[Dispatches recently received the open letter posted below in response to George Bowerings’ open letter, “The Object of My Affection,” which we published on 11 June 2018. Bowering’s letter was addressed specifically to “some [women] staff workers” at ECW Press who, based on their disagreement with the way Bowering portrayed women in his new novel (the crime/sin of “objectification”), decided to withdraw their services from promoting and distributing the novel, effectively undercutting its publication, even though the editor stood by the book. Bowering’s main points were that this was an act of censorship based on arbitrary criteria, and moreover, that the criteria were incoherent, the charge of “objectifying women” being based on a deep confusion regarding the conventions and dynamics of the novel as a form.

Dispatches was torn over whether or not too publish Mr. Harris’s letter. We recognize that it is a genuine dispatch from the poetry wars. The issues of writing it addresses regarding historic battles over poetics, and especially over form, while rather stale all these years later, still resonate on some level, and contain useful lessons in a moment when poetry has become dominated by the Commercial Poetry Product and its avant-garde doppelganger. That said, we found the tone of the letter to be insufferably smug, and we found the ad hominem attacks and cheap shots directed at Bowering, Fred Wah, and Daphne Marlatt, all writers we have known for decades and deeply respect, to be offensive. Not least, we found that a coherent address to Bowering’s main points got completely lost in Harris’s enthusiasm to discredit something called “postmodernism.”

We, however, are more than happy to be offended in the spirit of lively, bare knuckle discourse (to get a little macho about it) and in the pursuit of the continued circulation of information and ideas. We are happy to share that offense with anyone open to a conversation about it. Having established their significance not just to Canadian but to North American writing, Bowering, Wah, and Marlatt can take care of themselves. This kind of petty chirping is more an annoyance than anything else. Unfortunately for Mr. Harris, it undercuts the significance his literary points might carry and cheapens his discourse.

Dispatches will be responding in more length to certain points in Mr. Harris’ letter soon. We would like to encourage you, our readers, to chip in your two bits worth as well. ]


Dear George   :

I sympathize with you, and your publisher Jack David, for the situation you are in regarding the “women” at ECW Press. As I understand your open letter to them, they thought your book No One should not have been published as it “objectifies” women, and they do not want to be incriminated by involvement in its promotion or distribution. You are puzzled by this, in the sense that the ECW women are, as you prove by reference to etymology, not using the term “objectify” in any conventional way. Also, you identify, rightly I think, the ECW women’s attempt to stall your book as a new kind of censorship: “In the old days . . . censorship was practiced or urged for any text that questioned religious government or mentioned sexual activity. In recent times it is directed against any imagery that might make potential readers ‘uncomfortable,’ or that might seem contrary to their beliefs.” You quote your mentor Charles Olson, a person of parts (even if he couldn’t write poetry that well), in order to affirm your humilitas or sensitivity and self-awareness as a writer, a sensitivity and self-awareness that would prevent you from ever presenting a female character in any unfair way, and you provide, from your book, numerous examples of that sensitivity as well as a lecture on the importance of distinguishing between narrator and author. You point out that, while your narrator (Odysseus, as I understand it, though I haven’t read your book yet) may be objectifying women, you, the author, would be attempting an honest portrayal of a woman-objectifier. Lastly, you invite the women to engage in dialogue with you because this could lead to better understanding of what it is to be a writer and reader: “I take these things seriously, and unlike a lot of Canadian writers, I don’t just write as if it were a naturally inherited skill.”

I agree with everything you say in your letter, but seriously, George, what were you thinking? It’s not just that what you said is uncharacteristically pompous and condescending. It’s not just that it’s uncool of you to mansplain your book, using logic, when you must know that many women nowadays have decided that dictionary definition, cause-effect, comparison-contrast etc are tools of patriarchal oppression. Some of them might even remember what you once said — that women invented language but men invented syntax. No, your arguments merely show you to be upset, quite natural when you are, as you point out, getting old and therefore aware of the fact that No One could be your last novel. You are naturally hopeful that it will affirm your genius, and the ECW women seem to have reservations. But you shouldn’t worry about your reputation, George. Criticism being an art rather than a science, we all have to wait for the accumulated judgment of that seemingly fickle but ultimately quite decisive gang, posterity — a judgment that usually solidifies about a couple of hundred years down the winding road of history. Meanwhile more important people than the ECW women, people like me and David, believe in you. David is willing to defend you against his own employees and I, in my long-forgotten ECW Press monograph (1992), affirmed that, while you are subject to erratic bouts of weird theoretical enthusiasms, these do not affect the quality of your writing. I still believe this to be true, having found some excellent poems in your latest book Some End (2018) — poems on which I hope to pronounce soon.

