An Open Letter To Carmine Starnino
Let me start by laying down the bread for a Canadian-Shit sandwich, which is the phrase used to describe the act of criticizing someone but bookending it with niceties.
Carmine, as you know I respect and admire you as a critic. In the interview you did for CV2 there are a number of things that made me happy. As a number of people have said, it’s a great interview. But it’s also a flawed interview.
Before I begin, let me offer up a confession, which is that I find the whole dialogue around reviewing and literary culture dead boring from all sides.
What I do find interesting in this case is that when Michael Nardone made some accurate insights about your interview, you said, “I don’t recognize myself at all in your description of me.”
In a number of ways Nardone is right. So I’d like to help you out here by giving you a few examples of why I think that some people think you are a total asshole. Now I should probably put in a disclaimer pretending that I’m not actually calling you an asshole, just positing a theory about why some people think you’re an asshole, but really, yes, I do think you sound like an asshole in a couple of places in your CV2 interview.
Let me lay down the bread again: much of the interview is great, constructive and thoughtful. It contains many of the gems that prove you have important insight to share. But the interview is uneven and there are a couple frustrating responses that I think have undermined the stronger points you raise.
A prime example of this is your comments about Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) that are actually in themselves a type of “Lazy Bastardism.” Simply put, I think they make you sound like an ill-informed jerk. It is these “Lazy Jerkisms” that taint your work and for me (and others) they actually push readers away from the meaningful insights you can be counted on to provide.
But even worse, your Lazy Jerkisms then lead to this god-awful literary bickering that is, from all sides, frustrating to watch.
So as an example of what I mean, let me go through your remarks on CWILA and make a few observations.
“But, for me, the real work is much larger than an annual ‘count’ and the panicky responses around it.”
This is a lazy statement on a few levels but mostly it shows that you are unaware of your subject. From day one CWILA aimed and succeeded to be more than an annual count of literary reviews and a “panicky” response to the numbers. Have you read the argumentative prose introducing the counts? This is an example of thoughtful writing free of panic-inducing calls to action.
CWILA’s board created the critic-in-residence position and started commissioning and publishing criticism for the exact purpose of making a positive contribution and being about more than just the count. As specific and excellent examples of contributions to literary dialogue that came about through CWILA’s efforts, I can cite Brecken Hankock’s interview with Lisa Robertson, Erin Moure’s essay on translation or any number of the interviews CWILA conducted with literary reviews editors from across Canada.
By implying that CWILA is nothing much more than the count, and that its critical discussions do not amount to ‘real work’, you show your ignorance of CWILA’s contributions to literary culture in this country. In other countries, too, since CWILA’s critical discourse is increasingly being read abroad. So of course people who have volunteered their time and energy to work and write for CWILA would take this as you saying that their work is not of the “real” variety.
My frustration here is focused around the fact that you do, eloquently, advocate for just the kind of critical discourse that CWILA promotes, but then don’t see that CWILA promotes it. I can’t see what you’ve gained from this slight but I can see that you have alienated part of your readership, even though that readership is in agreement with you on the need for more rigorous literary dialogue and they are actively doing something about it.
Your praise for CWILA also comes across as insincere in that Canadian-Shit-Sandwich kind of way. Should CWILA members be “proud” of their work that is not real and is of such low gravity that it elicits nothing more substantial than panic? With this in mind I see your compliment to CWILA as nothing more than a rhetorical platform from which you are more comfortable offering brash and biased criticism.
“We need to embolden young women. They need to be given permission to feel that writing criticism isn’t a creative and moral betrayal.”
This is perhaps a hard one for me to comment on because I think we may disagree with what it means to “embolden young women” and if it is possible to embolden someone simply by giving them permission.
I take a lot from your criticism and I think it could be said that your criticism “inspires” or “challenges” but I do not see how your criticism could be seen to “embolden” anyone who does not have the end goal of separating the feeble hacks from the “real” writers based on the stiff criteria which you are advocating for, if not imposing on other writers, through frequent referrals to some all-important literary hierarchy.
This does not mean I’m against negative reviews but I do dislike the idea of the critic as the gatekeeper to “The Canon,” and you often write from the position of this gatekeeper. See, for example, the title of your anthology “The New Canon.”
