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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series
March 2015

WE STOPPED AT NOTHING

Finding Nothing in the Avant-Garde Archive

Gregory Betts

The theme lies in the layers
made and unmade by the nudging     lurching
spiraling down from nothing
[…]

But still on the highest shelf of ever
washed by the curve of timeless returnings
lies the unreached unreachable nothing
whose winds wash down to the human shores
and slip             shoving

into each thought nudging my footsteps now
as I turn to my brief night’s ledge

–Earle Birney, “November Walk Near False Creek”1

 

In his closing remarks at the Approaching the Poetry Series conference in April 2013, Darren Wershler cautioned attendees against the pitfalls of reifying the ostensible subjects of the conference that he had helped organize,2 namely, the readers and the poets of the Sir George Williams University (hereafter SGWU) reading series that ran from 1966 to 1975. His message addressed the problem of paying homage (yet again) to a generation of Canadian poets that has not reproduced the means of their own production; that has not provided to the next generation the conditions of material or intellectual support that they themselves received from the previous generation.3 Wershler’s plea was not just a generational gripe but also a more significant invitation to meditate on the function of the nature and utility of (digital) archival work in the present. We change texts radically by translating them into new media, but the act of doing so does not necessitate our being in control or at least conscious of the changes we impose. Reflecting on the various approaches to the diverse materials archived in the spokenweb.ca digital repository, the home of the SGWU reading series archive, Wershler invoked various means by which contemporary scholars might approach the material without privileging the subject and instead by increasing engagement with the contemporary moment and its various technologies. The methodology Wershler mapped out was once argued by Marshall McLuhan to be somewhat inevitable as the content of any medium becomes another medium that has been displaced.4 The combination of this familiar McLuhanism with Wershler’s instruction suggests a latent crisis in contemporary writing and its attendant scholarship: poetry, and the poetry reading series in general, once a means of discovering and advancing new ideas, has been displaced by other cultural modes of enquiry and representation and now serves the more limited role of content within those other especially digital media. Furthermore, in the digital environment, poetry plays a decidedly marginal role; this process of technological supplication and cultural displacement having already occurred with early film, radio, and newspapers.

It strikes me that a model for wrestling with this paradoxical kind of simultaneous engagement with, resistance to or doubt of the archives, the literature of the baby boomers, and even the future of poetry, already exists in the work of the period in question. I take Tish issue #21, published in Vancouver in September 1963, three years prior to the SGWU reading series in Montreal, as an instructive example in a broader discussion of the problem of recording, remembering, and archiving. Such a discussion highlights the need for a historical consciousness, as well as a technohistorical consciousness, of the media involved in historicizing. It will be argued that the avant-garde in Canada, and in Vancouver especially, had already confronted and internalized the failure of expression, the boundary of unrepresentability, and the limitations of data, long anticipating the centrality of these issues in the digital archivization of this work. Tish issue #21 followed shortly after the infamous three-week long Vancouver Poetry Conference (hereafter VPC), which was in fact a offered by the Department of English at the University of British Columbia, which invited a newly established American avant-garde to baptize a generation of eager Canadians into the fold. Having just witnessed the germinal event, and having recently gained editorial control of a definitive local small press magazine, the recently-appointed Tish editors, David Dawson, Peter Auxier, David Cull, Dan McLeod, Daphne Marlatt (nee Buckle), and Gladys Hindmarch, had to make a series of editorial choices about how they would represent the conference. To contextualize the singularity of their decisions, it is worth juxtaposing their work with the much more prominent model of representing the conference via the audio recordings of the event. Former Tish editor Fred Wah recorded much of the conference on a 4-track, one microphone Wollensack recorder. The recordings are consequently mostly monological, focused almost exclusively on the featured speaker of each event, though attendees regularly comment on the uniquely dialogical nature of the experience. As a result of the technical set-up, questions and comments from the audience and even other panelists are mostly indecipherable. In 2002, the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia built a web portal to house Wah’s incredible collection of recorded lectures and readings. The website follows a similar monological orientation as Wah’s recording by organizing the database around the names of the primary speakers (the “notable New American poets” described by the website) with no mention of the audience participants, the location, or other details or events surrounding the lectures, discussions, and readings. While the recordings and their Internet portal are enormously useful, these resources exclusively privilege the perspective of the singular poet.

Participants at the conference, however, tend to speak of the Vancouver event as having been more collaborative, networked, and heteroglossic than either the recordings or the website suggests. When Robert Mactavish asked about the conference’s importance, for instance, interviewees Bowering, Copithorne, Marlatt, Butling, Wah, and others all discussed its importance for them. Tish #21, which commemorates the Vancouver conference, responds to this multivalenced experience instead of just capturing the voices of great authors speaking. Dawson’s lead editorial, which appears on the front page, begins with this challenge:

OLSON/CREELEY/LEVERTOV/DUNCAN/GINSBERG/WHALEN/AVISON

a document of response: but how to give the texture of those 3 wks, of the poets & poems, of that (to me) “event” in the larger sense of the word? to record, point by point, what was said is a massive task, & one which might not be useful here & now. impressions then, of what was said. some facts. poems of that 3 wk period. “poetic gossip.” extensions of the event. further events.

the only possible form : a type of collage.5

Most useful for the Tish editors at that time were their impressions and the inspiration they took from the event. As highlighted in the excerpt, collage registers an important modal shift from the Wah recordings for the way it represents an essential multiplicity of consciousnesses simultaneously overlapping. To ask why the Tish editors did not use New American poetics to represent the event is to confront a gap between the content and the methodology of its archivization.