It’s with those weird enthusiasms, I believe, that your problem with the ECW women began. In connection with those (the enthusiasms), your open letter shows a certain obliviousness to history, a certain (there’s no other way to put it) obtuseness when it comes to the implications of your past critical and theoretical statements.

Let me mansplain. You are, as a critic and theorist, as you said in Imaginary Hand (1988), one of “the Tish poets of Vancouver, the language-centered avant-gardists to whom the origin of the post-modern in Canada is usually traced.” You affirmed this again in Left Hook (2005), dating that origin back to the late fifties and the introduction of Olsonic or Black Mountain poetics into Canada. As a Tishite and postmodernist, you helped to create and provide the justification for exactly the sort of censorship that the ECW women are attempting. You gave them what they need, as women, to regard your letter as the blustering of an established member of the white, heterosexual patriarchy, of a closet humanist who believes that dialogue is actually possible between men and women, of a male attempting to appropriate the experience of women, and of a canonical writer trying to protect his excessive space in Canadian anthologies and his undue influence on other antiquated patriarchs, like David and me, who run publishing companies and write criticism. As I see your situation, George, the chicks —if you’ll allow, entre-nous, a stupid but yet I think humorous and harmless alteration of the original cliché — have come home to roost. Or, to put it another way, the dogs (I hasten to affirm that this is, as you at least will immediately recognize, a classical allusion, in no way an insult) that you trained to hunt have come to believe that you are the prey.

Now let me “go,” as you put it in your letter, “all theoretical,” by way of showing how this happened. Postmodernism, your lifetime cause as a critic is, as you well know, a populist theory that bases literary and political judgments on identity. Formerly, during modernist times, it was considered gauche to dwell on a writer’s identity (ethnicity, tribal connections, class, sexuality, religion, culture and nationality) except as a sideline — to provide historical context and promote books by showing that, contrary to popular opinion, writers are interesting people. What the critic was supposed to mainly do was prove aesthetic quality through thematic and textual analysis. You and your friends at Tish rejected this protocol, pronouncing it the creation of a bunch of fusty thematic critics, the Arnoldians (who wore suits around University of British Columbia campus in the early sixties), and their only-slightly-more-advanced rhetorical colleagues, the New Critics (who wore Harris tweed, jeans and desert boots). You revolutionized Canadian literary criticism by proclaiming what you called marginality to be the key to aesthetic achievement. As Frank Davey, Tish’s main theorist, put it,  “We figured we were all outsiders, and so we presented ourselves as regionalists and outsiders. Outsiders to the English department from which we sometimes stole paper. Outsiders to Daphne [Marlatt]’s parents’ middle-class living room . . . . Outsiders to all the famous mythy poets in Ontario and the social realists at Contact Press . . .” As outsiders, you were victims, isolated from the sources of cultural power. Because you were victims, you were better writers.

In those halcyon days, geographical marginality was considered most important; Tish in its first editorial period (September 1961 – March 1963) featured a map of BC on its cover. Of the three main editors of Tish, you were from the Okanagan Valley, Fred Wah was from Trail and Nelson, and Davey was from Abbotsford — a place that he worked hard to affirm (and I, from nearby White Rock, can only agree with him on this) was the ultimate in geographical, cultural, religious and ethnic deprivation. The theoretical and critical writings of you and Davey, starting in Tish and extending through many, many books to the present, busied themselves with moving writers like literary chess pieces back and forth from the modernist to the postmodernist side of the board, postmodernist being “good,” and modernist being “less good.” These movements were justified using an analytical technique known as “deconstruction.” Deconstruction was discovered by Davey, in the course of his “attempting to bridge Tish poetics and French structuralism,” and introduced by him into Canada through his book Earle Birney (1971).

This book shocked the literary community in its use of Birney’s biography and other “extraneous” material (like Birney’s doctoral thesis) to discredit his writing. Davey later apologized for it, as a classical example of Oedipal jealousy, but meanwhile deconstruction caught on with academic critics. It was fun! It gave the critic, as the great Milton scholar Stanley Fish put it, a sense of infinite power. It enabled critics to discount the works of those fusty Arnoldians and New Critics and clear space for themselves in the academic hierarchy. Davey deconstructed Birney as a mess, saying that his poetry to a very limited extent benefitted from this, but mostly suffered. He was a Trotskyite who yet exhibited a capitalistic attitude to his art and who depended on the privileges of his status as a full professor in the church-based (monarchic) hierarchy of the university to pursue and promote his writing and get women. He was an academic whose formal studies in Chaucer featured listing hundreds of examples of irony in Chaucer only to condemn irony as a feature of bourgeois mentality that cannot be funny. But irony, as Davey pointed out, is one of the main features of Birney’s own poetry. As a professor, Birney hated teaching, regarding it as destructive of any creative impulse, yet he brought creative writing into Canadian universities and he helped negotiate the English department into a partnership with the government in creating and managing cultural grants and awards.

