This is the ninth year in a row that Luther College, inspired and led by Gerry Hill, has teamed up with the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild to bring writers in the province a bit of spring inspiration. This year it was called the "Saskatchewan Poetry Summit," and included a panel, readings, and presentations by Brenda Schmidt, Karen Solie, Dan Tysdal, and Michael Trussler. The first event was a panel moderated by poet Katherine Lawrence, on the subject of Saskatchewan poetry. Can one identify something one can name, with any confidence, "Saskatchewan poetry"?
Brenda Schmidt began by talking about coming to Saskatchewan and finding on one of those rotating wire bookracks in a cafe in Outlook Barbara Klar's book of poems, Blue Field. Klar's acknowledgements--to organizations like the SWG and to poets who had inspired her, became Schmidt's first "map" of Saskatchewan poetry. Schmidt also quoted Anne Szumigalski's sense that in Saskatchewan (perhaps anywhere?) the physical landscape becomes an internal one. Brenda went on to create some elegant metaphors; if "Saskatchewan" meant "swift-flowing river," perhaps "Saskatchewan" referred to a swiftly flowing river of poetry. If Saskatchewan's watersheds are inter-connected, so are its poets. The bedrock of Saskatchewan poetry includes writers like Anne Szumigalski, Andy Suknaski, Tim Lilburn.
Michael Trussler called his brief paper "Dream Song for Eli Mandel." Michael worked with Mandel when he lived in Toronto; the "Dream Song" of the title refers to the poems of John Berryman. Michael chose to shift the conversation away from place toward time. If a human being is, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, "a gathering around a complexity," then one of poetry's strategies might be to create moments of temporal simultaneity that articulate existential and ethical entanglements between people who are temporally 'other.' These days, Michael is preoccupied by wondering who he's writing to; because space is non-discursive, you can't write to it. Michael's paper ended with a mind experiment that encouraged us to imagine Proust and Mandel sharing the same compartment on a train at opposite ends of the twentieth century.
In a less scripted mode, Karen Solie spoke of reading Frank O'Hara's poetry and finding it captured New York City, although O'Hara moved there after growing up in Baltimore and Massachussetts and studying at Harvard and the University of Michigan. O'Hara's poetry is full of detail that evokes NY; for Karen, it's that detail that matters, not some pure description of place. Putting one detail next to another allows them to resonate to create the effect poetry has that is almost beyond or even outside its words.
For Dan Tysdal, Saskatchewan speaks of poetry's openness to invention. It's a place where forces collide. In his memory, these forces include stealing Wolfman toys (and being startled by his mother's response) and making hollow point bullets (and being startled by what they do to a bird you shoot). It's the rocky terrain of local culture coming up against its larger context and setting up conflict and resonance. Later when the discussion ranged more widely, Dan observed that moving to Toronto for graduate school took him off guard. Although he'd gone there specifically to write poems, observing Toronto and Torontonians made Dan want to write fiction, not poetry. So there's a hint, a suggestion that different places get under our skin in different ways, setting up or evoking a different view of the world, a different way of observing and seeing that plays itself out in our choice of genre.
For me, there are two qualities of the Saskatchewan landscape that are almost synonymous with poetry: its spaciousness (which sometimes seems generous to me and sometimes seem like the landscape of a Beckett play to Michael) and its light. For what else does poetry do but to try to create, in its readers, the light with which to see something new, startling, and unfamiliar, and the space to create, to play, to muse, to wonder?
Dear panelists: if I've misrepresented you in any way, email and set me straight. I'll revise the blog straightaway. I'll also admit that my student days of taking coherent notes are far behind me!