At a basic level, the New American poets were heavily invested in the value of the human self, the individual in its broadest understanding, as the conduit for meaningful experience (in a spiritual, political, and historical sense). Charles Olson’s notion of a projective poetry, for instance, highlights the poem as a high-energy construct through which the poet gives readers access to the very source of the poem. This kind of kinetic poetry sought to open up environments for the poet in a particular locus, and encourage her or him to become aware and active within that milieu and return that activity to the reader. Collage, however, at a similar base level, empties the self as the primary marker of experience and reveals the forms of subjectivity that govern us unconsciously. Instead of privileging agency, collage privileges the meaningful revelations of contingency, chance, and selflessness. In the words of Brion Gysin, Canada’s first committed collagist author:

Take your own words or the words said to be ‘the very own words’ of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action […] Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?6

Poignantly, one of the first notes in Tish #21 is a summary of a lecture by Robert Creeley that outlines the poet’s entirely opposite sense of self: “Bob – consciousness, a form that is local, in the person, never exceeds the person.”7 In many respects, this paraphrase highlights a tension of representation between the monological recordings that never exceed one person versus the polyvocal collage of voices of the event itself and into which Creeley speaks. The editorial collective of Tish #21 thus creatively represented the stimulating event involving Black Mountain and New American poetics in Vancouver by creating a further event: the deployment of a new aesthetic technology – the cut-up – which transforms the American poets and their poetics into content for a new kind of medium. Consider that authorship is unattributed in the bulk of this issue, nevertheless devoted to the American poets. Representation is always comprised of a series of complex choices made through subconscious ideological beliefs.

The poets in Vancouver, whether from the extended Tish group or from the emerging group of Canadian collagist consciousness-raising downtowners, were stimulated into believing that poetry had a role to play for themselves and against history, as it were. Daphne Marlatt herself has said, “What was so liberating about that conference was that it was always encouraged: pay attention to where you are, here, now, where you are, here, now.”8) What is particularly illuminating about the Tish response to the event, however, is the ease with which the authors incorporated the energy of the event into new aesthetic entanglements. Another account of the workshop in the same collaged editorial expresses the ambivalence of the general animating spirit: “it is very hard to give any specifics. One gets, rather, a ‘feel’ of the contemporary movement and what its directions will be, and its immediate aims – i.e. an ‘atmosphere’.”9 It was a starting point, not a historical end. Tish readers might have raised an eyebrow at this awareness of multiple “directions” to contemporary writing, a permissiveness that stands in sharp contrast to the explicitly famous, insistent focus on one aesthetic mode in the first nineteen issues of the magazine. Oddly, considering the subject (but not the method), the editorial collage proceeds to single out Burroughs and his cut-up method of collagist textuality as a preferred mode of representation for the direction of the contemporary movement: “The best way to find out what words are saying, is to cut them up, rearrange them as Burroughs did.”10 Burroughs is an odd reference precisely because none of the poets participating in the VPC, and none of the previous generation of Tish editors, had explored cut-up textuality. Furthermore, despite extended discussions at the VPC that touched on an enormous number of non-participating poets, none openly discussed Burroughs’ works over the course of the three-week seminar.11 Outside of the conference, and in private letters, some of the participants even actively wrestled with or argued against Burroughs for using the technique. Ginsberg, for instance, in a dream sequence of his India Journals, describes the cut-up unfavourably:

Bill is in room with clippings of Time Magazine & Gysin – he has new method which infuriated the Critics or Bourgeois or someone or me or the Artistes are angry again & he’s sitting there happily snarling sneers of glee in his suite in mid room – I don’t understand it all no more & feel left out & I go to Austria feeling depressed.12

In Tish #21, the editorial collage makes no mention of Brion Gysin, the Canadian with Vancouver connections from whom Burroughs learned and developed the technique.13 However, it does echo Ginsberg’s sentiments almost precisely in declaring that “The poem is beyond our control. / When we enter the psyche that is in the language we are not entering our personal psyche but rather breaking through it.”14 Language and poetry become markers and evidence of our (i.e. human subjects, all) alienation, and language’s elemental complicity in that alienation, and are not traces of our projection into, or our creation of, the world.

Thinking about the difference between collagist and monological modes of representation of literary reading series adds a note of doubt about the inevitability or naturalness of either type. This doubt, in turn, provides a key to now recognize a mark of resistance to the reification of the poets and poetry involved in the SGWU reading series within the series as articulated in the readings and performances by the poets themselves. After all, the Vancouver poetry scene, and its attendant aesthetic debates, dominates the SGWU reading series to the point that it is impossible to gloss over the terms and insinuations of those debates when attempting to address the series historically, geographically, socially, or aesthetically. The series was organized and hosted by a committee of SGWU English Department professors, two of whom had previously been faculty members at the University of British Columbia. These were George Bowering – in fact, one of the founding editors of Tish – and Roy Kiyooka, a collagist and fixture in Vancouver’s downtown scene. In private correspondence from the period, Bowering confessed to having had no connection to the local Montreal literary scene and was back in Vancouver by 1971. Kiyooka, also in correspondence, confessed a similar longing to return to Vancouver, and had moved back to the city by 1972. The space, place, and debates of Vancouver consequently dominated the planning and organization of the series until at least 1972. It reached the point that George Bowering was disciplined by the Department of English, the series sponsors, for, amongst other things, orchestrating their resources to fund his “West Coast poetry friends.”15 In total, 21 of the 66 readers featured between 1966 and 1975 (which includes three years of readings after the departures of Bowering and Kiyooka) were biographically connected to Vancouver. With regard to SGWU-VPC performance overlaps, four of seven of the featured poets in the VPC also performed at the SGWU reading series.16 Reflecting the predominance of Vancouver’s aesthetic interests in the SGWU reading series, another four poets were associated with the Black Mountain College school of poets.

bpNichol, who performed at SGWU in 1968, attempted to come to terms with and articulate the significance of the aesthetic division I outlined above. In an unpublished essay written shortly before his Montreal reading, he wrote:

the avant-garde in Canadian poetry has taken off in two seemingly different directions […] the one has attempted to make the visual notation of language tie in with the sound of their poems as they write them – Victor Coleman, Dave Cull, George Bowering, Bob Hogg, Fred Wah, Frank Davey, William Hawking, & others. the other has taken the visual notation and extended it till it has become totally visual.17

