Here is a snippet from Ryan Fitzpatrick (my co-editor), recorded for a talk I gave at the University of Winnipeg on Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry.
Ryan refers to a few things here:
- Michael Lista’s negative review of Why Poetry Sucks in The National Post
- Our fake review anticipating a review like Lista’s in The Winnipeg Review
- The introduction to the anthology Why Poetry Sucks
Here are a handful of my own remarks from the talk. They are disjointed and undeveloped because I was extemporizing, and also reading poems and excerpts from the introduction, and of course playing the video, but they provide a bit more context. Of course, the anthology is where the beef is at, if you were wondering where’s the beef.
One of Ryan’s own poems (“Watch for Exploding Cells” from Fake Math) first brought me to the basic idea for this anthology. I had become annoyed with the constant complaints I would hear about experimental poetry — especially about poetry by women writers — and I started to feel that there was an oppressive quality to the complaints, a power dynamic beneath their expression.
The litany of complaints often boiled down to two basic assaults, which were that (1) the poets were just fooling around and not being serious enough, or (2) the poets were being too serious and had no sense of humour but were just straining to make political or theoretical points. I thought it funny that these contradictory attacks would often be made about the same poets, and that often the really nasty reviews of experimental work were made by people who clearly had no idea how to read the work (never mind notice when somebody was making a joke). In other words, they just didn’t get it, and so isolated its humour (or perceived lack of humour) as its weak point, the way to crush it.
At the end of Ryan’s poem, he writes:
A new weapon in the war against explosions:
EXPLOSIONS! Hearing aids may explode!
It is easy to read into the double meaning of the word “cells” as terrorist cells — and also, of course, as prison cells, which is something the poem itself clearly demands given an earlier line about “Brazil’s exploding prisons!” — and so this line seems clearly to resonate as a critique of the war on terror. Yet even a simple reading like this is often beyond critics of this kind of poem, and so the use of a comedic technique often gets used as a reason to dismiss such poems — but then when comedy is missing, the poems are dismissed as too “arch.”
One specific inclusion in Why Poetry Sucks is “Chapter U” from Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a prose poem in which Bok only uses the vowel U. Much of Eunoia, including a line from this chapter, was dismissed by Carmine Starnino, and here is the most puzzling of his complaints: “These sentences — tonally trapped between Dr. Seuss and the Jabberwocky — come off a little silly” (A Lover’s Quarrel 130).
To me that is a stunning complaint, if only for negative comparisons to Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll. Yet elsewhere, Starnino complains that “humourlessness is the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phonems” (Lazy Bastardism 165).
When this book came out, Michael Lista gave it a negative review in the National Post — a review that, funnily enough, we had anticipated and parodied before it existed — we filed our own negative review of the book (called “Why Why Poetry Sucks Sucks”) with The Winnipeg Review before Lista had published his.
I appreciate Lista taking the book seriously (I’m serious!) and reviewing it, and felt that his review was everything I wanted it to be, in a way. (Although I like Lista’s poetry, I find his reviews too conservative.)
He complains that the poems aren’t funny enough, even though our introduction makes it clear that we don’t really care how funny the poems are — we care about how a comedic technique is being utilized in the poems for an experimental purpose, usually a political purpose, and therefore claim that there is something very serious about the jokes of these poets but also something very funny about the moments when they are being serious. Lista fails to see, or just doesn’t care, that our focus is on how both experimental poetry and comedy use similar techniques to unveil power relations.
So why does poetry suck? What interests me most, in poetry or fiction, are texts that demand reader participation but then structure or reflect on that participation as a traumatic or terrible thing. So what most interests me in poetry are what Gregory Betts calls “post-avant” poets, who often use poetry to advance social critiques of power relations, but at the same time self-critique the value of offering these social critiques in poetry.
The world sucks because of power, but poetry sucks for not being powerful.