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All poetry all the time.

By Clint Burnham

October 27, 2016

A couple of years ago I was travelling with my family in Italy, and we were picked up at the airport in Palermo, Sicily, by the son of a family from whom we were renting an apartment. As he drove us down twisting coastal roads in the ink-black night, far too quickly for my taste, I asked the young man what he did. He was a student at the university, he said. How was it, I asked. It’s ok, he said, but some of the professors, how do you say, they like to bust my balls. Yeah we do that sometimes, I said, and told him I teach at a university in Canada. What do you teach, he asked, and I told him I teach poetry. Maybe it’s my imagination, but his estimation of his passenger seemed to go up a few notches. He didn’t slow down, though.

This semester I am having a wonderful poetry focus, one that I keep telling people about. I am teaching our poetry creative writing class, English 372, and our course on North American Poetry and Poetics, English 454W. There are a few students in both classes, they are both in the evening, one on the hill, the other at Harbour Centre. It’s kind of cool. In the poetry class we are mostly getting into conceptual and other appropriative techniques – everything from ‘digital harvests’, where the students pull material out of emails, or texts, or other online detritus, to ‘homophonic translations,’ where they translate the sounds, not meanings, of another language into English. These may appear to be cold and uncreative, but the students have found some real gold – emails from a distant parent, random dumb advice to a student dealing with depression, translations from Italian or German that had the class rolling in the aisles. And it’s also interesting for me to see what students are learning in more historical classes – one, for example, read a great text in Old English before rendering it into the mixmaster of his translation practice.

Writing poetry isn’t the same thing as studying it, and while, as I said, there are a few students in both classes, and so some cross-over, it’s a different kind of class when every week you’re reading Ezra Pound’s The Cantos together. This is my baseline text – I’ve taken the idea of reading one big book together over a semester from the Lacan Salon, where we take months to read one of the Seminars. In this poetry class, it’s been pretty amazing to be together in a room, looking at Pound’s economics (some good ideas, some kind of wacky), his politics (the disaster of his anti-Semitism), the historical collages of the Italian Renaissance, American revolutionary history, Chinese poetry, and just whatever Pound was up to in Gibraltar in 1908, and not least, the incredible formal torqueing of language, space, vernacular, and parataxis that has been so influential on the past century of modernist and postmodern poetry. Every class we begin with a couple students facilitating a discussion of the cantos we’ve read that week – I call this a “wiki-Pound” but there’s also a great two-volume set of annotations by the incomparable scholar Carroll F. Terrell, so we can follow up many of the references.

I’ve combined reading Pound with more contemporary poetry (I wrote a book on the Kootenay School of Writing, so you can guess we look at the KSW), trying, and I hope succeeding, in showing students how poetry is a vital part of everyday life, here, in Vancouver, but also in the world.  Like I said, it’s kind of cool.

Interested in hearing poetry at SFU? Canada's former poet laureate, Fred Wah, reads today (October 27) at Special Collections on the 7th floor of the Bennett library at 12:30. And the "She Writes" celebration of Women's Voices takes place next Thursday, November 3, 7 p.m., in room 3310 at the Surrey campus: tickets and more information here. Finally, the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence is sponsoring New Orleans-based poet Rodrigo Toscano, next Friday, November 4, at Pulpfiction Books on Main street in Vancouver, at 7 p.m.

Clint Burnham’s research interests include cultural studies (especially film and popular culture), contemporary poetry, and theory (especially psychoanalysis and Marxism). He is the author of book-length studies of Steve McCaffery and Fredric Jameson. His novel Smoke Show was published by Arsenal Pulp in 2005 and his latest book of poetry, Pound at Guantánamo, was published in 2016 by Talonbooks. Clint has written on art in ESPACE art actuel, fillipFlash ArtCamera AustriaThe Vancouver SunCanadian ArtArtforum, and The Globe and Mail. He co-edited Digital Natives (Other Sights) with Lorna Brown, From Text to Texting (Indiana U.P.) with Paul Budra, and an issue of Canadian Literature on 21st century poetics with Christine Stewart; he is the author of The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing (Arsenal Pulp). New and recent art writing includes a catalogue essay on Canadian photographer Kelly Wood, an essay for the Future of Memory exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien, and a catalogue essay for Vancouver photographer Henri Robideau’s retrospective at the grunt gallery; an essay on Edward Burtynsky is in the forthcoming Petrocultures collection from McGill-Queen’s, an essay on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in the forthcoming Un-Archiving the Literary Event: CanLit Across Media volume, also from McGill-Queen’s, and an essay on Lacan and new media is in the forthcoming After Lacan collection from Cambridge. Prof. Burnham’s newest scholarly book, Fredric Jameson and The Wolf of Wall Street,appears this fall from Bloomsbury, and he is also writing a book on Slavoj Žižek and digital culture. In the 2016-17 academic year he will be teaching a creative writing workshop in poetry, a course on North American poetry and poetics, a theory course, and a first year course on “literature now.” Clint is an associate member of the SFU Department of Geography and a member of SFU’s Centre for Global Political Economy, and he is a founding member of the Vancouver Lacan Salon.