Nichol was trying to generalize the difference between the New American writing and the more collagic and visual experiments found in Vancouver’s little zines – blewointment, Circular Causation, and radiofreerainforest – as well as his own Toronto-based grOnk magazine and Ganglia Press. It is instructive that Nichol considered the essay to have failed, for whatever reason, and abandoned it. In hindsight, his analysis lacked a sufficiently McLuhanesque attention to the different sensory orientations of these two groups, and consequently failed to articulate the crucial division between them. The New Americans, and the sound recordings we have of their readings, lectures, and parties, privileged the voice. In Warren Tallman’s estimation, “For Olson speech is the Protean thing, the god itself, in a form of words. When on the last evening of the festival he read the conclusion of his Maximus poems, the locale was neither Gloucester nor Vancouver but his voice, his voice reading, which was its own first-last-everlasting place, like life.”18 In contrast, the collagists and concrete poets were much more suspicious of language and grammar, as articulated in bill bissett’s only book of literary theory (poignantly commissioned by Nichol in 197119 ): “theyre trying to create yr mind for ya watch it.”20 The wariness that language was somehow complicit with broader ideological systems elucidates the endeavour to break or destroy language as an attempt to escape its limitations: ignoring its semantic implication, and its spoken tactility, for its visual materiality was one attempt to escape its conceptual boundedness. Gysin’s own imperative command to “Rub out the word,” about as far from Tallman’s celebration of the mythological power of language as is conceivable, connects more intimately to Nichol’s own literary ambitions. Thus, Nichol, in his private journals of 1968, the year of his SGWU reading, similarly writes: “the space between words is greater than the nothingness of their visible signs.”21 Instead of remaking the world, or projecting oneself into the world through language, this kind of poet seeks out the world behind the arbitrary semiotic system of language and renders it material rather than total, visual rather than vocal.

Without wanting to over-assert the incommensurability of the two camps, which were in fact much more interconnected with various overlapping interests and concerns (especially poignant is their shared interest in recording literary events, and the technology that enabled that to happen), the difference between them invites serious questions about the suitability of the technological choices made in representing and archiving the readings. For, while Black Mountain poet Robert Duncan enlists poets to serve language rather than themselves, bissett warns of “langwage as message control” and invites his readers to “releas free energy zone to entr into that thru th disappear ance uv th meaning thot to be lockd in imprisoned in that word […] dont b afrayd.”22 Nichol’s awkward attempt to nationalize Vancouver’s local divisions might explain why the essay excerpted from above was never published, but it nevertheless highlights the extent to which Nichol’s own sense of Canadian avant-garde writing was shaped by this underlying polarity. It is worth recalling that Nichol entered the literary community in Vancouver, and discovered there the foundations of his eventual concrete aesthetic. He articulated these thoughts in his 1963 journals, critiquing what he took to be the arrogance of Black Mountain poetics.23

Given its noticeably Western orientation, it is fair to characterize the SGWU reading series as the first re-presentation of the Vancouver literary community – or what George Bowering calls the “Vancouver Renaissance” in his introduction to Lionel Kearns in 1968 – in its full context (i.e. including many of its determining influences) outside of that locale. Though it would be years, indeed decades, before authors and critics began to narrativize the dissolution of the unified 1960s avant-garde, one of the things that this re-presentation reveals is further evidence of the bifurcation of dominant aesthetics in the Vancouver avant-garde community. This divide introduces a significant problem in the archivization of the series, for how does one represent or archive doubt, division, and conflict? It is difficult enough to represent textual communities fairly, but the encoding of friendly fractures that reveal creative openings risks over-determining those debates. Ignoring them, however, as Frank Davey attempts to do in his recent book on the subject,24 obscures one of the most productive and essential creative fissures in Canadian literature outside of the ever-repeated nationalist contra universalist contest. That is, the poetry of a generation of writers defined by a particular locale (Vancouver) at a particular moment (early 1960s) and unified by tight social bonds is marked by a sharp, internal philosophical difference about the role of the poet’s language. What is particularly striking is the fact that one of these groups celebrated the irreconcilability and the failure to arrive at a singular aesthetic as an essential characteristic of their aesthetic philosophy. What I am attempting to show here is that the downtown Vancouver poets embraced and explored doubt, absence, and incoherence – what I call the narrative or epiphany of finding nothing – directly in their writing.

While an aesthetic divide within the Vancouver writers adds an important nuance to the representation of Canadian writers participating in the SGWU reading series, I want to turn my focus now to two writers who performed in the series, Phyllis Webb and Gerry Gilbert, and examine more closely the nature and implications of their representations of doubt: how finding nothing in their writing (or performance) implies an acceptance of uncertainty, incoherence, and contingency (i.e. lack of control) as inevitable and essential – clues to a greater cosmology. It is in the uncertain terms of such a cosmology, I contend, that we can discover the first resistance to the reification of 60s poets and their poetry from within their own poetry and performances.

Gilbert, an important figure in the downtown literary scene in Vancouver, and a pioneer in collage and intermedial experimentation, uses this doubt and his discovery of nothing as recurrent themes in his writing throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, for instance, shortly after Gilbert travelled to Montreal to read at SGWU, he published And, a short, limited edition book, put out by bissett’s blewointment press, structured around the concept of cumulative abundance. (His reading in Montreal largely consisted of readings from this work-in-progress.) The book features a series of 31 minimalist poetic meditations, each between 2 and 51 lines, linked by the eponymous conjunction “AND” in all-caps. While the list-poem structure implies abundance, a productive poetic foundry of images and linguistic play, the poems themselves contradict the structure inasmuch as they tend to present negations that undo the appearance of plenty. In one section, for instance, Gilbert writes about Toronto’s iconic, countercultural Rochdale College by highlighting the disastrously metaphoric discussions surrounding the school’s eviction process: rules for evacuating the student body. In another, he writes about Vancouver through a self-negating character called nobody: “nobody fucking vancouver / nobody is this fabulous character who lives / on empty mountain / in dusty canada.”25 Many of these segments were delivered in Montreal, including “AND / Buddha: somebody stole my head again / i sed / AND.”

