Derek Beaulieu: Canada 2/06

‘refusing the prairie: radicality and urbanity in Calgarian poetics’


In the face of the conservative politics rampant in Alberta, and the cultural embracing of rurality, geography, and place, there is a coterie of poets in Calgary whose work rejects these aspects in favour of what Sianne Ngai categorizes as a “poetics of disgust.”(98) These poets — as typified in the work of Jordan Scott and ryan fitzpatrick (and others loosely gathered around filling Station and dANDelion magazines) — push against the modernist tropes of ‘prairie poetry’ in favour of a more urban, linguistically disruptive form that can articulate the dissatisfaction with the politics being forwarded in historically ‘typical’ representations of Alberta.

In Surviving the Paraphrase, Frank Davey argues against poetry used as “a tool employed not for its own intrinsic qualities but for the expression of ideas and visions” (2), opposing a poetic based on “messianic attempts to define a national” — and in this case, a regional — “identity” (3). ‘Prairie poetry,’ a form promoted as representative of Albertan writing, concentrates through lyrical humanism on the rural experience, a dependence on geography and a concentration on familial history as a means of concreting regional expression. Despite Robert Kroetsch’s claim that Canadian poetry did not have a Modernist period — that it slid directly from Victorianism to Post-Modernism (111) — prairie poetry’s concentration on the romanticism of settlement and exploration, and on presence and narrative belies an underlining linguistic support of a type of manifest destiny. To write of geography; “the lovely new land / where we now stand” (McKinnon 15) in Alberta, and especially in Calgary — is to endorse an ideological support for economic growth and expansion, and a reiteration of the dependence on oil and gas resources. Calgary — with an estimated population of 1.2 million — popularly represents itself though its rural ties (the white stetson, the Calgary Stampede, the Pengrowth Saddledome), by oil and gas revenue and by right-wing politics; all of which foreground Calgary as a traditional, conservative, basically rural environment.

Turning with disgust from this trend, these Calgarian poets emphasize left-wing social politics, radical linguistic structures and an inner-city urban environment as compositional and theoretical frameworks for poetic discourse. For this inner-city community “[t]he only cure […] is dismemberment” of traditional, conservative forms, where, as Julia Williams writes, “city grows here despite / scale and weed.” (80, emphasis added) For this community of writers, the defining node is no longer geography and writing the landscape; instead the community is more unsettled and outside of geo-economical structures. There is a tacit refusal to participate in “established” economies (which in Calgary means fossil-fuel development and dependence), the social majority as it is formed in Albertan politics, and the rural, industry-based models of social history. By refusing these tropes, these poets have carved uniquely urban, non-“prairie”, fluid spaces composed of what Louis Cabri refers to as “Words / outworn / outwards […] to / city / folk / with / no / cowboy / lore.” (76)

The political emphasis on growth and exploitation in Alberta places ideological restraints on poetic response, for as Sianne Ngai states in ‘Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust,’ “the bourgeois morality endemic to capitalism imposes a limit on our ways or expressing outrage [and] has the effect of deliberately curbing any potential to articulate our abhorrence to it.” (98, original emphasis) Unwilling to “discover, to trace / the lineage, to claim […] innocence” or to “inherit this earth from their journey” (McKinnon 54), the response by poets like Jordan Scott and ryan fitzpatrick is to distance themselves from the Modernist urge to construct either structure or meaning.


In ‘blert’— a manuscript in progress published to date primarily by micro-presses — Jordan Scott engages what Ngai, once again, refers to as the “negative utterance” (103) as a means to articulate a poetry of the body, the voice, and geography. ‘blert’ is Scott’s “articulate expression of his […] own inarticulateness” (Ngai 104), cleaving a space outside of the normative constructions, where to speak means participating in the “interac tracheal / soundtrack” [1] of capitalism and conservatism. Incorporating a vocabulary of biological and geographical language, Scott resists normative constructions of narrative, and “thwarts close reading” (Ngai 102) by engaging with a “jaw arctic” eliding his “poetics of the stutter” with the capitalist limitations on the articulation of abhorrence. Throughout ‘blert’ the vocabulary becomes unhinged from a narrative construction, and lines like “bladderwracked glottal / woofer snorkel / the syllable pinballed” work as unmovable interruptions to consumable, constructing language. Ngai argues that “despite cultural limitations, poets do have recourse to a language for articulating disgust” (104), that obscenities and outbursts work to point ambiguously to unanchored signifieds; “Oort cloud blort oompah. Oospore bore b-boy, boomboxed.”

