Quill & Quire celebrates eighty years, bpNichol, bill bissett, the Kootenay School of Writing, and more

April 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

This year, Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing industry, marks its 80th anniversary. To celebrate, the staff has put together a compendium of people, events, moments, and memories from the past eight decades of CanLit. This being poetry month, I thought I’d share two of my own contributions – one about the sound poets bpNichol and bill bissett, the other about the Kootenay School of Writing – which help spotlight the extent to which poetry is among the most innovative and boundary-pushing forms of writing in this country.

There is plenty of other content available online at the Q&Q site, including classic CanLit covers re-imagined by Canadian book designers (David A. Gee’s revisioning of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is pure genius); Little Sister’s Books & Art and Glad Day Bookshop’s battle with Canada Customs for the right to import material deemed “obscene” by government enforcers; Gillian O’Reilly on the early days of Canadian kidlit; Linda Leith on the fertile ground of English writing in Montreal; and that time Stoddart Publishing brought an elephant to a book fair (third from top).

bpNichol and bill bissett sound off

One arguably incongruous fact about Canadian sound poet bpNichol is that in the 1980s he wrote for Fraggle Rock, the Jim Henson–produced children’s television program. Nichol is more famous for his contribution to Canadian postmodernism, employing a freewheeling style of concrete, visual poetry complemented by his contemporary, bill bissett. “i break letters for you like bread,” wrote Nichol as a kind of artistic manifesto, one matched by bissett ibpNicholn the lines, “what we can know writing pomes / is also th voice uv ths things speaking thru us.”

Of Nichol, bissett, and their ilk, scholar Gregory Betts wrote, “Postmodernism in Canada begins with this kind of revolutionary fervour.” The work was not without controversy: in the 1970s, a group of politicians banded together to protest awarding grants to certain poets – bissett in particular – whose work was deemed immoral. And the more traditional camp of Canadian versifiers frequently castigates the experimentalists for their loose style and their disregard of established formal approaches.

What often gets missed is the playfulness of the more determined postmodernists, their desire to sing in ways that may appear anti-melodic, but are nevertheless infused with a brand of unconstrained joy. “What I love about their innovations,” says poet Paul Vermeersch, “is that they come from a very puckish desire to upset the apple cart of traditional poetry, not in a destructive way, not to subvert the art form wholesale, but to extend it, to add to the sum total of what is possible.” There is a kind of gleeful naïveté at work in these writers; they are, in Vermeersch’s eyes “essentially uncynical about what poetry can be and do.”

Perhaps Nichol’s Fraggle Rock connection isn’t surprising after all.

Kootenay sounds a clarion call

“Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing has been a vital nexus of poetry in western Canada since its inception in 1984,” says poet and KSW alumna Nikki Reimer, “organized by and for writers who prefer to engage with vigourous and critical discourse around writing and writing practice.”

The collective, which quickly established itself in opposition to the nation’s dominant, hegemonic cultural establishment, was born “on the run” in response to the closure of the David Thompson University Centre, writes Clint Burnham in his book The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing. The DTUC had be(image: courtesy Kootenay School of Writing)en a victim of neoliberal cutbacks by the B.C. Social Credit government of the early 1980s; that conservative ethos was ripe for opposition in Vancouver, a city that Burnham notes had a strong anarchist tradition and was one of the seedbeds for the Canadian punk movement in the late 1970s.

The importance of the KSW, says Burnham, is the way in which it functions as a place for poets “to talk about innovation in writing.”

“This was always the thing,” Burnham adds. “That writing was not just about having a career, or getting books out, but writing as an ‘expanded practice,’ as Michael Turner calls it, writing in the context of feminism (Lisa Robertson), or urban politics (Jeff Derksen), or film and art (Nancy Shaw). Writing that is unsettled (always looking for new forms) and unsettling (that resists canons, the academy, the market).”

“The collective, as the writer-run centre has commonly been known, has undergone too many iterations and divergent philosophical positions to sum up in brief,” says Reimer. “But its structure is unique among Canadian cultural organizations, and its commitment to labour politics and practice stands in refreshing opposition to the mainstream modes of cultural production in this country.”

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