The next writer to be kneecapped was Phyllis Webb. This kneecapping was not done by Davey, but Davey published the article in his periodical Open Letter. Webb was said not to have the courage to cross over from modernism to postmodernism — a claim repeated by Davey in his encyclopedic guide to Canadian literature From There to Here (1972) — the first Canadian book to use and define the term “postmodernism.” I have to say here that you never did to anyone what Davey did to Birney and Webb — that your own form-oriented approach to deconstruction was milder, your attitude to it more tentative. As you said, “It is not possible . . . that one could engage in literary deconstruction without at least the trace (let us say) of a smile” (Imaginary Hand, 1988). You were careful to preface your book of deconstructive assertions (Errata, 1988) with “I may be wrong, but . . . .”

But did not your smile, George, your self-depreciating attitude, represent an abrogation of responsibility for what you and your associates were saying? Responsibility for some quite incredible and divisive judgments — that Margaret Atwood was like Robertson Davies in that she wrote “British” novels, that Atwood’s poetry is “confused,” that Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant achieved great success with audiences because they wrote in fictional forms that were “patriarchal.”

From There to Here set out the guidelines by which deconstruction proceeded: “The modernists sought to control both their world and their art; the post-modernists seek to participate in anarchic cooperation with the elements of an environment in which no one element fully controls any other. The modernist yearned to replace a Newtonian universe of mechanical certainty with a Ptolemaic one of medieval diversity: the post-modernist believes that the Newtonian has already been neutralized in the relativity theory of Einstein. To a modernist —like Margaret Atwood in her role as critic — lack of control over reality causes one to be a victim; to a post-modernist — like Gerry Gilbert — lack of control merely makes one a participant, the normal and desirable human condition. In all his writing, the post-modernist consciously or unconsciously works to assist the electronic media in the decentralization of human power, whether literary, political, or economic, and to make its already achieved decentralizations and anarchies visible and comprehensible to his fellow man in the forms and processes of art.”

It’s hard to say what this actually means, but note that the “normal and desirable” is represented by Gilbert, an obviously and very seriously fucked-up human being, further gone even than Birney. Gilbert is a “participant,” while Atwood (an almost preternaturally rational and balanced human) is a “controller.” You put a cap on the distinctions between modernism and postmodernism by stating, “The poets of postmodernism differ from the Modernists in this way: they question one authority without having the temerity to offer another . . . .” You seemed unaware at the time you said this (2005) that criticism unchecked by any responsibility to provide answers and propose solutions can only be regarded as the epitome of intellectual cowardice.

Here I may seem to digress, but only by way of explaining a certain problem that you have with women, a problem that the ECW women may have twigged on in your book (though again, I have not read it). Atwood keeps coming up in my account of Tish poetics because Tish marginality did not at first include sexual marginality, and that omission later came to be seen as an oversight. In fact, because of Atwood (and Laurence, Munro and Gallant), the poetics of marginality was at first inclined to connect female writers with centrality or special access to cultural power. Atwood’s poetry achieved meteoric success (publication by McClelland-Stewart) in the 1960’s, and this should not have been! She was eastern, interested in the structuralist Northrop Frye and his idea that poetry was entertainment in that it appealed to people’s wish-fulfillment fantasies and / or their collective memories. Since she worked with such a crazed poetics, it could only be her location, class, and connections that were propelling her to the top. Yet the Tishites had the aesthetic hots for Atwood; her poetry did seem original, innovative, up-to-date, “proprioceptive” as Olson had it. Davey put your hopes for Atwood in this way: “She was to become our companion in Canadian writing, whether or not we wanted an eastern-Canadian companion. This was not true of John Colombo or Daryll Hine or Alden Nowlan whom if we ignored would not become companions.”

But Atwood couldn’t be deconstructed as marginal, as easterners like bp nichol, Victor Coleman and Michael Ondaatje ultimately were. Davey listed the reasons: “She had by the mid seventies shifted the field we were writing in . . . toward women, among whom we had not enough companions in writing . . . . She had shifted the field back to Frygian thematics and away from language as the ground of culture and politics, even though her own words were precise and complexly political. We could not forgive this superficial structuralism in Frye and its glib generalizations about Canada and we could not forgive them at all when Atwood wrote Survival [1972] and defined out much of the Canadian culture and writing we valued.”