In direct contradiction with Charles Olson’s poetic demand to

get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, […] speed […] the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen (Olson 240);

‘blert’ arranges syntax to purposefully interrupt Olson’s poetic drive for “energy-discharge” (240) in favour of the awkward, the mal-formed and the tongue-tied. Scott assembles lines around the very syntax which is most difficult to pronounce by an adult stutterer — thereby directly linking a political alienation with a bodily interruption of Olsonian ‘Projective Verse.’ Ngai categorizes this kind of unmovable syntax as “raw matter, at times flowing and at others deliberately obstructing flow — yet always insistent” (112), so that turning away from Olson’s drive to “USE USE USE” (240), towards a “[p]rofanity of [f]ormless ([n]onrepresentational) [l]anguage” (Ngai 104), Scott proposes to “rehearse in verse. horn spat. rest. speedbag glottal. rise. bumblebee yodel. again.” ‘blert’ as a poetic project is formed entirely out of language used inappropriately, for “[t]hey learned to mumble — not to speak — and it was only after paying attention to the increasing noise of the century, […] that they acquired a language.”

Unchallenged Olsonian poetics — “the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is […] to be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it” (247) — supports (through the use of continued metaphorical construction of poetry as harvest), consumption, patriarchy and a dominion over landscape and geography. Olson links landscape and geography with a narrative drive;

By landscape I mean what ‘narrative’; scene, event, climax, crisis, hero, development, posture; all that meant — all the substantive of what we call literary [...] you say ‘orientate me’ Yessir! Place it! (Olson 252)

“Projective Verse” — and in particular Olson’s theory of “composition by field” (239) as a tool and poetic is implicitly tied with consumption — a poetics defined around “force” (240), “use” (240), “process” (240), “machinery” (241), and the fall of the “hammer” (240). While Olson suggests that “it is time we picked the fruits” (245), this expansionist, frontier-besting poetic — a poetic linked to narrative — when applied in Alberta politically supports the status quo of ‘unlimited growth.’


While Jordan Scott’s ‘blert’ confronts geography and writing of the body in a means which both is politically astute and fraught with his own stutter, ryan fitzpatrick in ‘hounds of love / loss leaders’ articulates a poetic based around industrial-waste and an economically marginalized community. fitzpatrick’s poem cum manifesto ‘A Quick Note on Poetry’ consists entirely of the statement: ‘I Will Not Bring Beauty Into The World,’ a position taken up in both the form and the content of fitzpatrick’s oeuvre. Jordan Scott’s awkward syntax forms around his engagement with an inability to physically speak in confrontation with the ‘breath line,’ geography and economic marginalization; fitzpatrick’s fragmented lines form around his engagement with the language of marketing, consumerist expectation and, once again, economic marginalization. By turning away from “Beauty” as a classical trope of poetry, fitzpatrick politicizes language by interceding into what constitutes ‘proper’ grammatical construction:

Fan nub
nex homusch

Apprais catalo
stack plasma.

Having written a more normative long poem suite in ‘The Ogden Shops’, fitzpatrick has since transitioned to shorter poetic lines consisting of fragments of consumerist language — “Egg spread sale rain” — juxtaposed against fragments of recognizable words — “Lectric ergie sire samp creen.” fitzpatrick’s reply to consumer choice is a poetic of dispersal, fragmentation and disruption of meaning;

letter an ouring
rope evange
dash wood
jell lustrate
vocate tonque
corps on comp

By working with fragmented language, fitzpatrick obstructs the construction of normative meaning in favour of a disjointed “negative utterance” (Ngai 103) which wedges between the typographic and the ‘useful;’ an attempt to “Diefinbox pipdream stifle” the power in consumerist language. As Charles Bernstein notes in ‘Optimism and Critical Excess (process),’ there is no way of assuming an authoritative voice, no way to work to swerve without reproducing and furthering that linguistic oppression. (153) Through the use of fractured language détourned from normative spelling, fitzpatrick’s poetic is “laming claim” on the “micro custom” of “buy[ing] direct.” Consisting almost entirely of “raw matter” (Ngai 112), ‘hounds of love / loss leaders’ has no accumulated normative meaning except that of constant interference.