So negative reviewing is not the issue to my eye. The issue is pitting various poetic works against each other as if 1) the canon exists in some ultimate state, 2) literature can be scored with clear winners and losers, and 3) we should really give a shit about “The Canon” anyway.
Often you take the position of not emboldening but hacking back at those whose careers are in need of pruning. I can see the reason for taking on writers who you believe to be overvalued but I don’t think you can do that as one of your primary measures and then come back and claim that you want to embolden writers. The pruning job may get done but it comes at a cost. On this one I don’t think you can—as they say—have your cake and eat it too.
In understanding my own writing career, and the writing career of all writers I know, skill requires time to develop and emboldening requires patience and acceptance of bad or mediocre writing. This is not to say that I think that you should put away your critical mind and concentrate solely on being a self-help coach who praises the mediocre writing of young writers, but it does mean that your challenging of CWILA through a statement about the need to truly embolden young writers is absurd.
If you are advocating for the younger generation of poets to get rigorous, think hard and shine up “The Canon” real pretty, then all I can say is god help us; you’re going to kill poetry through a type of narcolepsy brought on by the absolute dreariness that cloaks overly ambitious writers like the ones you often promote as examples of those doing “the real work.”
“This is why I was so mortified when CWILA posted Jan Zwicky’s essay against negative reviews where she states that “in public, we keep our mouths shut.”
Your mortification seems to run contrary to your assertion that dialogue should be encouraged in the literary community. This is what Michael Nardone[i] was getting at when he paraphrased you as saying: “There can be diversity, but only on *my* terms.”
As for my own feelings on Jan’s essay: above all I see that essay as a reflection of who Jan is as an intellectual. Is she a pugilist who is ready to defend the honour of “The Canon” by knocking off the weaklings? No. Do we all have to put down our boxing gloves because she doesn’t own any? No.
I’m okay with Jan’s view on criticism, primarily because I understand that it doesn’t apply to me and that it is offered up not as a bill of law but as an opinion. Criticism does not need or benefit from having a unified mission.
You can read Jan’s essay as an attack on your own way of being in the world and you can insist that it is so without merit that it should not even be published or discussed, but try to consider that the diversity of community that many people crave will come from allowing a range of attitudes to exist, even if they are contrary to your own view of what criticism should be.
By shutting people up, or in Jan’s case, as you put it on your Vehicule blog, “knock[ing] some sense” into her essay, you are, in fact, creating a playground where many fine thinkers simply won’t want to play, even when they are in agreement with you, as I am, that negative reviewing has its place.
As far as accusations of misogyny go, I will not pass judgment, primarily because I don’t think you are a misogynist. However I would like you to consider that your aggressive support of Zwicky being called “stupid” happened at a time when Zach had published a poem called “Citric Bitch” which many see (and rightfully so) as an attack on Lemon Hound who is of course an outspoken female critic. And after trading barbs with Zwicky in The National Post Michael Lista sent Zwicky a personal correspondence that I would call completely inappropriate at best and at worst a type of intimidation letter.
Jan requested Lista’s permission to publish the letter because she felt that the tone of this private gesture was relevant to the larger public debate. But Lista did not want the letter published and indicated that it was only meant for her.
I have seen the letter and agree with Jan that the tone is threatening. I also agree with Jan that unmasking this type of action should be part of the debate. It should also be a factor in your critical thinking when you consider your role as critic in a community where many people (particularly women) are silenced by a number of cultural attitudes that include a discourse that is often dominated by androcentric “canon-making” pretense and lacking in a type of humility that many of us believe is not something that silences rigorous critical thought but offers a path to it.
It is these cultural attitudes that CWILA is trying to name, and as they do this they are being told by many of those who enjoy privilege from the status quo, that they are engaging in nothing more than paranoia or as you put it “panicky responses.”
So let me recap the context for you. Zach “Citric Bitch” Wells tried to (as you put it) “knock sense” into Jan Zwicky’s essay; Michael Lista called Zwicky “stupid” and sent her a nasty personal letter, and you are mortified that Jan’s essay was even published let alone discussed by members of CWILA. Now after all of this you are espousing the need to embolden young female writers and take credit for giving Elise Patridge and Barbara Nickel “the sense their thinking was larger, less self-centered.”
