Bumf Sloth, or, How to Cash in on the Myth of the Canadian MFA Factory

I’m coming out and saying this knowing that the book whose jacket copy I’m about to quote will likely be quite good, and will likely contain work by some number of my friends. Okay, but what I want to talk about is this pull from the back of Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry, edited by Robyn Sarah and likely arriving on shelves this spring….

“The poems have been hand-picked by editor Robyn Sarah, both for their qualities as individual poems and for the ensemble they create. The contributors’ ages span five decades, bringing to bear the perspectives and concerns of different life stages. This is not the latest crop of MFA’s in Creative Writing, but a foraged gathering of eleven strongly individual poets coming from different regions, different backgrounds, and different walks of life. What they have in common their uncommon ability to explore our shared human condition in words that resonate.”

Okay, to start with: Canada doesn’t have a “crop of MFA’s”. Canada has three institutions that grant MFAs in creative writing. That’s a shitty crop. Nobody is getting fed off that crop. Also, nobody anywhere has a “crop of MFA’s”. They could conceivably have a crop of MFAs, however, as MFAs are not capable of possession.

Second: “different backgrounds, and different walks of life”. Prediction: Eleven poets: 8 white, 1 African-Canadian, 1 Native-Canadian, 1 Asian-Canadian. Am I jerk for guessing? Fine, prove me wrong.

If this is a grumpy post, I apologize. But, a message to my fellow “new voices” out there: It’s a limiting thing to be introduced as a rejection of something else. Every third first novel I see has some sort of blurb or bumf on the back extolling it as the cure for the common Canlit. We’re so keen to find this we don’t even need it to exist in the book’s aesthetics. Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller-winner was Grade A, centre-of-mass Canadiana, but it got embraced as a radical young Turk because it happened to have been published outside of Toronto.

I don’t think poetry has it this bad, yet, but we’re certainly willing to go there. And I understand that Vox Pop, a blog written by a young poet mostly concerning other young poets, is not necessarily part of the solution. But I’d like to avoid being part of the problem. Who is the back of this book written for, exactly? Is someone going to come across it, read the back, and embrace the left-field pyrotechnics of iconoclastic aesthetic rebel Robyn Sarah? Ouch. Not everything is Nickelodeon, Cormorant Books. Least of all yourselves.

Explore posts in the same categories: Book Industry, Canadian Literature, Collaborations, Poems in the Wider World

8 Comments on “Bumf Sloth, or, How to Cash in on the Myth of the Canadian MFA Factory”

  1. Okay, this catalogue copy’s pretty crapulent, in part for the reasons you identify, Jake, but mainly because it’s an anthology of 11 poets and it names none of them. That said, there’s a word for assuming that people of (roughly) the same ethnicity constitute a homogeneous mass. I think you know what that word is, dude. Poetic diversity and ethnic diversity ain’t got much in common, so even if your hunch as to the demographics of this book are right, they’re irrelevant considered in isolation from the poems.

    I’m excited by this venture of Cormorant’s, really looking forward to the two Taylor books. Two white guys named Taylor. Bet the books’ll be pretty similar…

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    For the record, I agree re: diversity. I’m not saying it’s how the word SHOULD be used, I’m predicting it’ll be used that way this time.

    The tell being that blindingly smug “all walks of life” line. Which is the line your WASPy grandmother uses when commenting on the people coming out of the Greyhound station….

  3. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the Maritime equivalent of Greyhound buses and stations over the last few months and one thing I’ve noted is that most of the people are white! Course, it is the Maritimes… And it says “different” walks of life. Which is much …. different from “all.” And is vague enough to be ineluctably true.

  4. voxpopulism Says:


    Somewhere up there, you answered your own question.

  5. Miller Says:

    BOOOOOOOOOO Cormorant.

  6. marvelist Says:

    Your ‘Second: different backgrounds and different walks of life’ comment made me pee a little.

  7. […] So, we should embrace the return of Cormorant’s poetry list. Embrace it good. Except for this book, which I may still embrace, but I need to take a couple months to recover from the cover […]

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