Phyllis Webb, in 1965, the year before her SGWU reading, published a short volume called Naked Poems with Vancouver’s Periwinkle Press. Designed by visual artist Takao Tanabe, the sparse text in Naked Poems is as much a meditation on space and the absence of text as it is on bodies and the problem of presence in erotic encounter: “MOVING / to establish distance / between our houses. / It seems / I welcome you in. / Your mouth blesses me / all over. / There is room.”26 The paradox of space in this poem highlights the importance of the geography and architecture in which encounter happens: room is the established distance between them, their separation, as much as it is Plato’s khôra (from Timaeus) or Heidegger’s clearing; room is the space in which encounter takes place, the precondition that enables the possibility of union and presence. Other texts add meditations on chronology and the difference of textual representation versus experience: “While you were away / I held you like this / in my mind” ((Webb, Naked Poems, n. pag.)) (author’s italics). Such a literature begins with absence and the attendant overflow of emotional experience, hence the simile “like this” refers to abstract reflection off the page and out of the world. In both cases, the embodied “perfection with exactitude” that the poem praises of itself requires the lover’s absence. Stephen Collis writes extensively of Webb’s poetry as one of communion, multitude, and intertextual tribute, but there is a countervailing exploration of absence, negation, and creative destruction in her writing, especially in Naked Poems: “walking in dark / walking in dark the presence of all / the absences we have known.”

Webb followed up Naked Poems, and her SGWU reading, with fifteen years of silence – a period between book publications that many critics use to characterize her writing and career.27 It is an intriguing fact that critics were led to this conclusion by Webb herself in her next book of poetry, Wilson’s Bowl, published in 1980 by Toronto’s Coach House Press. Wilson’s Bowl begins with an authorial preface on the theme of nothing: “My poems are born out of great struggles of silence. This book has been long in coming. Wayward, natural and unnatural silences, my desire for privacy, my critical hesitations, my critical wounds, my dissatisfactions with myself and the work have all contributed to a strange gestation.”28 The book as a whole addresses the idea of anarchy (itself a politic predicated on the absence of hierarchical governance), especially as articulated and embodied by the life of Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, but introduces her developing resistance to Marxian and Freudian social analysis. The first section of the book is comprised of poems called “Poems of Failure” that explore the theme of doubt about the ability of the author and her language to represent her subject and the world accurately: “I grasp what I can. The rest / is a great shadow.”29

Unlike Dennis Lee’s disempowering experience of silence triggered by the realization of colonial language as articulated in his 1972 essay “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space,” wherein the sound of his silence is a measure of his weakness as an interpolated subject in a colony in an empire, Webb’s experience of silence and even failure is decidedly productive. In an interview with Smaro Kamboureli, Webb explains that, “In that fertile silence I am hearing many things and taking in a great deal.”30 The fundamental openness to otherness and to the heterogeneous palimpsest of experience reverberates with the spirit of collage and multiconsciousness. Akin to John Cage’s iconic silent composition “4’33”, first performed in 1952, Webb’s refusal to speak or sound her voice allows the world to rush into her writing and resound with the presence of absence. Writing is not an attempt to make mythology, or to overcome silence, but is a product of silence: “I am not a person who writes everyday. I write when the lid comes off the pressure-cooker and it all arrives in a great rush […] So I don’t think the silence is… unnatural.”31

Frank Davey, in From There to Here and later in Canadian Literary Power, argues that Webb’s texts are marked by melodrama and failure and that this failing (and looming silence) is a synecdoche for “the end of modernism.”32 Laura Cameron rejects Davey’s analysis by noting the productive postmodernism in Webb’s shift away from a modernist aesthetic of perfection and well-wrought poems for fragmented poetry that highlights process over final product.33 Cameron’s research has also pinpointed the composition dates of the “Poems of Failure” more precisely, from 7–13 September 1967, making these the first extant poems written after both Naked Poems and her SGWU reading.

The interest Webb and Gilbert showed in themes and formalisms of absence and negation also points to lingering doubts they possessed regarding the power of their own language, and to their inherent resistance to the God-is-now-speaking aesthetic that Tallman praised in Olson. But because they are writing this theme of negation into their work, rather than having it manifest from their subconscious, it is important to avoid reading the theme through the Freudian-inspired “erotics of thanatos” that circulated in Vancouver and was common in the popular imagination in the period. The same goes for the Lacanian notion of lack that was then being developed in his 1960–61 Le transfert seminar.34 Instead, I would prefer to enlist another psychologist, Gregory Bateson, and his work on vision-contra-ideological systems. Of particular value is his concept of “negative entropy,”35 which articulates the projection of disorder as the precondition for establishing the semblance of order. Bateson’s work in the 1950s argued that there is an intrinsic connection between the visual system and ideology, such that sight itself is linked to and conditioned by the values of the looker. McLuhan would later twist this idea into his delightful aphorism, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” The implication, however, is that both the environment and also space itself must be evacuated, even destroyed, in order to fulfill our visual projections. Seeing and presence happens against the world as it is, and both depend upon unseeing and absence, respectively: the concept of clearing, space, and chora become palimpsests imposed upon already overwritten perspectives. Bateson’s analysis of physical perception helps make sense of the semiotic difference between discovery and encounter, where only in the latter is the value of alterity and dialogue recognized. Encounter presages a concern with the erasure and loss precipitated by the act of speaking. Indeed, Bateson’s work directly addresses the question of what is seen and simultaneously concealed in the act of looking and understanding the world.