In your interview you explain the success of the Lemon Hound site as having to do with the fact that “female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover.” I can’t agree with your description of Lemon Hound working like a female “wolf-pack” but I do agree with your assessment that female critics may desire cover particularly as they negotiate a critical community that includes the aggressive nature of a group of male critics that does indeed work like a pack. It was, after all, not one of you but three of you that attempted to “knock sense” into Jan Zwicky.
“Why would an organization whose mandate is to encourage female reviewing publish a piece that actively discourages speaking one’s mind?”
CWILA has published over 50 literary texts in the form of interviews, blog posts and essays. Why not publish one essay on positive reviewing? Why is Jan’s point of view constantly referred to as embodying CWILA’s objectives when CWILA has published more pieces that run contrary to Jan’s opinion? You seem to have an attitude about positive reviewing that is reminiscent of “Reefer Madness” in the fifties: don’t take a single puff or you are going to be hooked on heroin before you know it.
For some writers Jan Zwicky’s essay will be an avenue to entering criticism. It’s certainly not your way but that’s the point members of CWILA are trying to make: in order to embolden people, especially women and members of culturally marginalized groups, to enter the critical fray, we need to give them examples of many different voices advocating many different points of view. In your interview you suggest that there is only one kind of criticism: the “real” kind as practiced by yourself, Zach Wells, Lista, that Guriel guy or (laughably) Margaret Wente.
One of the weaknesses of your criticism is your attempt at doing the “real work” to get to a place of critical “certainty” or the ultimate word. And yes “the ultimate word” approach to writing is the mode of female writers such as Wente and Blatchford and it’s equally boring when they too pass off conceited platitudes as critical thought.
In considering the writers you name as positive examples I would say it becomes clear that you make the assumption that humility somehow diminishes intellectual rigor. It appears, from the work you advocate, that you think that taking a hard stand is somehow better than exposing one’s self to more well-rounded and empathetic thought. In this, I do not think you are correct.
“And yet CWILA clearly believes in the piece, and has turned itself into the proselytizing wing for Zwicky’s ideas.”
Let me start with “CWILA clearly believes.” This is elementary-school Lazy Bastardism. CWILA is a 400-member organization. It doesn’t “believe” anything.
Gillian Jerome started CWILA and has publically stated that she doesn’t agree with Zwicky’s view that reviewers should steer away from negative reviews. So I’m not sure how you came up with “CWILA clearly believes” or who you even mean when you say CWILA. Which one of the 435 members are you referring to or is it the case that you view CWILA as a hive mind of writers who think in exact consensus because they read a Jan Zwicky essay?
Saying that CWILA has turned into the “proselytizing wing for Zwicky’s ideas” is just plain incorrect and insulting to the number of writers who have expressed dissenting opinions on CWILA’s site as well as to the hundreds of members of CWILA and the Board of Directors who run the organization, none of whom are Jan Zwicky or as far as I can tell going through life not speaking an ill word to anyone because they are bewitched by Jan Zwicky’s mind control.
An even cursory glance at the content on the CWILA website can prove you wrong. So again, why is it that Jan Zwicky’s essay is a constant reference point for your understanding of CWILA and that you speak of it with the zealous nature of someone about to set fire to a stack of books?
Finally you stated:
“In that way, it (CWILA) risks becoming an outfit that celebrates passivity and professional fear — and turns it into act of moral courage.”
Carmine, this is crazy. I wonder if you can’t see that’s it’s crazy because the “professional fear” that you are describing is, in fact, born of your own insecurities that come from your career mission to be instrumental in shaping, as you put it, “The New Canon.”
What I hear you saying is that CWILA does not embolden young women but instead it encourages all young women to write only positive reviews, because out of the 50 pieces CWILA has published the one that speaks against negative reviewing is the only one the organization — this massive, diverse, opinionated, inhomogeneous collective — ‘really’ believes in.
Overall, I urge you to reconsider how people are reading certain sections of your criticism, because I assure you Michael Nardone is not alone in his interpretations. There may be an explanation of this fact deeper than Zach’s contention that Nardone is a fascist.
You may also want to consider the possibility that your objection to CWILA does not come from CWILA being against negative reviewing — because ‘CWILA’ isn’t — but that CWILA is a disruptive force that has had an effect on our cultural discourse. With that disruption comes uncertainty, particularly for people—such as you, Wells, and Lista—who are currently in the process of shaping cultural discourse with the “real” work.
