Cage Match

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:

This is what "Not Helping" looks like.

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Canadian Literature, Reviewing

25 Comments on “Cage Match”

  1. jj Says:

    I’ve got just enough hubris that I would take both of these structuralists on at once. The ivory tower circle jerk just doesn’t do it for me – and I don’t believe it is the future of poetry.

    Now I will watch the video and be somewhat, but not entirely, humbled. (Watching now – Bok is a much more effective speaker, but Starnino is much less sensationalist and arrogant)

    Also – that poster IS bleak. Blech. Here is my revised and more accurate version:

  2. jj Says:

    also… Eunoia was gimmicky. I like crystallography much better.

    “I distrust anything that is self-consciously radical” – I somewhat agree – especially as he is relating this comment to Eunoia.

  3. voxpopulism Says:


    I don’t quite buy the argument it suggests (where most people see “academic” I just see “being thoughtful and engaged”) but that poster is the GREATEST THING I’ve seen all day. Props for the iconoclasm.


  4. jj Says:

    ok – points in favour of Bok – bringing in the globalism of the poetic online avant garde

    – also he does get some points for the fact I own two of his books and I don’t own any by Starnino (maybe Bok is just a better marketer) – still I had to google Starnino during the argument – maybe it is just because I am not deeply in the academic flows.

    And I can’t find any poems by him. Not on the first page of google… his name plus poem gave me “Eyewear” – which was okay but not noticeably interesting.

    This commenting is turning into a live blog. Read from the bottom of the page up to contextualize my comments.

    Dear owner of blog if my repurposing of your online space is offensive, my apologies in advance.

  5. jj Says:

    I would like to see a real cage match between Margaret Atwood and Christian Bok. It would be much more evenly matched than this.

  6. jj Says:

    Starnino is seriously weak. I wanted him to win because Bok is a little too high on his horse and divorced from reality for me…

    I mean, at least Margaret Atwood ventures into politics – Bok is a little more separate, which bugs me, I believe the poet has a duty to engage society politically – and Bok is more concerned about creating a monument than in engaging the populace.

    Neither the word mechanical nor the word academic is meant to convey anything deleterious. I just read Starnino as engaged in the Academics of Poetry and Bok as engaged in the Mechanics – however, both are worshipping at the same temple.

    By the way the first guy at the mic is awesome. And Bok’s answer is interesting…

  7. jj Says:

    This is awesome, Bok. Dammit. I can’t dislike you

    “Poets don’t actually, I think, aspire to write the software of reality; I’m concerned about that…”

  8. jj Says:

    oh he just lost me
    in the traffic reports
    and the walkthroughs of videogames

    you make an impact
    by merging poetry with politics.

    “Poets do write the software of the world
    but they choose not to call it that”

    “I don’t mind reading pastoral poetry if is set in the world of warcraft”

    –It is not! akin to glassblowing.

    Dammit Bok. Think of Virgil.

    I think the poet is meant to be a magician. Set deep with the lore of ancient symbols.

  9. jj Says:

    The danger of using tokens of success

    “they mean nothing in the perspective of the longevity of the work”

  10. jj Says:

    This movie will make you want to write a poem using the word “microwaveable”

  11. voxpopulism Says:

    I don’t know if “win” is really in the card either way. I’d say, in terms of debate, that Starnino got a lot of mileage out of really looking like he was engaged in what he was saying, while it sounded (accurately, I imagine) like Bok was repeating things he’s said publicly a thousand times before.

    But talking about this along the lines of win-loss really pains me. It’s poetry, it’s not zoning regulations. I liked hearing all sides of the argument, even if I really feel like, in the true critical dialectic in this country, Starnino and Bok are quite thoroughly on the same side.

  12. jj Says:

    true, they are on the same side.

    “It’s poetry, not zoning regulations” – well said – but unfortunately this poetry is even further removed from the consciousness of the average Canadian than zoning regulations – which is a travesty, in my exaggerated opinion.

    The question of relevance is important, and unfortunately for this exchange, neither poet answers the fundamental query – what is purpose of poetry in this society?

    We have Bok with his vision of literary robots and codes that say nothing except “I waz here” embedded in cells

    and Stalino with his outdated appeal to the refined tastes of the petite bourgeoisie

    both are sterile. Bok is clearly more clever and more engaging but his is a formalistic dance of precision without resonant shards of meaning

  13. voxpopulism Says:

    I don’t see either of them as sterile. It’s exciting watching Sta(rn)ino move on a bit from the tight formalism of his earlier collections. A poem like “Our Butcher”, which he reads at the top of the conversation, is exciting, and as tied to blood-and-guts reality (both in terms of content, and more importantly, sound) as anything more traditionally “proletarian” poets tend to write.

    I find Bok’s work equally fascinating. If I sound like I’m straddling the fence here, that’s why. It’s also why I really resent the either/or dispensation present in the event (and, admittedly, somewhat in the critical writing of both poets, but this is easy to overemphasize).

    I’m holding off on Bok because I’ve got a blog post coming up about one of his books, that I’m still mulling over (hint hint, regular readers).

  14. I don’t know why I bother trying to correct misconceptions with facts ’cause it rarely seems to do any good, but Jake, Carmine has never been a formalist, unless by that term you mean a poet whose lines start at the left margin and fail to hit the right. Here’s a breakdown, by collection, of how many constraint-governed poems–poems with a rhyme scheme, for I presume this is what you mean and has to be the bare minimum requirement for any card-carrying member of the Formalist Association of the Americas–Carmine has published:

    The New World: 0
    Credo: 3
    With English Subtitles: 2
    This Way Out: 1

    So that’s six poems in twelve years. And even his rhyming poems don’t typically employ a regular metre, although in one of them he does make reference to counting syllables. The rest could only be thrown in the catchall basket designated, for want of more perspicuous terminology, free verse. So, you got your wish, a lyric free verser in dialogue with a constraint machine.