Taken as metaphor, though more precisely as metonymy, negative entropy helps account for the eviscerating vision of Vancouver’s poets in their appraisal of the socio-political and aesthetic environment. Consequently, absence – as in the absence of ideal forms – is a recurring motif used to characterize the sociopolitical and cultural landscape prior to the arrival of new kinds of literary and artistic modernisms into the city. The arrival of modernism is most frequently dated at 1963, with the VPC, but could also be argued to have begun in 1959 when, by coincidence, Robert Duncan and Marshall McLuhan both first lectured in the city. Privileging the arrival of particular modernisms into the city involves the displacement of existing aesthetics: every other form of literary production happening in the city was apparently reduced, defaced, or entirely effaced through this projection of a new, dominant modernism. Indeed, I have framed this paper with an epigraph from a poem by Earle Birney, one of those poets so displaced, to acknowledge a continuity of aesthetics between Vancouver’s modernisms, which stands in contrast to the narrative of the breakaway or oppositional new. To put this into concrete terms, Tish did not publish – indeed, steadfastly refused to publish – any Vancouver or Canadian writers that preceded them. blewointment, in sharp contradistinction, published many of them, including work by Birney, Dorothy Livesay, Webb, Milton Acorn, Nellie McClung, and many others. The difference confirms the respective positions on multiplicity and alterity, and of Canadian literary history vis-à-vis circulating and competing modernisms. As Tallman famously and fatuously characterized Vancouver in a group conversation with Tish poets in 1985, there had been writers “working in isolation” but there had been “no coherent scene whatsoever” prior to his own arrival and prior to Tish.36 After that opening remark to the group, Gerry Gilbert immediately objected to Tallman’s negation of the rest of the city’s arts production by reminding him of the downtown poets, currently active. Tishers Gladys Hindmarch and Frank Davey added credence and other evidence to Gilbert’s objection, but none of them in that conversation cast even a passive eye at the writers before their generation.37 This familiar negating narrative by those who came of age in the 1960s was intended to highlight the importance of the arrival of an active, vibrant modernism (or modernisms) into the city, but, as Bateson’s theories of negative entropy suggest, the narrative equally erased extant modernisms and other modes of literary production already being practiced by the likes of Livesay, Birney, Malcolm Lowry, Emily Carr, as well as the avant-gardisms of Jack Shadboldt, Lawren Harris, Al Neil, and Anne Charlotte Dalton, and others, of which blewointment was far more aware. Bowering openly, gleefully confessed, “the poems actually became not only the making of poems but the making of history for us, and a geography for us and a mythology for us, for which we were absolutely reviled by those people back east.”38 Gilbert objected to this claim, too, by reminding Bowering that the downtown poets also reviled the characteristic Tish “pomposity.”39

Gilbert, for his part, was distinctly more aware of both a palimpsestuous relationship among practicing writers to the literary historical inheritance of Vancouver and British Columbia and of the existence of competing aesthetics in the city’s past and present. His BC Monthly magazine, a follow-up project to radiofreerainforest, took its name from a collapsed literary publication from the 1920s as tribute and homage to the history of writing in the province. The first issue of the magazine had a special feature on a similar-minded endeavour to rethink and re-purpose British Columbia’s cultural heritage. It focused on the Deluxe group, an anarchist band of guerrilla activists bent on purchasing, and then repurposing Bralone, an abandoned mining town in the B.C. interior. The group had grown out of the Intermedia artists’ collective, where they learned to repurpose wood scraps into ever increasingly elaborate projects. The Deluxe group experimented with houses made entirely out of driftwood in Burrard Inlet (which the city quickly demolished) and later hosted elaborate “Pleasure Faires” where thousands of people would gather and make mischief without electricity for a weekend or more. With a core group of 12, Deluxe had, on special occasions, between 500 and 3000 active volunteers on their projects, which themselves drew thousands of attendees. The Bralone mining village project was by far their most ambitious in its attempt to establish a permanent home for their “social form.”40 With “hundreds” of people prepared to move into the village they tried to create, they spent three months working with the Gold Dust Twins Settlement Society on the plans until the Federal Government intervened and overruled the intended resettlement.41 The way the Deluxe group imagined the effect of the repurposed town site is instructive: it would, amongst other things, correct “the gnawing apprehension that something is missing in [Canadians’] daily lives.”42 They thought of their initiative (even after the Bralone failure) in distinctly revolutionary terms, punning on their commitment to a return to a “natural vacuum of responsibility […] Revolution is re-cycling old materials. Re-cycling revolution is Deluxe.”43

While it is easy to dismiss the hippie naiveté of the Deluxe Bralone project, it is worth noting that their idealistic vision of potentials for urban life is similar in spirit, if not in kind, to celebrated architectural avant-gardists such as France’s Le Corbusier, whose “Plan Voisin” for Paris was supposed to overcome the “appalling nightmares” of modern civic space.44 Plan Voisin involved bulldozing an enormous swath of Paris, not unlike Hausmann’s remodeling of the city before him, and would have literally re-written the city in a grand re-purposing of urban space. Like the British Columbians, however, Le Corbusier’s motivating ambition was predicated on a rejection of the automobile and a realignment of urban space with nature: “You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise.”45 The Bralone project was a similarly highly ambitious utopian effort intended to address the emptiness, the alienating impact, of Canadian urban space. It stands as evidence of the new possibilities opened up by the experimental praxis of the downtown Vancouver literary community; an earnest attempt to break through the hollowness of the culture they inhabited and to re-imagine their locus through re-purposing its refuse. In Gilbert’s words, it was a “Big Try.”46 Such utopian projects and projections depend upon the destruction of the past, especially the recent past, including its presumed failures. Such projects signal the presence of a desire that needs to be filled, and a consciousness of that ideological emptiness. The Bralone failure was a significant symbolic loss for the avant-garde in Vancouver: in Ian Ridgeway’s words, “Perhaps that was the point where the heady enthusiasm of the 60s turned into the tough-minded experience of the 70s.”47

All the while the Deluxe group was attempting to reimagine the possibilities of space and community, and repurpose the wasted materials created by urban expansion, the downtown poets and their newfound allies at Tish48 were also discovering the enormous potential of the wasted space of the poetic page. This spatial consciousness depends upon seeing value in things deemed valueless, seeing through absence to the possibility of presence. It follows that a consciousness of the presence of absence also haunts the concrete and visual work of the period produced in the same downtown milieu. David UU’s essay “Beyond Concrete Poetry,” published in the third issue of Gilbert’s BC Monthly, articulates the ambitions of that movement as evacuating the surface content of language and struggling to encounter “what is behind language.”49 He quotes bissett’s poem “Young Masters of Pinto” on the double negation that enables presence and writing in the concrete mode: “here, now / writing this poem, / not knowing death / we derive form / from […] it is the dead / we thrive on, / that lulls us, ourselves, / into ghost wrappers.” Recovering a vaguely defined, more likely intuited, lost unity begins for UU by recognizing the absence at the heart of our contemporary language: “not only are letters meaningless but naturally so are words and sentences and paragraphs.” The rush to fill the whole (empty) page partakes in rediscovering the magical potential of art that has been lamentably lost and in seeking new re-animated alphabets, words, sentences, and paragraphs that could overcome the present absence. If you will excuse the obvious allegory, the alphabet was not unlike an abandoned gold mine they were hoping to revive.

