Stephen Collis, Once in Blockadia

Poetry man is it poetry though man poetry it is is it poetry I mean man poetry

So anyway, I have a complicated relationship with contemporary poetry. As an English prof, and not just that but an English prof who often teaches poetry (albeit usually from the eighteenth century), and not just that but an English prof who sometimes teaches contemporary poetry: I've got to have an opinion, and I'm supposed to be The Smart One.

In other words I'm automatically assumed to get them automatically, books like Stephen Collis' Once in Blockadia. (Yes, I meant to write "automatically" twice.)

Thing is, though, poetry is hard, but more importantly, explication makes me sweat. I really feel for those students who look blankly and anxiously at me when we're trying to talk in class about poems, as long as it's clear they've done the reading. I've been there myself so, so many times before, and in consequence I'm never going to make them talk it out.

For me, usually, reading poetry is experiential, a process of feeling rhythms, hearing voices, catching patterns of sound and their disruptions, and after all that sometimes I might even feel like I understand what I've read well enough to talk about it. Enjoyment or respect for what I've read seems immaterial for how comfortably or confidently I can talk about contemporary poetry. Three times through Once in Blockadia now, not long after recently meeting Collis as a fellow member at a weekend-long writing workshop (before I'd read it, so no cheating there!), and I'm still not sure that I've found a home in words just yet for my feelings and thoughts about the book.

But even more often than is usual for contemporary poetry, maybe that's part of the point, no?
Image lifted from Talonbooks
In a back-cover blurb, Fred Wah proposes that Once in Blockadia "searches for a common language in the occupied spaces of confrontation." Certainly, this is a book whose language is confrontational, elusive, evasive, independent, uncommon even though and because we recognize all the separate words. As such it's precisely the kind of text sure to make me sweat at the very idea of explication, but then inexplicability is part of the context for thinking through the role played in climate change by "energy infrastructure companies."

Collis wrote this book after being sued by Kinder Morgan for $5.6 million, due to his helping to organize the 2014 protests on Burnaby Mountain, and the poems here are deeply, intimately linked to that experience. Some of them grow out of the language used in court filings; one long piece was derived from a raw machine transcript of a 2011 CBC Radio interview; some speak out of his long, tense relationship with writers of old, notably the Wordsworths at Grasmere. As counsel for Kinder Morgan argued before the BC Supreme Court, "underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed" (p.9).

Set the book's ending beside its beginning, and it becomes clear, to me, at least, that Once in Blockadia just might be the poetry underneath the barricade that was constructed underneath the poetry.

It's not that Collis isn't searching here for a common language, so I don't precisely disagree with Wah. Instead, he's pinched by the inadequacy and functionality of the common language we've already got. Underneath the poetry--Wordsworth's, for example--is an ideology that leads to the barricade, but also to that which must have a barricade raised against it. More generally, my sense is that Once in Blockadia demonstrates both writing-with and writing-against, where Collis is sometimes writing with the language of his overt opponents and sometimes writing against the language of his forebears and potential allies. That's a tricky line for him to walk, but potentially a trickier line for his readers to follow, even if it's more rewarding once you've found your feet.

The opening lines of "Home at Grasmere," a poem dedicated to Peter Culley, offer something like a partially ironic crystallization of what I take to be Collis' combined mission and quandary, in this poem and book but also beyond: "I still don't know / How to write the poems / I should probably have been / Writing all along" (p.113).

That's okay. I still don't know how to read the poems I should absolutely have been reading all along.

You know what, maybe just read "Come the Revolution" from the book, over at Lemon Hound. As always, you can find in rob mclennan a very attentive reader. Or if you don't trust readers, read this interview with the poet himself.

But definitely spend some prolonged time with this book. The payoff will come, even if it takes some time.

(I'm expecting to come back to this book over the summer: that happens, sometimes, and I'm saying this in hopes someone will remind me of this soft commitment. I'm not done thinking about Once in Blockadia, but I didn't want to keep deferring these first thoughts.)


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