  15. voxpopulism Says:

    Hey Zach,

    Thanks for the stats. Except, the event in question was not a meeting of poets, but a meeting of critics who both write poetry, and write about it.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Carmine’s critical paradigm begins with a discussion of poems as constructions and, on occasion, moves to speak of them as vocalizations of the poet’s ideas behind writing them. That’s a formalist approach. That’s all I meant.

  16. voxpopulism Says:

    Except to say that it’s not an approach I disagree with in the slightest. Poems are constructions.

  17. I strongly suggest you take a look at his essay on AM Klein as one example of how that, too, is not very accurate.

  18. Also this:

    “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.”

    is not at all the same as this:

    “Carmine’s critical paradigm begins with a discussion of poems as constructions and, on occasion, moves to speak of them as vocalizations of the poet’s ideas behind writing them.”

    You’re backpedaling.

  19. Oh, and that poster–it advertises a debate between a “poet and publisher” and a “Griffin prize-winning poet.” Doesn’t say nothing ’bout critics nowhere.

  20. voxpopulism Says:

    Thanks again for the clarifications, Zach. Point well taken on the sonnet thing.

    Starnino is never, ever going to have a public conversation where the spectre of his work as a critic isn’t the dominant force driving both the conversation and the audience’s interest in it. This is a shame, because he also happens to be a very good poet, and this fact doesn’t stand a chance against the fact of his critical output.

    Look at the poster again. The biggest words, by far, are the names. Carmine’s name is a semiotic shortcut associated more completely with poetry criticism than anyone else’s in this country.

  21. Well, here’s to taking fewer shortcuts. Christian’s right: most “poets” are stupid and lazy. Not only do they take shortcuts, but they get lost doing it.

  22. voxpopulism Says:

    I totally agree with the surface value of that last comment, and am letting to let the subtext slide, because I was raised well….

  23. I was too. My parents deserve no share of the blame for my behaviour.

    Oh, also, and this is why I posted my stats in the first place, not so much in response to the post itself: you did say something about “the tight formalism” of Carmine’s “earlier collections.” The numbers were by way of showing how empty of significance such generalizations invariably are.

  24. […] This post was Twitted by christianbok […]

  25. Jake Brown Says:

    Ouch, this “Cage Match” was a bit of a blood bath.

    Certainly one of the two contestants was out of his weight-class–Starnino was KO’d at the first fore-arm smack. A little painful to watch his defeat, surprising really, considering the written bile he has directed at many poets of all stripes–I would have hoped for at least one or two original, well-formed, and clearly stated ideas from him that didn’t have to be pre-written and delivered from the safety of his office. After many years picking this fight, I CAN NOT believe he came in so unprepared! It looked like even he was tired of his own cliche-driven, “hard-boiled” one liner- responses, culled: “Pays its way… “Elephant in the room…Dry as dust…Stack the Deck…Free Rides”? Regardless, not pretty.

    Also surprising was Bok’s recurring points on the market as goal, inspiration and legitimization. I soon guessed that this debate wouldn’t be much about passion and potential of poetry, its promise, but rather a battle about how the two see poetry, rightly or wrongly, in terms of how it is perceived by the public as well as the the taste-makers of their own respective camps.

    Inevitably some interesting opportunities for both more passion–as well as the shedding of more of the competitor’s blood–were missed.

    Some ironic overlaps and similarities arise:

    While Starnino may seem to have ideas about what *kind* of poetry we should be reading (“Good Poetry” says the Good Platonist), but he is unable to offer a reason *why* we should be reading it. First, he presents no sociological importance for poetry here (he says from the beginning of the lecture that social context is of no importance to him, as if, perhaps, Celan’s “Death Fugue” can be judged as “good or bad” outside of the context or setting of the poem, outside of the conditions of it own creation). But, interestingly, Starnino doesn’t even give what might be considered a conservative defense poetry: it’s potential for emotional or intellectual insight or pleasure, its gift of music or delight. Nothing. “Good is somehow good,” is his underlying message, and therefor should be read. Empty. Oddly too, he didn’t even fight for his own side; he seemed strangely supportive of Bok’s program, the gate-keeper and protector of something he longer believes in or perhaps can no longer aesthetically or ideologically stand behind. Where was his fight?

    For Bok–partly to do with his recurring emphasis on the relative financial and popular successes of Eunoia–it seemed ironic that often his own avant-gardist agenda came across as so populist, centrist, liberal: his likening of poetry to Twitter, advertising, science, the cultural syntax of social phenomena, book sales. While I agree with and support the idea that cultural phenomena is integral to contemporary poetry (and that the poet’s job is to extend what’s most vital in the poetic gesture, the evolution of the imagination, into other realms, social discourses and cultural fields–unseen aspects of contemporary life), I was still, like, “Man, where’s your edge, your criticality?”–certainly there are some reasons to challenge these phenomenon and structures, and not just by “fucking shit up from the inside.” I don’t know; I didn’t buy it. Sounded at times like passive acceptance.

    Starnino seemed like a closeted jazz-tap freak who for reasons he doesn’t understand is stuck defending classical ballet. My psychoanalytic side imagined him dying to Come Out, go a little “crazy.”

    Like an aging revolutionary, Bok seemed to want more “success,” as if, at least for the moment, the monarchy has fled the castle and he is happy to extend his residence there for as long as possible, enjoy the fine cutlery.

    Final thoughts: I eagerly await Bok’s new work, and hope it will indeed go beyond his earlier work in scope, scale, sure, but also in its transformative potential. Keep up the good work.

    I wish Starnino the best of luck in continuing to find and develop his own voice and creative space.

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