Am I a Saskatchewan Poet?

A response to questions posed by Gerry Hill November 18, 2010 prior to a Saskachewan Writers’ conference the next spring.  I found this as I was cleaning up my Symposium on Manitoba Writng files regretting I hadn’t found it sooner to pose some of the same questions to Manitoba Writers.

What makes you a Saskatchewan poet, if you are one?
I have lived in Saskatchewan for nine years and three of my book length collections have been published by Saskatchewan publishers. It could be as simple as that. My first influences were not “prairie poets” they were Alden Nowlan, Irving Layton, Al Purdy , Leonard Cohen, a little later Atwood and then Anne Sumigalski,  John Newlove. I think who your influences have been and who you read has something to do with where you situate yourself as a writer, as well as residence and publication.

Throughout my career, the poorly named “confessional poets” have influenced me. I still carry of copy of Berryman’s Dream Songs, and collections by Theodore Roethke (a little old for this crowd but still) Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Sexton, Rich, Robert Lowell and Randal Jarrell to every writers retreat (Including right now as I am finishing two weeks at Wallace Stegner House). This was learning on my own. Once I got to university, the influences slowly started to change.

The major influence as is the case with so many Canadian writers, not only Prairie poets, was Robert Kroetsch, especially his creative writing class of 1979 with Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe and Jake Macdonald. It was from Cooley and Arnason I learned more about the prairie canon if there is such a thing. Newlove and Kroetsch were pretty much the only “prairie poets” I had read.  Then Szumigalski; and Suknaski – who was a writer in residence at the U of M one of the years I was student there.

 I think I started out with a pretty bald statement of residence and publication – but think on it a bit Kroetsch & Newlove, Brewster & Szumigalski, Sorestad and Suknaski – you could do pretty good work on their differences, but I would consider them all prairie poets, and all but Kroetsch Saskatchewan poets. In addition, there will not have been much Saskatchewan or prairie writing for them to be reading when they started breaking trail for the rest of us.

One of the interesting things about Kroetsch’s influence through my own experience is how little he cared if we took a postmodern approach to our work. Ted Dyck probably was the one who was there for a while maybe even Di Brandt, but they have all moved on and I’m sure Kroetsch was pleased as punch they have, and not everyone is trying to rewrite seed catalogue or the Sad Phoenician, ok some of us are…. I love thinking of Kroetsch’s postmodern poetry – as written in the poem itself as “here is a post, here is a strand of wire…” There are not many prairie poets anymore that can relate to that experience or Newlove’s “Riding off any horizon.” What is left of Suknaski’s Wood Mountain?

So I have a pretty clear attraction to the romanticism of those writers in Manitoba Alberta and Saskatchewan that inspired all the rest of us. I would say a Saskatchewan poet is anyone who has been influenced or inspired by Newlove, Kroetsch, Szumigalski, Suknaski and others from that generation.

Lorna Crozier I would already put in the next generation and I think she will always be a prairie poet. I love Pat Lane, but he had too much of the coast in him, he probably never was.

Sarah Binks should not be overlooked in this context because often discussion about Saskatchewan or Prairie winter is as cold and humourless as our winters. What I have less knowledge off is who considers themselves Saskatchewan Poets now. I think of you, who now must have lived longer in Saskatchewan than anywhere else, I think of Bruce Rice and his wonderful long poem about Regina, Paul Wilson, Anne Campbell, Brenda Schmidt, and Elizabeth Phillips. But those are the people I’m reading now out of Saskatchewan.

Finally, and not just because I was Executive Director for six years, I think membership in the Guild and participation in workshops, and the formidable work at Fort San and now Sage Hill would also give any writer at least honorary if not full status in the Saskatchewan/prairie tribe.

Another would be if you’ve ever had a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant. Certainly means you once were.

 I’m just thinking I’ve been doing this all wrong. I should be doing this like Ondaatje’s  Elimination Dance.  This might something fun with a little bit of humour in it is to set up a Saskatchewan Poet’s Elimination Dance, whether you use the new tech of posting a web page that people can add too, or simply have a flip chart at the conference with the heading “You’re not a Saskatchewan Poet if: with a list that follows. Will anything be published after this conference. I’m thinking of stealing this idea for the Symposium of Manitoba Writing; you know you’re not a Manitoba writer if:

Finally though – after having given you the kind of stuff you’re after because it interests me I want to kick the milking stool from underneath people asking these kind of questions – What exactly is it that you are asking? Is it influences, residency, style, form, content…I mean really how different is it to be a Saskatchewan poet than it is to be a Saskatchewan Auto Parts Dealer. It will be different for the little shop here in Eastend or Shaunavon   even than the dealers in Regina, and certainly the dealers in Toronto, but when it comes down to the thing itself we are left with the poem (on a good day) and if we’re lucky, the sale. There’s a flaw in the analogy I’m sure your people will pick up, but I don’t have time to find one that’s more apt.

How or why aren’t you a Saskatchewan poet anymore, if you aren’t?

There’s  part of me that wants my next books to be published by Coteau and Thistledown so that I can say I have had all my books published in Saskatchewan while I burnish my Riders travel mug that I bought yesterday to maintain my Saskatchewan status as I travel back to Winnipeg from Eastend.

Truth is right now I’m having trouble convincing any publishers I am even a poet. I would love to blame it on my own regionalism and the tight assed central Canadian literary establishment (hey, actually that’s kind of fun) but I know there are other reasons my recent work isn’t making impressions except on those people to whom I read. The reading I did of Afghanistan Confessions in Shaunavon was amazing experience for me and as I have been told several times since for the audience too. So another qualification – you come back, you visit and definitely you must have read your work in rural Saskatchewan as well as in Regina and Saskatoon.

Does the label “Saskatchewan Poetry” (or “______ Poetry” of any kind) matter?
No. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s like bringing out an Ouija Board at a party. In our rough climate parlour games should be encouraged but not taken too seriously.

What are the limits to “Saskatchewan Poetry” as a name, a concept, a practice, or whatever else it might be?
The most obvious is that it can lead to provincialism, isolationism, and boosterish behaviour. That should be left for the publishing companies and the Writers Guild. The boosterism I mean. I don’t know much about limitations, and am concerned that taking “Saskatchewan Poetry” influence could dampen the urge to drink whiskey and dance.

To finish with a bit of context. I was at the SWG when we did the Symposium on Saskatchewan Writing, and when Ted Dyck edited “Essays on Saskatchewan Writing” so my urging to have a little fun isn’t to disregard that this kind of discussion which could make us better writers, as we celebrate our accomplishments and tend to our weaknesses. We need to thicken the Saskatchewan skin. I also learned from Kroetsch to see my work as “the work” rather than as “Victor Enns.”  It is a damn hard thing to do, but necessary for good writing to flourish and for anybody ever to improve their work.

We would do well to remember  “crits” are common in architecture, interior design and other such professional disciplines. A little rigour in looking at writing from Saskatchewan can only benefit the work, and I’m pleased to hear that this conference is happening next March.

 Victor Enns –  Writen from Wallce Stegner House, Eastend Saskatchewan

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