Sunday, October 29, 2017

Recent reads: "The Calgary Renaissance"

Edited by derek beaulieu & rob mclennan
Published by Chaudiere Books, 2016.
One of the first things I noticed about The Calgary Renaissancea collection of experimental fiction and poetry, is that Alberta’s biggest city – the connective tissue that binds these authors – is rarely relevant thematically. As an Ontario reader living on the outskirts of Toronto’s cultural vacuum, I don’t gain much of an impression about the region’s pulse or how authors interact with their shared environment. But that isn’t the book’s mission. Instead, The Calgary Renaissance earns its bold title by forgoing geographical appraisals in favour of juxtaposing many of its radiant and diverse voices in a direct bid for national recognition.

It’s long overdue. And in recognizing more of the thirty-two authors than expected, I suspect The Calgary Renaissance doubles as a consolidation of co-editor rob mclennan’s efforts to showcase westward writers through his above/ground press (from which I credit much of my exposure). For co-editor derek beaulieu, this book serves as an extension of the role he has played as Calgary’s Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016 and, unofficially, before and since.

It’s an impressive roster eclipsed by the quality of its content. Unfamiliar authors make strong bids for my attention while familiar ones posit new sides of their writing. Starting with the former camp, I enjoyed Susan Holbrook’s “What Is Poetry” and “What Is Prose”, twin pillars of tongue-in-cheek onomatopoeia that break open form for effect, not dissection. Here, the latter piece:

What Is Prose

Prose has wit,
war, hot spies,
pirate shows.
It has powers.
A swisher top,
wiser pathos,
towers, a ship,
parishes. Two
IHOPs. Waters
whose traps I
sap, so whiter
whites. Spa or
showier taps
spew hot airs:
“Poet wash, Sir?”
Posh waiters
tow Sharpies,
shower pitas,
pestos awhir,
pastries, how!

How it spears
trophies, was
tops, was heir
to Sears. “Whip
Thor, asswipe!
Swap heros!” it
whispers to a
hipster. Aw. So
worship a set.

Another late discovery for me is Braydon Beauleau, whose “In The Aurora” suite coaxes a mercurial identity from an expanse of rich, natural imagery. The sense of momentum and discovery in this poem is masterful, evolving at such a pace that its cryptic meaning gets outshone by the chaos of its transformation. (Although I do wonder: what happened to sections iii and v?) 

Eschewing Beauleau’s densely figurative constructions, Natalee Caple’s trio of poems entice with their casual, shorn immediacy. “Packing for the Weekend (For Natalie Walschots)” is literally a list of things to pack, but the items – some commonplace and tangible (“my boxing gloves”), others absurd and impossible (“my piano-limbed internet trolls”) – accumulate in ways that beg of the reader: what kind of weekend is this, and what do we all carry around as metaphorical baggage? Alternately, her poem “For Nicole Markotic” achieves a curious tension, her language primitive in its directness but unencumbered by emotion or punctuation.

For Nicole Markotic

In August it rains and rains

I slosh more wine into my brains

until I breathe wine

You lick the back of my knees

I touch your fingers

propose we build a bridge

be minotaurs in alphabets

sew triangles over scars

knit hymens for all kinds of birds

I will write you a slim letter


The poem itself functions as that slim letter, simultaneously heavy and floating, intimate but noncommittal.

Aside from the surprise of reading new talents, the fun thing about literary collections (whether they tackle a single author’s output or an entire scene’s) is the freedom to browse the Table of Contents and choose your own launch-point. In the case of The Calgary Renaissance, I started with Jason Christie’s incendiary “This Poem Is a Ski Mask”, a thoughtful dismantling of privilege and hypocrisy. Next up was Emily Ursuliak’s “Removing the Shoe” which, despite its disjointed lines, retains the absorbing narrative details of her prose. Afterwards I flipped to Sandy Pool’s “On Anatomical Procedures”, a witty summary of clinical trials conducted on her acquaintances that judge whether Pool is a good person, with variables like social events and alcohol factored in. A skillful but lightweight palate cleanser after the gutting Undark: An Oratorio (Nightwood Editions). Such maneuvers felt akin to grazing from a delectable hors d’oeuvres table.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted mention of many contributions here. But I’ve omitted several more because, frankly, I didn’t respond to them – and that isn’t a bad thing. Such an anthology welcomes us into Calgary’s talent pool but it also allows fair-weather experimental poetry readers like myself to gauge and advance our comfort zones. Most of the authors I’ve discussed take moderate leaps without (in my eyes) abandoning form or narrative altogether. But as I revisit this collection from time to time, it stands to reason The Calgary Renaissance will further reward my interest in the experimental spectrum.

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