A Canadian poet. Apparently they have poets out there. And . . . why not? A remarkably growing country. —P. G. Wodehouse
A few years ago, I saw Scottish poet Robin Robertson read at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal and was blown away. I wanted to buy his book, but unfortunately, the box of books Robertson had brought with him from England had got hung up in customs or mishandled or some such (as a former baggage handler, I know how easily this can happen). Pick your snafu, there were for all intents and purposes no copies of A Painted Field available in the city, much to the chagrin of at least two attendees of the festival.
Canada’s supposedly parochial poetry scene is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan these days. This trend can be seen in international literary festivals (besides Blue Met, we have Harbourfront in Toronto and the International Writers Festival in Vancouver, as well as smaller but no less vital festivals in places like Moncton and Calgary); in the Griffin Poetry Prize, which celebrates both Canadian and international poetry; in a handful of journals and magazines publishing poems by foreign authors alongside local talent; and in the obviously outward-looking verse published by the generation of significant poets now emerging in Canada. As Ken Babstock puts it in his foreword to New British Poetry, “Like stepping over the gargantuan garden wall of the Atlantic and finding clover of a completely different order carpeting the hills and cities in a deep shag, [we young Canadian poets] went at it, ravenous.”
But this tremendous appetite for non-Canadian poetry in English has translated into remarkably few local publications of foreign poets. Besides the aforementioned New British Poetry, co-published by House of Anansi (the press now owned by Scott Griffin, with Babstock at the poetry helm) and the American Graywolf Press, there have been a two anthologies of (mostly English-language) poetry from Ireland and Newfoundland & Labrador, co-published by the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland and Scop Productions in Newfoundland. As far as I know, the only recent book by a single foreign poet is Signal Editions’ 2002 co-publication, with Jonathan Cape in the UK, of Matthew Sweeney’s dark and viciously funny selected poems, A Picnic on Ice. (The Porcupine’s Quill recently published a collection from Canuck expat Marius Kociejowski, who was born near Ottawa but lives in England, where he had published all of his previous books of poetry; it would be pedantic to try and decide if he is a Canadian publishing in England or an Englishman publishing in Canada.)
The reasons for this dearth are manifold, but they can be boiled down to just one: insufficient funds. As Carmine Starnino, editor of Signal Editions, puts it, “We just can’t afford to routinely publish non-Canadians. What’s frustrating is that quality Canadian poetry presses like Signal and Anansi are poised for such projects: we have the contacts, we have the distribution, we have the readership.” Almost all English poetry published in Canada is printed by small presses like Signal and Anansi, which depend on grants from the Canada Council for the Arts for their subsistence. And the Canada Council does not subsidize the publication of works by non-Canadian authors.
And why should they, you ask? You don’t pay taxes so that the government can squander your money on foreign scribblers of verse; they should be using it to help foster the growth of a native literature, dammit! Right? Not quite. I think there are a number of good reasons for the CC to expand the range of books eligible for funding:
1) The English language is the common property of many nations and is becoming, for better or for worse, the world’s lingua franca. It is, in effect, an arbitrary act of cultural chauvinism to hinder English-speaking and -writing poets from publishing their work with Canadian presses. Whether it’s the “global village” or the “global marketplace,” the world is much smaller now than it once was and there’s more interaction between various cultures. Canada is a microcosm of this brave new world, built as it is on immigration and cultural diversity. Our poetry should have the opportunity to be just as diverse as our cities; we should be as welcoming of new literary citizens as we are (in theory at least) of actual flesh-and-blood immigrants. We should be leaders, not laggers, in promoting truly international literature.
2) Canada’s once fledgling literature is now flying high on its own and doesn’t require the same sort of jealous guardianship it once did. For reasons stated below, I think that the publication of foreign work in Canada will do more good than harm to our poets—not to mention other literate citizens.
3) Far from being an obstacle to local writers, publishing foreign poets in Canada would probably lead to an increase in the overall quality of Canadian poetry. Having the odd Briton, Australian, American or New Zealander on a given house’s list wouldn’t knock the best poets out of contention, but, by raising the bar, would squeeze out the worst of the mediocre. And it would provide more ready access to that “clover of a completely different order” that Babstock writes of. As with any organic species, cross-pollination strengthens the stock, whereas inbreeding tends to multiply flaws.
4) If a Canadian publisher wants to publish a foreign author, it seems to me a quibble to call the resulting book “un-Canadian.” Publishing is an artistic, not merely an economic, activity. The de facto embargo on foreign content enforced by the CC is more a hindrance than a help to this realm of Canadian creative endeavour.
5) If our presses pay closer attention to foreign poets, foreign presses just might take a longer look at our poets. British anthologist and Carcanet managing director Michael Schmidt recently called Canadian poetry a “short street” in his introduction to an international anthology of twentieth-century poetry in English, which contained not a single Canadian poem. Although Schmidt is wrong about the quality and depth of poetry in this country, his misapprehension can be excused in part by the way that we have, in true Canadian fashion, blocked off either end of our street with nets and played ball hockey on it. A few of our poets have, against the odds, developed international reputations and high-publicity events like the Griffin Prize may help more poets attain global recognition, but I think a more sustainable means of doing so is through international small-press partnerships, such as the ones mentioned above.
The problem, of course, is that with so small a market even for books of homegrown verse, it would be a logistical steeplechase to promote and sell poems by outsiders. This, however, seems to me more of an argument in favour of supporting publishers who want to publish poets from abroad. In a field like popular music, in which it’s arguably possible for American artists and recording labels to choke out their Canadian cousins, a certain amount of cultural protectionism makes sense. Poetry, however, having no such commercial potential nor comparable means for mass distribution, poses no such threat. If you allow Canadian publishers more leeway to publish British or American poetry, by and large they will continue to publish Canadian poetry. As Babstock said to me, “Publishers everywhere have a nativist mandate.” This is as it should be, but god, it’d be nice to see editors with vision—like Babstock and Starnino—given free rein to exercise their talents and taste. No increase in overall funding is needed; just a little more discrimination in the distribution.