Atwood topped off her crimes by not doing you or Davey the honor of entering into the sort of debate that you wish to engage in with the ECW women. She realized that you’d loaded the dice, defining literary success as “male space” — as resulting from the exploitation of “patriarchal forms.” Her very popularity was evidence against her! Failure was one of the badges of marginality! So she made fun of you. She implied that Davey had a perverse kind of attraction to her. As Davey describes it in his Contemporary Authors autobiography, after he attacked Survival Atwood told his wife “that I must have female-Hitler evil-stepmother’ fantasies about her.” What that remark “said” to him was “how lightly Atwood was taking Canadians’ various struggles for cultural power.” Note that Davey assumes he and you Tishites were engaged in a legitimate struggle for cultural power, and he affirms that Atwood was ignoring the struggles of oppressed groups. Somehow, Atwood, for all her work with PEN, Amnesty, feminism, and The Writer’s Union, has less of a social conscience than Davey, you and Wah, a trio of academics embedded safely behind their lecterns preaching identity politics from the secular bible of literature to classes of subservient young people!

You she put in a book, Surfacing (1972). Davey was upset when he recognized you as the character David, a condescending jerk with artistic pretentions running around making a film featuring his wife Anna. The narrator of the book concludes that David is exploiting Anna and calls David “second-rate, selfish.” Davey says that Atwood acknowledges that your “bravado” is “self-parodying,” but he still thinks Atwood’s portrayal is too negative, and he says about you and her that he thought you were supposed to be friends. Here I would question his interpretation; I think he is confusing, as you say the ECW women might be doing, narrator and author. I see Atwood as giving David a streak of boyish vulnerability, and I think you have always prompted, and responded to, that motherly gene in her. If Davey, throughout his Atwood commentaries, regarded Atwood as a dragon lady masking evil intent behind the sexy and compliant exterior of a dominatrix, you in your commentary were always inclined to see her as a misguided Wonder Woman.

Your wife Angela and Wah’s wife Pauline Butling hacked at the very root of Tish poetics by arguing that your assumption of marginality was in every way phony. These women deconstructed you as men, who cannot really be marginal. You also came under fire from the Tish groupie (in the sense that she loved the theory and merely put up with the men) Daphne Marlatt. Together, the Tish women attacked the “male ethos” of Tish. Angela wrote (with your involvement — that self-parodying intellect again that Davey recognized Atwood recognizing) Piccolo Mondo, wherein she says how tired she is of “all that bafflegab . . . all trumpeting, disappearing into their own stories.” Marlatt claimed to have been traumatized by the violence: Robert Creeley punched you because you pretended to know everything (the ECW women would sympathize with him, but not of course condone the physical violence), and Wah threatened to punch Al Purdy because he didn’t like Creeley’s poetry. Butling interpreted this ethos as part of the “social capital” of the young male writer, essential to “their taking their rightful place among the powerful.” In her Open Letter article “Tish and the Problem of Margins” (Spring, 2001), she points out that none of the Tishites were in any way marginalized, least of all in the ways specified by Davey. The mere fact that they were male overcame any disadvantages that they may have had. The mere fact that they were all blasting their way into the academic stratosphere like Saturn rockets showed how highly they were regarded by WASP, heterosexual patriarchy of the English department at UBC, and how generously they were about to be rewarded

I’ll give you this, George. You tried to forestall the drift of poststructuralist ideologies and deconstructive methodology into the sort of fascistic action being perpetrated by the ECW women. First, you tried to stay with what you specified as the North American brand of postmodernism, though you didn’t mind (as you joked — that smile again) sprinkling the names of “Derrida” and other European epistemological philosophers through your criticism to impress your academic colleagues and make them afraid of you so they would leave you alone in your office. Second, you didn’t fall for Davey’s celebration of the proto-fascist McGill poet Louis Dudek as the modernist who most influenced the Canadian postmodernists. You agreed with Creeley that Dudek was an idiot (though you didn’t approve of Creeley’s enthusiasm for Irving Layton’s poetry). Third, you resisted, as I said, the extremities of deconstructive criticism. Fourth, you tried to forestall Fred Wah when, in 2000 in Faking It, he decided that he didn’t have to take shit from women, not even his own wife, because he was after all part Chinese, traumatized by the history of his grandfather and father in Canada and by his “hybridity” — his difficulties dealing with the “clash of cultures” embedded in his own personality. Wah realized that, in the pecking order of marginality, race trumps sex. He developed an “ethnopoetics” based on the credo “to write (or live) ethnically is to write (or live) ethically” — exactly the formula that inspired Nazi fascism and led to the holocaust. In other words, you tried to ignore that most recent in the line of poststructuralist ideologies, postcolonialism.