W.J.T. Mitchell argues that “Landscape is an exhausted medium, no longer viable as a mode of artistic expression,” and he continues that “[l]ike life, landscape is boring; we must not say so.” (5) When fitzpatrick does refer to landscape, the vocabulary of reference is unhinged through an alienating context: does a “rivat river rival” geographically drain into, or flow from, a “Force serv trict / ducat lake?” By noting the “hold and discurse” inherent in the “boring,” fitzpatrick finds a way to “say so” through unanchored signifiers. This unanchored language works both as a criticism of “boring” landscape, and the “boring” life of consumerism. Just as spam email includes a vocabulary purposefully inserted to out-maneuver filtration programs, fitzpatrick’s poetry avoids censure by capitalist morality by evoking a vocabulary outside of normative construction. His texts may resemble familiar constructions, but ‘hounds of love / loss leaders’ is a “Neon suite / poem […] fake” that dwells in the elision of the (un)familiar — alienating the language from itself, and the reader from the language of meaning through the “[p]rofanity of [f]ormless ([n]onrepresentational) [l]anguage” (Ngai 104):

intime struct
paper stroke
digits lost


Jon Paul Fiorentino, editor of Post-Prairie, argues that

[t]he inability of many readers and literary scholars to see an emerging poetics of a new prairie, the post-prairie, should not be surprising — there is a reason the prairie to thought of as the domain of the rural, the wheat field and the grain elevator. […T]he persistence of this imagery […] has something to do with cultural capital — that is, there is a marketplace-based reason many people continue to think of the prairie as a fixed notion of ‘traditional’ landscape. (9)

Both Jordan Scott and ryan fitzpatrick actively attempt to disrupt this “cultural capital” (9) by abandoning the narrative-drive in order to critique the conservative politic in Alberta. This linking of narrative and consumerism does, as Bernstein notes, limit the options available to articulate “disgust.” By favouring the awkward and refusing to “Bring Beauty Into The World,” Scott and fitzpatrick — like many poets currently writing in Calgary — distance themselves from the traditional tropes of ‘prairie,’ finding an “articulate expression of [their …] own inarticulateness.” (Ngai 104) With marketplace-driven culture rampant in Alberta, Scott and fitzpatrick turn with disgust to the “negative utterance” (Ngai 103) — for “[h]ow can these institutionalized logics not make stomachs turn?” (Ngai 98)


[1] Both Jordan Scott’s ‘blert’ and ryan fitzpatrick’s ‘hounds of love / loss leaders’ are unpaginated. As such all quotations from either manuscript will have no parenthetical references in this paper.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. ‘Optimism and Critical Excess (process)’ A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. 150-178.

Cabri, Louis. The Mood Embosser. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2002.

Davey, Frank. ‘Surviving the Paraphrase.’ Surviving the Paraphrase. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1983. 1-12.

Fiorentino, Jon Paul and Robert Kroetsch. “Post-Prairie Poetics: A Dialogue.” Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. 9-14.

fitzpatrick, ryan. ‘hounds of love / loss leaders.’ On-line at http://processdocuments.blogspot.com/ (September 27, 2005).

---. ‘A Quick Note on Poetry.’ On-line at http://processdocuments.blogspot.com/ (October 11, 2005).

McKinnon, Barry. I Wanted to Say Something. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1990.

Mitchell, W.J.T. ‘Introduction’ in W.J.T. Mitchell, ed. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Neuman, Shirley and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Western Canadian Literary Documents Series Vol. III. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982.

Ngai, Sianne. ‘Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust.’ Open Letter. 10th Ser. No. 1 (Winter 1998): 98-122.

Olson, Charles. ‘Projective Verse.’ Collected Prose. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 239-249.

Scott, Jordan. ‘blert.’ [unpublished manuscript]

Williams, Julia. The Sink House. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004.