Negation, then, seen as a self-inventing creative destruction or the space of redemptive opening, or re-cycling revolution, proliferates in the avant-garde imagination in Vancouver. It collects the loose discourse surrounding negative theology from especially Zen Buddhism,50 negative philosophy from Nietzsche, Dada, post-structuralism, and eventually Deconstruction, and even incorporates select notions from quantum physics to acknowledge the importance of nothing within the essence of everything. Thus, Gilbert writes almost triumphantly, “I find / nothing / in these poems.”51 In Naked Poems, Webb writes that she is sad because “all my desire goes / out to the impossibly / beautiful” – a beauty that is changed by desire, destroyed by the act of claiming it; hence its impossibility. Webb’s texts and Gilbert’s texts are both haunted by the destruction, the loss of the conditions that enabled them: the pure rawness of nothing, the potential field before presence, and the impossibility of desire to fulfill itself. In the words of Alexandre Kojève in his famous lecture on Hegel that helped to launch post-structuralism, “Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can only do so by the ‘negation,’ the destruction, or at least the transformation, of the desired object […] Thus, all action is ‘negating.’”52 The poems by Webb and Gilbert presented in their Montreal readings, while enacting this negation,53 are already meditations on the consequences of eviscerating this thing that they desire.

In Derrida’s discussion of various resistances to analysis, he claims that categories of truth (especially as established by psychoanalysis, but also, by extension, literary analysis and archivization) can be disputed convincingly only through disavowal, which ruptures the possibility of a truth claim from within a discourse. It is a useful theory by which to consider the notion of discovery or uncovering an abyss of nothingness at the heart of the language of the poem that they are writing. Similarly, Gilbert proposes that when “the silence arrives at the fact,” the presence of this absence enables “a single uninterrupted poem / by means of the most direct and shortest image.”54 Webb’s Naked Poems book, with its erotic minimalism, presents a similar anti-Imagism that marks the creative act with or by its own withdrawal: “You took / with so much gentleness / my dark.”55 Taking darkness is different from asserting presence, however, for it achieves presence only through double negation. For both Gilbert and Webb, the poetry performs a similar double negation: a disavowal that performs the collapsing of the possibility of poetry through the language of poetry. In the SGWU readings, both of these writers read works that articulate just such a strategic disavowal – including, specifically, a disavowal of work, performance, and the community of those gathered to hear them.

Given this thematic, theoretical, and practical interest in nothing and its corresponding link to disavowal, what particular challenge does this insistent nothingness pose to scholars and archivists seeking to preserve and represent these events, these performances, and these naked – denuded – poems? The SpokenWeb project has already made some progress in addressing this problem by including transcriptions of the readings in which both authors insist upon the incompleteness of the poems presented, as well as the inevitability of frustrated desire in the aesthetic act. Gilbert makes the prophetic joke in the middle of his performance that “We’re reading Canadian History” – an aside that is significantly the only extemporaneous comment he makes during his entire 88 minute set that he split with David McFadden. While stage banter affords the audience the impression of presence and spontaneity, Gilbert’s joke in contrast serves to deny his presence in the moment, by insisting upon the historical inscription of the moment, as if enacting an absence or drawing attention to the gap between himself and his own writing. It is worth pointing out that Gilbert and McFadden read their work as a spontaneous dialogue, oscillating voices after a stanza or two, creating new tensions and sparks in their individual works by the sudden multiplicity and juxtaposition. While it is unclear who suggested the strategy, or why they chose to present their work this way, the strategy opens up their work to new intersections and dislocutions by the chance encounters, and attempts to perform the spirit of collage. A schism opens up between the books read and the singularity of the collaged performance: the reading is unique, though the texts are already history. Gilbert would repeat the dialogic technique on reading tours with Daphne Marlatt years later, demonstrating some satisfaction with the experiment.

Webb, pursuing a different performance strategy, makes numerous contextual remarks but also explicitly reminds her audience of the incompleteness of her reading. She describes texts she won’t read and announces the insufficiency of her own voice to read her poems:

I don’t think I have the voice to read both sides of this poem tonight, there are two poems, one called “Breaking” and one called “Making.” They’re about the creative process, which involves both those things, but “Making” is rather long and a little hard to read, so I’ll read “Breaking” which is better probably as a poem.

The irony of this announcement is poignant: making is hard, and because it involves breaking, she only reads of creative destruction to avoid redundancy. The poem “Breaking” launches its own exploration of absence, rupture, and the predication of language to an impossible-to-fulfill desire: “Give us the wholeness, for we are broken. / But who are we asking, and why do we ask?” By transcribing only her extemporaneous remarks and not the poems about absence, the SpokenWeb website archive privileges the reading event and Webb’s denial of its authority and completeness. Desire is unfulfilled even for those at the origin of this venture: those in attendance at the original reading. Another poem that Webb reads speaks in splintered time signatures. “Rilke” includes the following lines: “this page is a shadowed hall in duino castle. echoes the echoes. I don’t know why I’m here.”