And finally let me get to your comments about The Vancouver Poetry Conference. There is only one thing you said that I vehemently disagree with and that is that we all left pretty much as we came in. For me this wasn’t the case and the V125PC changed me as a writer, or better, let me say it relaxed me as a writer.
What I noticed above all in seeing over 100 “Younger” Canadian Poets interacting was a disconnect between a number of poets’ work and their actual selves. Ambitious projects dominated many poets’ ideas of themselves. I could talk to a poet but then see nothing of them in their work. This isn’t always a problem but it is a problem as a trend.
It seemed to me that particularly the younger poets were suffocated by the ambition that comes from this notion of joining something as abstract and meaningless as “the new canon.” Many young poets are so busy trying to prove how brilliant they are in every syllable that their poems have no breathing room and they cease to be about something. As is clearly the case in the “ambitious” poetry of Lista and what I’ve seen of the work of that Guriel guy, their poetry isn’t about the world but instead uses esoteric details of the world as a type of intellectual wallpaper.
What many of these writers are trying to do is this thing you have called “the real work,” but it’s culminating not in a larger understanding of anything meaningful but rather in an improved vision of themselves that probably includes a publishing credit in Poetry and a pompous dream of one day giving a banal speech when they accept some esteemed literary award thereby proving to the world that they have indeed achieved the superiority that they’ve been advocating for all these years.
I became much happier (and a better writer) once I stopped giving a shit about the canon or literary prizes or the kind of canon-making review culture you defend. I know defining the literary canon is part of who you are as a critic, and perhaps that’s great for you, but I’d encourage you to put some thought into the possibility that it isn’t. My own experience suggests that once your preoccupation with such things diminishes you will settle more easily into your finer traits and actually be a better critic.
[i] Facebook Post by Michael Nardone on Jim Johnstone’s Facebook Thread on Tuesday December 10th, 2013
Okay, Carmine, I’m engaged here, both by your desire to be persuaded and because I do think there is “a poet or group of poets whose neglect is scandalous” here. Re-reading this interview, I ask: What do we learn here about poetry and criticism? Please correct me where I might be wrong, but what I see is this:
That *serious* poetry and criticism is done by *brave* (conservative-white-anglo-heteronormative) males who wield a phallus-weapon of criticism, “with risk.” (I’m taking this “phallus-weapon” from your excited quotation of Layton.) That the poet-critic of the phallus-weapon likes best poems by other *brave* white males in the loose tradition of poetry written by *brave* white males, and, after much criticism and various pressures *to diversify*, this poet-critic does some catch-up work to bring into the mix a few *brave* others so as to attempt to dissolve this line of critique. Of those few brought in *for diversity*, they are only those who, through various associations, already easily subscribe to the phallus-weapon critic’s poetics.
I take note of the logic here, and it says: “There can be diversity, but only *my* terms.” This, for me, is the logic of the colonial, of the neoconservative writ large in Canadian letters.
You, as an embodiment of this logic, seek to do your best to – to take you again at your own words – “hurt ideas, hurt trends, hurt ways of thinking” that are otherwise.
Again, I take note of – what is, for me, an exceptionally ignorant and arrogant statement – when you attest that Jason Guriel and Michael Lista are the ones taking chances. Here we have both an assertion and erasure that articulates for me the colonial police mentality of this poetics. To say that these poet-critics who advocate an exceptionally narrow poetics, who have very serious issues with contextualizing histories of poetic practices if they even make the effort to acknowledge them, whose opinions are reinforced by small cadre of vocal personalities who, they know, will police contesting opinions, is a horribly false assertion. They take no risk at all. The erasure is to all those policed out, all those *others* not *serious* and *brave* according to *your terms* who refuse to be limited by this narrow conception, those practices and subjectivities and positions other than male-patriarchal, other than white, other than anglo-dominant, other than heteronormative, other than the colonizer, other than the easy and stable expression of an official verse culture that you have the audacity to try and position as some kind of marginal position.
I read the statements from Gillian Jerome, Tanis MacDonald and Lemon Hound as a reaction to this neoconservatism, to the forms of misogyny and colonial mentality implicated therein. I, too, though, am willing to be persuaded otherwise.