language and thought and argue that such disruptive practices create the necessary space in language for alternative modalities to be glimpsed. If the reader recognizes the processual nature of this poetry s/he too can engage in the act of producing “new” meanings.