Friday, November 17, 2006

where are today's poetic boosters?

Sometimes I worry that I'm not as productive at work as I should be. And I'm not talking here about being unproductive because of procrastination - something I've long battled - but because I get too wrapped up reading the stuff I'm supposed to be processing and sorting. (For those that don't know, I'm an archivist who deals primarily with literary papers.) Today was a perfect example. For the past few days, I've been working on the papers of a Canadian poet. The box I was rooting through for much of the day today were his notes and research material for an unfinished book (and descriptive bibliography) on the history of Contact Press, perhaps the most important small press in Canada to emerge post-WWII.

I got caught up reading the letters (xeroxed because they were from other archives, although the library I work at has a fairly extensive collection of Contact Press material) that Raymond Souster, one of the co-founders (along with legends Irving Layton and Louis Dudek) of Contact, wrote to two American poets, Cid Corman and Charles Olson. It's almost a form of addiction for me: reading correspondence from 40 years ago! Ok, it has to at least be interesting correspondence. This stuff was great: Souster was primarily writing about the poetry scene in Canada and what the press was producing (I couldn't help smiling when I was reading his note to Corman in 1961 about an exciting new talent in Toronto, "a girl named Gwen Macewen," who at the time was only 20; he had already identified her as someone to watch), but there's also stuff about baseball (and mostly dealing with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League) and jazz. If someone wanted a quick snapshot of the literary scene in Toronto (and a little bit of Montreal) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these letters are proverbial treasure troves.

What strikes me most about Souster's correspondence is how passionate he is about the whole literary movement, particularly poetry, in Canada at that time. Some of it is gossipy, to be sure (and who among us doesn't enjoy indulging in gossip when it concerns people and subjects we're interested in?), but there's also real substance to his passions and his arguments. There's almost a sense of urgency to his discussions about poetry - he wonders about the next generation of poets, about whether they're impassioned enough, whether they're going to carry the torch to the next generation. It got me thinking: is the poetry scene in this city like that today? Do people argue about the "importance" of poetry? Are there "movements" or philosophies of poetry that poets adhere to (or discount, for that matter)? Is there a vibrancy to these arguments? I'm not a poet so I can't say for certain. (And it's funny: I find myself less interested in the poetic works that Souster writes about than the personalities involved. I wonder if that reflects poorly on me?) But it is something I've been thinking about. (Don't worry: it doesn't keep me up at night.)

On a totally unrelated note, watched (again!) Before Sunset this evening. I was feeling a mite down and I find it's almost a form of therapy for me. There's something about that ending - Julie Delpy dancing to Nina Simone - that always leaves a smile on my face. Hope. Optimism.


corvus said...

I don't know that I have much to add to this, as it's been so long since I was involved in the poetry scene at all. Even when I was I was pretty much semi-conscious, just doing my own thing, hanging out with one or two close friends, and never taking part in any kind of factional or aesthetic "movements" or disputes. But I assume they must have existed, and I guess I was sort of kind of a bit aware that they were going on. As they still do, no doubt. It's odd - I like intellectual/aethetic debate and theorizing but I never got into the cut-and-thrust stuff.
Of course neither I nor anyone I was close to was functioning remotely at the level of Souster, Layton, Dudek et al! We were small fry.
With your privileged access to original literary materials you're probably better positioned than most of us to assess the state of Canada's literary world. And I don't just mean the 40-year-old stuff either: from what you've mentioned here and elsewhere you seem to be in touch with writers who are very much active right now. I bet that as you get more exposure to this kind of material you'll start exploring the literary scene more in your own reading, and develop a really current, well informed sense of who's who and what's what.
oops - gotta run

writer_guy said...

Truthfully, I find myself so busy with dealing with the past literary world that I don't have a keen sense at all of what's currently going on. Even my recent readings show my current bias: Matt Cohen's memoir, the bio on Gwen MacEwen, and I have Fetherling's memoir about the late 1960s scene on my bedside table - actually it's on the floor, but you get the picture. I'm trying to stay current through a few friends, but I'm not plugged into the literary scene here at all. Perhaps I should make that a goal for next year.

All that being said, it's a pity that Souster never wrote a memoir. He's still alive, but he's in his mid-80s and I don't think he's writing. There's still hope for Dennis Lee though: now there's a guy that would have a great memoir in him considering his importance to the Canadian literary scene of the past 40 years.

corvus said...

But you do seem to be dealing with some current literary types like Atwood for example. Then again, Atwood has a reputation so firmly based on decades of achievement that in a sense she's already fixed, a 'monument' in the flesh, and maybe not really current if you take current to mean living and breathing poetry in the streets. Actually, no, not at all current in that sense!

Nothing I say on this topic should be taken seriously. Pretty much anyone is more current than I am.

On the topic of getting more current - yes, you could make yourself more informed by a determined effort, finding out where all the little, vital presses and reading series are and attending to them, but the best way is probably to be a writer yourself.

I think off the top of my head when doing these posts. No warranty of consistency, express or implied, is intended, and no redress shall be made for any cases of inconsistency.