You should all take 99 minutes out of your workday sometime this week and watch the entirety of this discussion recently posted on Vimeo between Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino. It comes out of the ridiculously titled “Cage Match of Canadian Poetry” hosted by the friendly Calgarians at Mount Royal University, and emceed by one Kit Dobson.
I’m about a third of the way through as I type this, and what’s notable is the body language. Bök is something of a professional public intellectual, so he’s more composed, but Starnino looks visibly embarrassed at being put forward as the single embodiment of an ill-defined, but likely large, element of Canadian poetry. I understand that the title is hyperbole, but “Cage Match”? Really? I just watched some cage matches on Spike TV tonight, and I gotta say, the two experiences really didn’t strike me as that similar. In one, two well-trained men in boxer shorts attempted to decapitate each other and, in the other video, two well-trained men in nice suits took turns beginning sentences with variations on “I think what ___ is trying to say is….”
This is, so far, a pretty exciting conversation, but I don’t for a second buy Bök/Starnino as the major critical dialectic in Canadian poetry. While one, generally, comes from a traditionalist mindset and the other is avant-garde, what matters is that both men are formalists at their core. The fact that Bök wants to write in genomic code and Starnino is into sonnets is secondary to the fact that the great professional theme for both is the use of constraint as a path to artistic freedom. A more representative conversation would be between the constrainers and the free-versers. But maybe the free-versers don’t have a spokesperson who’s talented or persuasive enough to hang with these two at an intellectual level.
That being said, Bök and Starnino still have legitimate points of disagreement. But what, I imagine, is the big take-away from an event like this is that poetry is not something that exists well within borders. It’s nice watching both men give pause to consider other ideas (even other ideals). This is what happens in a conversation, it’s not what happens in a cage match. Again, I understand that the title is just a piece of marketing, but for all the real and imagined rifts we have in Canadian critical culture right now, I can’t think of a better example of what’s wrong than the bleak, essentialist image contained in this poster:
As I watch on, Starnino and Bök both seem genuinely interested in the conversation. Certainly, they are two men who have thought a lot about their poetic preferences and have made an artistic voice out of the series of reactions carved by their critical ones. So they know what they like, and they know how to express themselves. Still, there’s something deeply cringe-inducing about trucking these two dudes out like they’re competing candidates for some municipal councillor job. When you bring something as subjective as poetry into an arena as both practical and definitive as a public debate, you set expectations—answers, winners, losers, the final taking of sides, the banishment of failed ideas, etc. And Bök and Starnino know that’s not really how it works. Which is maybe what I’m seeing on their faces during those intros.
People should watch the video, though. For the conversation, not the battle of paradigms the spectacle suggests. Or, if not this video, they should be familiar with the ideas the video contains. The event was more of a summary of the last 10 years of poetic argument, so if you’ve picked up a familiarity with that argument elsewhere, good for you. But if you’re a new poet and you get through the whole thing without anything at all to take away from either speaker, I’m not sure what to tell you. This stuff should be terrifying and essential to all of us. Maybe you’re so certain of your own poetics that you can go untouched by any of the varied opinions expressed (if so, fine, but remember what I said about borders). Maybe you’ve written off critics as a species, altogether. This could be valid too. A handful of people have written great poems without ever reading anything about great poems. Are you one of those people? If so, why are you wasting your valuable fucking time here?
I’d argue that a love for writing, a love for reading, and a love for talking about writing and reading are essentially the same thing. And if some part of that essential triptych has fallen-off for you, it was likely caused by a bad experience—a botched education, the lack of good book-picking skills, or maybe some false assumption about what criticism should be. The fix for all of these can best be discovered at a sit-down like the one portrayed in the video. For a few minutes, here and there, both speakers transcend the event to not just sound like men paid to represent a movement, or to sell you something. The sound like two people trying to express why what they know to be important is important. As epiphanies go, this is a small one, but I’ll take it.