Conceptualizing the digital archivization of this Canadian 1960s avant-garde praxis and poetics requires thinking beyond the historical anachronism of the recordings. The problem of rendering the reading series across multiple technological shifts is substantial, in this case moving from page to spoken word to analogue recording device to digitized translation and to online platforms where the hiss of the original cassette suddenly seems oddly organic and authentic. The persistence of the readings, now recast in the digital archives, provokes both a historical consciousness as well as a technohistorical consciousness of the media involved in historicizing. This haunting absence-presence has led me to digital media theorist Alexander Galloway’s useful question “Are some things unrepresentable?” which becomes an essential problem when the task is representing readings of texts digitally that celebrate their insufficiency, their doubt, and their discovery of nothing textually or even orally with a voice speaking against its own speaking. Galloway distinguishes between data, the things that have been given,56 and information: “The worldly things, having previously been given, have now been given form.”57 For Galloway, following Jacques Rancière, the question of unrepresentability stems from the transformation of data into the realm of the aesthetic as information because “representation always has a relationship with the mode of production, not simply the ideological conceits and tricks of state power that are its epiphenomena.”58 Hence, how and why something is represented changes data in a manner at least analogous to Bateson’s negative entropy, where the destruction of world is precipitated by the act of perception. For Bateson and early poststructuralists, the determining agent was ideology, but contemporary media archeologists, especially Wolfgang Ernst with his notion of the fundus, counter that the machinery used to represent data creates the perception by which ideology is encoded: as Ernst writes, “our perceptions are dependent on the signal-processing capacities of our devices.”59 Galloway makes a useful link between ideology, technology, and the society of control that Foucault warned about in the use of technology to prevent access to radical ideas. At the very least, when we return to Gilbert’s and Webb’s readings, this technoconsciousness changes the orienting question from “what was it” to “what are we doing to it.” The great irony that my paper has tried, inevitably in vain, to highlight is that both Webb and Gilbert disrupt the possibility of an “it,” of raw data in their reading and in their poetry. The “it” we recuperate, to protect and disseminate, is an arrow pointing at nothing; pointing, in fact, at a desire within the looker that can never be satisfied; “it” is an impossible beauty. As Webb writes in Wilson’s Bowl, “We quake. We draws curtains / against the word’s blaze.”60 It is at this stage that Lacan might become useful in addressing this complicated post-semiotic desire and lack, but that is a different paper and a different pursuit. Finding nothing in the poems of avant-garde Canada, however, evokes a warning acknowledged by Bateson, Derrida, McLuhan, Galloway and Ernst of technology’s destructive function that changes perception as it uncovers new ways to in-form data. To address Wershler’s concern with which I began this paper, in that process, yet poignantly against that process, the poetry of both Gilbert and Webb encodes a disavowal that undoes the possibility of both poets’ own memorialization from within.


  1. Earle Birney, “November Walk Near False Creek,” The Collected Poems of Earle Birney, Volume II (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), 44, 51. 

  2. Darren Wershler, “Closing Remarks,” Approaching the Poetry Series (Concordia University, Montreal, 6 April 2013). 

  3. See “Tish and Koot” by Christian Bök in Open Letter 12.8 (2006), and Jason Weins’ “Canonicity and Teachable Texts” response in Open Letter 14.3 (2010). 

  4. McLuhan writes, “The ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium … [but] the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern it introduces into human affairs.” In Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 23-4. 

  5. David Dawson, Editorial, Tish 21 (September 1963), 1. 

  6. Brion Gysin, Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (Middleton: Weslyan UP, 2001), 132. 

  7. Dawson, Editorial, 3. 

  8. Daphne Marlatt, The Line Has Shattered, DVD, directed by Robert McTavish (Vancouver: Non-Inferno Media, 2013. 

  9. Dawson, Editorial, 10. 

  10. Dawson, Editorial, 6. 

  11. At least, according to the recordings currently available through Slought Foundation at http://slought.org/toc/Vancouver1963/

  12. Allen Ginsberg, Indian Journals (New York: Grove Press, 1996), n. pag. 

  13. William S. Burroughs, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”, Yugen 8 (1962), 31–33. Available here: http://www.ubu.com/papers/burroughs_gysin.html 

  14. Dawson, Editorial, 6. 

  15. Angela Bowering, Letter to Gladys Hindmarch (20 January 1969, Simon Fraser Special Collections. Gladys Hindmarch Fonds. MsC 34 Box 1). 

  16. These numbers are based on the recordings available via the Spokenweb.ca recordings of the series. They are, without question, incomplete but also the most authoritative record to date. The very first reading on the website, for insight, begins by describing the night as the “second reading in our fall series.” Those connected to Vancouver include, in order of appearance in the series: Phyllis Webb, Roy Kiyooka, Daryl Hines, George Bowering, Robert Creeley, bpNichol, Lionel Kearns, Earle Birney, bill bissett, Gladys Hindmarch, Robin Blaser, Stan Persky, Al Purdy, Daphne Marlatt, David Bromige, Frank Davey, Robert Hogg, Dorothy Livesay, Maxine Gadd, Andreas Schoeder, and George Bowering. Those associated with the Black Mountain school of poets include Margaret Avison, Irving Layton, Diane Wakoski, Joel Oppenheimer, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. 

  17. bpNichol, “Last Wall and Test a Minute” (bpNichol Fonds, Notebook 1968, Simon Fraser University Special Collections and Rare Books, Ms.C. 1223, November 1966). 

  18. Warren Tallman, “Poets in Vancouver: Margaret Avison, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Philip Whalen, from July 24 through August 16” (Warren Tallman Fonds. Simon Fraser University Special Collections and Rare Books. MSC 26 Box 13). Also available online at http://vidaver.wordpress.com/tag/charles-olson/ 

  19. See Gregory Betts and derek beaulieu, Afterword to Rush: What Fuckan Theory; A Study uv Langwage (Toronto: BookThug, 2012), 113–122. 

  20. bill bissett, Rush: What Fuckan Theory; A Study uv Langwage (Vancouver: blewointment press, 1972; repr. Toronto: BookThug, 2012), 50. 

  21. bpNichol, “Notes on the New Writing” (bpNichol Fonds, Notebook 1968, Simon Fraser University Special Collections and Rare Books, Ms.C. 12), n. pag. 

  22. bissett, 13. For the comment on Duncan, see for instance his 1961 essay “Ideas of the Meaning of Form.” 

  23. Frank Davey, aka bpNichol: A Preliminary Biography (Toronto: ECW Press, 2012), 63–5. 

  24. I offer an expanded critique of Davey’s attempt to universalize Tish as the dominant vortex of experimental literature in my recent review of his 2011 memoir When Tish Happens

  25. Gerry Gilbert, And (Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1971), n. pag. 

  26. Phyllis Webb, Naked Poems (Vancouver: Periwinkle Press, 1965), n. pag.

     

  27. See, for instance, George Woodcock’s “In the Beginning was the Question: The Poems of Phyllis Webb” (1986), Liza Potvin’s “Phyllis Webb: The Voice that Breaks” (1993), Diana Relke’s “Feminist”; Liza Potvin’s “Phyllis Webb: The Voice that Breaks” (1998), and Cristina Maria Gamez Fendandez’s “Knowing that Everything is Wrong: Existentialism in the Poetry of Phyllis Webb” (2007). 