But, if you yelled at Wah, “Come on Wah, you’ve never been Chinese,” you nevertheless stuck with him, accepting his praise for your experimental verve and continuing with your identity criticism. Also, you ignored Davey’s accumulating warnings. By the time Wah came fully out of the closet as Chinese, Davey had already, in 1994 (Canadian Literary Power) surrendered the postmodernist fort, swamped by the “bizarre, carnivalesque contestations” of literary identity-politics: “Karl Jirgens prefaced a reading at the 1990 small press book fair with remarks about the connection between his fictions and the struggle of Latvians against what was then the USSR, and was met by sharp rebuffs from two lesbians of colour who read after him and announced that he and Latvia had little understanding of what actual oppression comprised. . . . At the concluding panel at the 1991 University of Calgary conference, ‘Interventing the Text’ . . . a number of panelists announced that they saw themselves as tokenized and objectified by being included in the panel. Inclusion (in the panel, or the conference) was here strategically translated as exclusion.”

Davey blames “the once postmodernist Daphne Marlatt” for starting the circus at Calgary by accusing the organizers of objectifying her as a token lesbian feminist.  One of those organizers was Wah. He was unable to defend himself: “one-quarter Chinese descendant of one of the CPR’s builders, was at stage-right, barely able to make himself room.” This event is likely what drove Wah to expose his victim creds as exceeding those of Marlatt. In Faking It, a sort of Mein Kampf lite, he lists his friends and enemies. You and Marlatt, because of your stylistic verve, are friends despite your colonialist WASP origins. Rohinton Mistry, Joy Kogawa, Marilyn Dumont and Evelyn Lau are POC writers on the list of enemies, Evelyn Lau on the very top (maybe you could tell me what’s behind that). These writers are, in effect, “Uncle Toms,” in collusion with the WASP hegemonists led by Atwood.

Before he bowed out, Davey explained what was happening: “Postmodernism’s struggle against hegemonies has been taken up within Canadian literature by various constituencies under specialized banners — postcolonialism [Wah], gay rights, Canadian regionalism, feminism, aboriginal rights, south Asian culture, poststructuralist theory — almost all of which have . . . represented themselves more effectively, both in literary and general politics, than they ever did under a postmodernist umbrella.” Postmodernism failed because it failed to develop a political dimension: “It becomes increasingly — like modernism — an academic term denoting a complex of textual convictions and practices . . . . This depoliticizing  of postmodernism leaves [postmodernists] cynical . . . . It is politics that hegemonies within one’s culture would take from less powerful groups . . . . Politics are among humanity’s most valuable constructions . . . . When politics fail utterly, we have Nazi Germany.”

This was exactly the Arnoldian Allan Bloom’s prediction in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): the derivatives of Heideggerian existentialism (poststructuralism and postmodernism) lead to cynicism leads to nihilism leads to fascism. And the depoliticizing of postmodernism came about because of attitudes like yours, that postmodernist writers criticize but do not propose solutions.

So now they’ve come for you, George, and they’re not impressed by your textual acrobatics, your wit and learning, your height and rugged looks, or your non-committal smile. They think they have found thematic “anomalies” in your work and have decided that these represent ideological impurities that justify putting you on show-trial. Here’s what you should do in response. Stop thinking of yourself as a marginal figure, a swashbuckling avant-gardist, a rebel. You never were any of these things. You were what T. S. Eliot called Matthew Arnold, “a comfortable professor of poetry.” Don’t bother “discussing” anything with the ECW women. They’re not interested, any more than radical feminists were interested in giving UBC creative-writing head Steven Galloway due process. Get political. The only thing Nazis understand is force, so tell them to fuck off, in no uncertain terms. Apologize to Atwood, too, and reclaim your place in her motherly heart. You will acquire an ally even more powerful than David or me — an ally who came to help Galloway, over the objections of thousands of feminists, by affirming his (as she put it) “right to fundamental justice.” And for heaven’s sake denounce Wah before his fight against “the sledgehammer tactics of the Wasp [sic] hive” goes too far. In Faking It, the fight is described as “the usual confrontation with the liberal dogmatists of pluralism insisting on their unique devotion to generosity and tolerance without reflection on how their philosophy operates as a strategy for power, or on how their anxiety reflects their melancholy over potential loss (of property, of gaze, of narrative).” As usual, Wah’s explanations are impenetrable, but his anger is palatable.