November 30th, 1999

Poetry Nation

by Andy Brown • in Books

poetry nation

In Poetry Nation Reggie Cabico and Todd Swift have gathered an impressive assortment of artists — 120 Canadian and American “fusion poets.” They have chosen this term wisely, to avoid connotations of “spoken word,” a scene which has developed a bad reputation in recent years mainly because of the simpering nasal tone or journal-entry-rant style adopted by so many of its practitioners. To their credit the editors of Poetry Nation emphasize the quality of writing as their foremost objective: “We have sought to rejoice in eclecticism and enthusiasm, verve and energy, but also, and always excellence.”

I have been fortunate enough to witness some of the contributors to Poetry Nation in action, which has helped to give me an off-the-page perspective. My vote for the master of the genre goes to Taylor Mali, who blew me away when I saw him perform. In “Labeling Keys,” a surprisingly poignant poem about his father’s cryptically coded assortment of keys, Mali combines wit, humour, cadence, charisma, and most importantly, storytelling. I was almost as impressed when I saw Toronto’s Clifton Joseph perform his incredible brand of dub poetry, but on the page it really doesn’t measure up. It falls to the same fate of incoherence as many of the jazz poets featured here. bill bissett is one of the more engaging performers I’ve seen but I’ve yet to finish reading one of his poems, the one printed here being no exception.

What struck me about this collection was the number of both established and lesser known writers, including plenty of Montreal talent, who bridge quality writing and rhythm. Those familiar with the long established Montreal spoken word scene will recognize the names of many local writers and performers, including: R.E.N. Allen, Fortner Anderson, Alex Boutros, Emily S. Downing, Golda Fried, David Jager, Catherine Kidd, Alexis O’Hara, and Anne Stone, not to mention Todd Swift, whose own contributions, “U R Sculley 2 Me” and “Trick,” are incredibly well crafted poems.

Another strong entry is Sheri-D Wilson — I’ve never seen her on stage, but when I read “Bukowski on the Block” it almost performed itself in my head. As did Marc Smith’s “My Father’s Coat” in which he comes to terms with his despicable father’s death by wearing his coat.

There were plenty of strong entries from names I didn’t recognize, possibly artists from New York where a strong scene has grown around the Nuyorkian Café. Nicole Blackman gives practical advice for girls such as forming “Mattel focus groups” for Barbie owners. Jeffery McDaniel’s hilarious “Poetry Nation” is a world where you pay for groceries with words and even coroner and supermodel want to be poets. Justin Chin writes engagingly about his “Ex-Boyfriends Named Michael.” Elena Georgiou explores “A Week in the Life of the Ethnically Indeterminate” (a popular theme in this book) and her “Lessons in Honesty” is a beautiful poem about the vulnerability of potential lovers.

The editors make the claim that the number of contributors is “surely some kind of record.” Possibly. But due to the excessively inclusive and often inconsistent nature of the material, perhaps no record should have been broken. Over two hundred pages of poetry is a lot to digest. Kudos must go to Swift and Cabico, however, for documenting a mode of writing which is often fresh and inventive and has revived poetry, bringing it into the next millennium.

b>$17.95 CDN Véhicule Press, 240 pages, Reviewed from galleys, ISBN 1-55065-112-9

This review first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1998-99 issue of the Montreal Review of Books.

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