  28. Phyllis Webb, Foreword to Wilson’s Bowl (Toronto: Coach House, 1980), 9. 

  29. Webb, Foreword to Wilson’s Bowl, 13. 

  30. Smaro Kamboureli, “Seeking Shape, Seeking Meaning: An interview with Phyllis Webb.” West Coast Line 25.3 (1991), 25. 

  31. Leila Sujir, “Addressing a Presence: An Interview with Phyllis Webb.” Prairie Fire. 9.1 (Spring 1988). 35. 

  32. Frank Davey, Canadian Literary Power (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1994), 210. 

  33. Laura Cameron, “Phyllis Webb’s ‘Struggles of Silence’ and the Making of Wilson’s Bowl” (Congress of the Humanities, Victoria, British Columbia, University of Victoria, 3 June 2013), n. pag. 

  34. Freud used the Greek words for love, eros, and death, thanatos, to map out his notions of two drives within each individual: Eros for life, creativity, love, and even species preaervation; Thanatos for death, destruction, hatred, and annihilation. The two drives intertwine, however, as a result of their conflict within the individual. Lack for Lacan, meanwhile, is always connected with desire which fills in the absence of being. 

  35. Which is different from the negative entropy that appears more prominently in Schrödinger’s theoretical physics. Bateson, working from Freud more than Schrödinger, notes that internal desire and the encoding of the external world are intertwined such that our perspective is shaped by psychological and ideological forces (Ruesch Communication 177). Negative entropy, in this sense, is the means by which we must negate the actuality of the world in order to maintain an inner sense of order: “Negative entropy, value, and information, are in fact alike in so far as the system to which these notions refer is the man plus environment, and in so far as, both in seeking information and in seeking values, the man is trying to establish an otherwise improbable congruence between ideas and events” (179). 

  36. Irene Niechoda and Tim Hunter, “A Tishstory,” Beyond TISH: New Writing, Interviews, Critical Essays (Edmonton: NeWest, 1991), 85. 

  37. It is a myopic Tish fallacy to collapse their coming of age and their discovery of modernism with the city’s coming of age and the development of modernist modes of literary production in Vancouver. 

  38. George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, and Gerry Gilbert, “Vancouver Poetry in the 60s,” The BC Monthly 3.3 (December 1976), n. pag. 

  39. In a similar manner, though, both the Tish and the downtown poets used the trope of the discovery of absence, and the destruction of that absence, to articulate their own presence as individual and collective poets. Thus, the interest in the proprioceptive act, presence, and the discovery of locale, or what Tallman has called the story of “[h]ow people come to possess their own imaginations” (“A Tishtory” 84), begins with the encounter of margins, empty fields, and unwritten, unimagined landscapes. The writing itself begins with the discovery of nothing, of a space for new writing. This interest in bringing “Vancouver into presence” as Tallman writes in a different context (“It’s Simple” 26), was not just a neo-colonial Tish aesthetic, deputized by the proper American authorities, but one that can be found echoing across other Vancouver forums such as the Georgia Strait Writing Supplement, Iron, Blackfish, and Talon little literary magazines. That last Tallman quote, for instance, comes from the first issue of Gilbert’s British Columbia Monthly in a review of a new book by Stan Persky published by The Georgia Strait Writing Supplement. It is worth noting that outside the Tish group, some of those responsible for bringing the new American poetics to Vancouver, such as Stan Persky, George Stanley, and obviously Robin Blaser, had significant links to the San Francisco literary community or could count themselves as legitimate contributors to its renaissance. 

  40. Ian Ridgeway and Dan Clemons, “Deluxe Text” (Simon Fraser Special Collections and Rare Books. Gerry Gilbert Fonds. Ms.C. 14.1 Folder 1.2). 

  41. Ridgeway and Clemons, “Deluxe Text,” 10. 

  42. “The Bralone Papers: Autumn 1971,” The BC Monthly 1.1 (June/July 1972), 8. 

  43. Ridgeway and Clemons, “Deluxe Text,” 2, 14. 

  44. Le Corbusier, “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925.” http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6159&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=2&itemSort=en-en_sort_string1%20&itemCount=2&sysParentName=Home&sysParentId=65 

  45. Le Corbusier. “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925.” n. pag. 

  46. Gerry Gilbert, Letter to Sam Abrams (6 August 1972. Simon Fraser University Special Collections and Rare Books. Gerry Gilbert Fonds MsC. 14.1.1). 

  47. Ridgeway, “Deluxe Text,” 10. 

  48. Ian Ridgeway tells a lovely anecdote of Tish editor Peter Auxier discovering 36 foot long slabs of old-growth lumber in a demolished factory and working with Deluxe to salvage the wood before it was turned into backfill and lost. They salvaged 30, 000 pieces of the ‘priceless’ lumber (13–14). 

  49. David UU (David W. Harris), “Beyond Concrete Poetry,” The British Columbia Monthly 1.3 (December 1972), n. pag. 

  50. As Gerry Gilbert mused, “Yeah, Zen was there” (Bowering et al “Vancouver” n. pag.). 

  51. Gerry Gilbert, “Babyland Blues,” Money (Vancouver: York Street Commune, 1971), n. pag. 

  52. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Lectures Phenomenology of Spirit (1947. Repr. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980), 4. 

  53. Furthermore, in Kojève’s words: “Generally speaking, the I of Desire is an emptiness that receives a real positive content only by negating action that satisfies Desire in destroying, transforming, and ‘assimilating’ the desired non-I. And the positive content of the I, constituted by negation, is a function of the negated non-I.” Desire itself “is but a revealed nothingness, an unreal emptiness. Desire, being the revelation of an emptiness, the presence of the absence of a reality, is something essentially different from the desired thing, something other than a thing, than a static and given real being that stays eternally identical to itself” (5). Self and subjectivity are generated through this difference. 

  54. Gerry Gilbert, “Metro,” Journal to the East (Vancouver: blewointment, 1974), n. pag. 

  55. Webb, Naked Poems, n. pag. 

  56. Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 81. 

  57. Galloway, The Interface Effect, 82. 

  58. Galloway, The Interface Effect, 92. 

  59. Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 17. 

  60. Webb, Wilson’s Bowl, 66. 


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