Thanks to Stewart Cole for a lengthy and thoughtful review of my three poetry books.
Cole wins a secret award I have been waiting to bestow, by publishing the first negative review of my work. (Starnino just misses because his reservations about Clockfire are mild by comparison to his mostly positive assessment.) Stewart, if you e-mail me your address I will mail your prize.
Cole focuses on The Politics of Knives but also reviews (more positively) my earlier books.
4 thoughts on “Stewart Cole reviews my three poetry books”
If I’m reading the past few things correctly, it seems like this current front of the avant garde is about writing almost-but-not-quite robotically, doesn’t it? Is this where that one line from Starnino calling people like you and Bök “steampunk poets” comes from?
I don’t mean ‘robotic’ as in the already tightly-written and savagely edited down syntax publishers have come to expect, but also in this sort of denial of self (as Cole highlights) and disregard for personal creativity (Goldsmith, the flarfers), with what replacing these voids being a glorification of production itself, praising the algorithm and ignoring the output.
For an example, what the Xenotext actually ends up saying might be beside the point, with what really mattering being that the Xenotext was written or made in the first place. Another example of Bök’s being Eunoia, with the fact that it is a book-length univocal lipogram being the most impressive thing about it, with what the book actually saying being a mere secondary point. Yet, in through all of it, no personal experience of Bök himself can be derived. The only conclusion you can reach about Bök himself is that he is able to write things like Eunoia, like he was some sort of machine capable of working in any harsh or limiting climate.
Outside of poetry and in the realm of long fiction, you can also find this within Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. I remember the book – how can’t one remember that book! – but [$DEITY] help me if I remember what was actually written inside of it.
It’s a very… industrious style; impressive, meticulously designed, but ultimately impersonal. Perhaps the name “steampunk poetry” would fit very well, with the only caveat about it is any half-assed critic can call it, like steam, a lot of hot air — and in the long run, they’re probably right. I’m not sure if I ultimately like it or not. On one hand, I find the “conservative” type of poetry too schmaltzy, so specific to the “lyrical, I” of the author that I, as the second person, can only relate to it by the random chance of priorly sharing a similar experience. Yet, on the other hand, the flarfers and uncreative writers out there are just so devoid of actual character that they turn out work that is just crap, excrement, a corpse of nourishment, food that has been drained of any solar energy. If you’re lucky, you can find wonderful things in the balance of the two, that offer style and – most importantly – substance which informs us.
But what is that balance? To each his own? It seems like Cole is accused The Politics of Knives of not being steampunk enough. I’ll admit, I too thought it was a bit too close to the realm of traditional poetry I so fondly dislike, but I can’t offer any alternatives that explore the themes you presented without aping what you already did with Clockfire.
What is interesting to me is that I am not an avant-garde author. I am a genre writer of horror, comedy, and science fiction, with avant-garde influences. And as you point out, The Politics of Knives is my LEAST experimental work. The moments in my work that seem most experimental are often moments when I am aping experimental techniques (instead of performing search engine compilations of text, I often write to ape the resultant style) rather than executing them. So I suppose I am a “steampunk” in that sense if in no other.
I would note that Eunoia in fact contains many lyrical moments. “The revered exegete rejects metered verse.” It’s self-reflexive text that is also lyrically self-reflective. Bok’s draft work for the Xenotext is actually taking some lyrical turns (somewhat to his dismay). So we shall see.
He has a very strong point that I tend to overuse hyperbole and rhetorical shorthands, especially in interviews. Then again, they are interviews, and in the case he cites directed at younger/emerging authors, so rhetorical bombast to draw attention. Which obviously has its risks.
In any case, it’s odd that Cole highlights the moments in POK that were explicitly added to inject some emotional dimensions during editing (e.g., despair and incomprehension at the consideration of the suicide in “He Paints the Room Red”) and reads them as the most cold and mannered moments.
I do appreciate the review on the whole. I think he is especially astute about Ex Machina. This is one of the best/only reviews of the book, and he is the only reviewer that has actually traced and discussed that book’s reading procedure at length. I also appreciate that he enjoyed “Psycho” and particularly his comments regarding the passage he cites. It’s odd that he doesn’t notice (or at least doesn’t note) that it is also the selfsame “metered verse” that Bok explicitly rejects (apparent if you just reline the passage):
She’s dead but her eye still drains open.
She’s dead face perfect, the floor screen.
She’s dead while the camera keeps looking,
as we stalk through this room mopped so clean.
Plastic, the car trunks her wet body.
Knife-chewed flesh the swamp’s swallowing.
She’s dead and this letter for her,
hurts our ears but they can’t stop talking.
Now employed the detective finds fresh death.
Late-night snack, what long nights these have been.
We can rewatch the scene with no music.
We can watch and rewatch that same scene.
She’s dead as they search through her cabin.
She’s dead all this black for blood red.
She’s dead though he knew of no money.
They have her theories but she’s dead.
So you mean to say by employing a style that deliberately makes fun of avant garde and experimental styles, some reviewers mistook you for actually being avant garde?
I wonder if there is a derivative of Poe’s Law for that… If not, let’s call it Ball’s Law, shall we?
Well, maybe not “making fun,” but I wonder if I am less of a “steampunk” and more of an anomaly. The dark side of that would be that it might mean I’m not worth considering in terms of highlighting trends in Canadian literature. So maybe I should just call myself a steampunk!
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