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Zach Tough

Zach Wells
There is a Canadian poet-critic called Zach Wells who fancies himself a man of the people, and he proudly guards the borders of Canadian poetry and letters.  As far as I can tell, Wells is not widely published outside of North America, but he seems, in this recent review for a well-known online American magazine, to have gone out of town, for the bitter-bile sweepstakes.  His review is a model of what, exactly, makes Canadian poetry so small, in the main.  Its outlook is provincial, pinched, and unflinchingly ungenerous.  His main argument is that it is difficult to anthologise Canadian poetry.  He then takes myself and co-editor Evan Jones to task for trying to do just that, when we put together the first British anthology of Canadian poetry in over 50 years.  No imagination is used to conjure with just how improbable, and by extension, challenging, such a project was, to conceive and achieve.

Rather, the focus is unrelentingly trivial - typos, poems and poets excluded, and the general aim ad hominem - an unworthy approach, I would have thought, to a legitimate publication by a fine press.  Firstly, he suggests that David McGimpsey is only included because he is a friend of mine.  This is so crass as to be shocking.  McGimpsey is widely beloved in Canada, a best-selling, hugely influential poet of genius.  It took no special favours to include him, and suggesting thus puts a dark cloud over his work for thousands of online readers, which is unfair to a poet, whose only sin is to be in the book.  Wells further suggests that our introductions are "undergraduate" - which is a funny thing for an autodidact to say of two academics with PhDs; I am not sure how many undergraduates spend five years reading every Canadian poem of the last 100 years, but so be it.

Wells then goes on to accuse us of slapping French Canada in the face, by bothering to include some translations of French poets.  Given that no other major Canadian anthology of poetry edited by English Canadians has bothered to try and at least indicate that French-writing poets exist in Canada, for over 50 years, this seems a rather unfair attack. Some slap, some face. Indeed, most of Wells' comments seem generated by a machine built by a Rottweiler - they bite with monotonous industry.  He clearly has "hatchet job" taped up on the wall in front of his keyboard.  This is a tedious pity.  It is true that a few typos crept in to this anthology, as they do to most books.  They have been noted and will be corrected for the next edition.  However, to complain that we misuse the word "Modern" is absurd.  Wells might have wanted to check the OED.

He would have realised we were using the word in the way it is commonly used in the British context; if the word is ambiguous, so be it.  As poets, that is to be welcomed, not frothed at.  His claim that our selection process was cack-handed is illogical.  By definition, the one thing that editors of anthologies comprehend is who they include - we knew what we were doing.  If Wells wishes to question our selections, so be it.  But to have it both ways, to say our selections are both incompetent, and also mendacious, seems absurd.  There is a glimpse of a different review here, when Wells actually admits that we have included some of the great, often unsung Canadian poems.  However, the tireless editors are not credited with this.  For that would imply that Wells would have to admit the existence of minds greater than his, working at some remove from his little train set - that is, the set of all things that include Wells.  Wells should be ashamed of himself - he has just set back the cause of encouraging Canadian poetry abroad with his shabby little attack.  Meanwhile, here are some quotes about the anthology that are, shall we say, more even-handed.  One final note, the book came out in 2010.  Nice to see it still generating so much interest.  It seems to have hit a nerve.

Praise for Modern Canadian Poetry: an anthology:

I can think of no equivalent for what Swift and Jones have attempted: to rebuild a national canon from scratch using the most obscure figures. Is it subversive? Well, factor in that Carcanet is one of the U.K.’s leading poetry presses, that the last foreign-published Canadian poetry anthology appeared half a century ago, and that many British readers will take their first cues about Canadian poetry from this book – then you get a sense of the exhilarating sneak attack that has been perpetrated on our image abroad.
-Carmine Starnino, Quill & Quire

‘I could make a list of all my favourite Canadian poets who are excluded from this volume because of the editors’ high modernist interests. But they have defined the story they want to tell, and they have every right to do so. There is no rule saying that editors have to be democratic or representative in their choices. And, given those choices, I like what they have done. I don’t even have to be British to appreciate it!’
-Robert Lecker, Canadian Literature

‘This is a lovely book; full of poems that really stand up, and to which you will keep returning.’
-Ian Pople, The Manchester Review

‘Swift and Jones…have put together a wonderful anthology.’
-Michael Lista, National Post

‘’The reader...will experience sweet discoveries ranging from the territory of early twentieth century poets W.W.E. Ross and Alfred Bailey to later poets John Thompson and David Wevill, from French-Canadian Anne Hébert to the likes of Robyn Sarah, Don Coles, and Mary Dalton.’
-Ingrid Ruthig, Northern Poetry Review

[T]he most daring reassessment of our country’s canon in years… In a better world, which is to say an alternate reality, this compact and highly readable anthology would be the book your CanLit course makes you buy.’
-Jason Guriel, Maisonneuve

‘Riots broke out in downtown Montreal earlier in the month after the launch of a new anthology of contemporary Canadian verse at the Bloated Behemoth Book Store. That book, it was later discovered by a man who had subjected it to forensic examination, contained shockingly little verse by poets born in Canada. Several hailed from south of the border, and a third is said to have been resident in London (England), earning a meager living as an antiquarian book dealer and 'practising orientalist', for the past several decades. Margaret Atwood was not even represented in the collection…’
-Michael Glover, The Bow-Wow Shop


Poetry Pleases! said…
Dear Todd

My favourite Canadian poets remain Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. I have my own doubts about modernism and often feel that modernist bores should be locked up with only the complete works of Gertrude Stein for company!

Best wishes from Simon
Anonymous said…
Todd, I often feel you have very little humour, especially when it comes to your critics or yourself. I read Wells' article and found it to be childish (and perhaps lower than undergraduate considering his constant use of contractions) and spiteful. Wells is unsure of what he actually wants from a Canadian poetry anthology and one gets the feeling from reading his review that if you had taken his advice he would have criticised you for that too. Due to his unspecific and wide-ranging attacks on the article, it becomes clear that Wells' issue is with the editors and not with the anthology itself, using anything to bring down your work and commend his own intelligence for noticing it.

In short: Don't justify yourself to your detractors, as it makes you look like a humourless bore. You do not need to explain your work, let it speak for and defend itself.

Daniel, the one thing I don't lack is a sense of humour. But thanks for the comment.
As a Canadian poetry lover and sometimes poet (I think I may have met you briefly at the anthology launch in London...), I agree that Canadian poetry is dogged by provincialism - it's an even tinier world than poetry establishments in some other country and they are a bit too much into scratching each other's backs. But I have encountered Canadian poetry that I really love, particularly P K Page, and also Al Purdy, Phyllis Webb, etc. All older or dead, of course; I'm not too well up on what's happening currently, or haven't found it that interesting.
I skim-read it and thought the the central concern, in the admittedly widest possible context, was not wholly dissimilar to the one you had when Lumsden left you out of the British poets anthology. I seem to recall that you did a fair bit of, erm, outspoken flagging up of your concerns around his poetic gathering. You made a front page announcement of your disagreement with it, in no uncertain terms put a case, one could argue, is not unlike your countryman in Canada. The productive event that occured in that po-biz flexing was that the frostiness a detached reader detected between you and Roddy, dissolved as you actually spoke instead of winding figments of fantasy to negative ends. If Wells were to come here and make his case, poetry would be the winner. No?

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