In Defense of Postnorth
The yearly poetry event Postnorth, a thematic reading series – the truth, for love, etc – has received a lot of negative criticism from self appointed gatekeepers of the northern poetry community. There seems to be only a narrow range of poetic content they consider moral and politically acceptable, and anything outside of these boundaries is discounted as evidence of corruption or lack of appropriate seriousness, etc. the “isms” they religiously believe in. They carry a blacklist composed of guilty or suspect names, and in the case of Postnorth, the blacklisters accuse the event’s organizers and some of its readers of being unethical (and worse). For example, in December 2011, a broadside by Dr. Rob Budde was placed over the John Harris Fiction Award submission advertisement poster at the University of Northern BC:
The sign can be read as STOP TERROR or POST ERROR (in addition to other non-sensical word combinations). Whatever way it was intended, the sign and its placement appears to be a passive-aggressive complaint against Postnorth and the John Harris Award, both of which I happen to organize. Being responsible for terror (as in terrorism or terrorist) is a serious charge – so let me try to explain how I and others close to Postnorth have become the subject of this kind of attack.
Matt Partyka, Alex Buck and I started the Postnorth series in 2007 because we were bored with most of what we had seen and heard from the local poetry scene. One particularly boring literary event stood out. Partyka, Buck and I attended a reading at the Prince George Public Library dedicated to landscape poetry featuring Dr. Rob Budde. After the reading, we were stuck with the image of Budde wearing a heavy poncho weaved by his father that he explained “represented” the prairies. Sigh. It also said, “I’m so much more sensitive than you are.” I left the reading feeling like the prairie-poncho was a sign of what was absent at this and most other recent readings: risk. The poncho was also a sign of the political situation poetry had found itself in: the father weaved a poncho for his son/ said poncho represents childhood and father/ said father is a weaver and son is a poet/ no harm done here.
But the stink of careerism, social networking, strict self-policing – the lobotomy of the artistic self that limits information from making the leap from consciousness to knowledge lingered. I believe there is room for landscape poetry and its prairie ponchos; equally, I believe there is room for a measured response.
Two years after the first Postnorth (and a diarrhetic flow of complaints about the events), I read an article in the Rolling Stone Magazine about Sasha Grey – then one of porn’s biggest stars. She was the 2008 Adult Video News Female Performer of the Year; a muse to rock stars like the Smashing Pumpkins and the Roots; a crossover sensation starring in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. She was also someone I imagine whose work would not successfully pass through the same filters that had red-flagged my organizing work with Postnorth. But some of what she has said resonated with me: “Most of the XXX I see is boring, and does not arouse me physically, or visually.” Most of the poetry I had been reading and/or hearing was boring and did not arouse me physically, or visually (or cognitively or acoustically). About her feelings about the porn industry, Grey says, “I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s fantasies.” I was determined and ready to be an organizer of a poetry reading that I would want to attend.
Rather than trying to cause conflict, I think that, like Grey, the organizers of Postnorth were trying to fill a void with new actors and new content that would subsequently attract bigger, more diverse and less comatose audiences.
Grey is an alternative to the mainstream idea of a porn star. She says this about the mainstream: “As far as I’m concerned, Suicide Girl types with black hair and tattoos are the new blondes with bolt-on tits.” Her admirers see her as more natural: “At five feet six and 110 pounds, with straight black hair that shoots to her lumbar spine, Grey’s naked body is exquisite and natural, with taut skin free of blemishes and tattoos … her affect is … a mix of languor and brutal hauteur.”
Grey is a woman who stands up for herself: she co-founded and operates Grey Art, a production company, and stars in its videos, the first of which was a masturbation scene; she has a list of strict sexual taboos; and she claims to have “genuine orgasms at least three-quarters of the time on set.” Although the parallel with Grey is uneven, Partyka, Buck and I wanted to offer a new vision of northern poets: new, passing through, inexperienced and exiled writers mixed with famous poets, each benefiting from the energy of the other and their audiences. The performers lists are built by choosing poets we want to hear read.
Grey says, “If I’m working out any issues through porn, it’s anger at society for not being open about sex.” If I was working out any issues by organizing and reading at Postnorth, I felt/ feel angry that postmodernism and its chip-on-the-shoulder versions of feminism and post-colonialism are working to outlaw desire – and much of the felt reality of lived experience, including sex and nudity. Poets are charged with analyzing and showing the hypocrisies of institutional rhetoric—or should be (mostly they’re charged with making language doilies). Feminism and post-colonialism are important base-plates of contemporary theory, but when either devolves to supersede critical openness, it becomes dogma. I should note that I do not screen the material that is read at Postnorth events. The poets who are asked to read are given complete control of what and how they read. No poet or poem will be liked universally, and occasionally, there will be problems with the material. I am unafraid of the potential mistakes because I think it is the poet’s job to take risks. And it’s my job too, as curator.
Despite her successes within the porn industry, Grey has suffered from at least the following example of our culture’s numerous double standards for women: be sexy, but not too sexy. When asked about Grey’s crossover opportunities, Soderbergh says, “Porn is beyond mainstream now, to the point where everyone on TV looks like they’re in porn, but there’s still an attitude that porn is wrong.” Consequently, at the time of the interview, Grey was having little luck finding a good Hollywood agent “because they’re worried their clients wouldn’t want to be on a list with a porn star.” It is suspicious that Grey represents a physical and intellectual alternative to the stereotypical porn star. If porn couture is mainstream, it is how Grey operates as a porn star – not that she is a porn star – that makes her unpalatable to the gatekeepers of pop culture. Similarly, it is how Postnorth facilitates poetry that seems to offend the gatekeepers.
In 2007, when Partyka, Buck and I visually articulated our distrust of the academy’s prescribed ethics on poetry by choosing Mike Mardell’s infamous kitsch poster design rather than a politically benign poster (drawn by one of the poets from Postnorth I), we unintentionally started a poetry war. The poster, reading list and reading – time has shown – were risky and relatively interesting enough for the series to be maintained as an annual event. Criticism of Postnorth continues. Since the inaugural Postnorth, I have been spoken to and about; texted, emailed and flamed; personally and publically questioned about my personal ethics; yelled at in public; made the subject/ object of healing art; unfriended on Facebook, unfriended in real life; and feverishly accused of misogyny and of creating the conditions for violence, murder and terrorism. Really?
The other organizers, some Postnorth readers, and some fans have been subjected to similar attacks. For example, one Postnorth attendee was chastised by one of Budde’s students for wearing his Postnorth 3 t-shirt in Zellers. The t-shirt features the poster for Postnorth 3: The Truth, an image that was also censored by the University of Northern BC’s student union. Wild accusations have been made about the event’s “energy.” A past reader was accused (by someone who did not attend the reading) of fondling an audience member. The accuser blamed the energy at the event. Another critic told a student not to attend the reading to avoid “harm.” These moments say that the event challenges the academy’s ethical status quo and those operating within it. At its root, Postnorth is a poetry reading in a pub featuring cutting-edge advertising and local poets who don’t usually read at the existing institutional venues locally (because they are not invited), and the reality is that this combination threatens some in the PG poetry community.
From the blacklist,
I stand with
Matt Partyka, Alex Buck,
Arianwen Goronwy-Roberts (poet, poster and t-shirt designer for Postnorth II, III, IV),
Barry McKinnon, Greg Lainsbury
and John Harris (who has nothing to do with Postnorth, but has things to say about what’s going on in the city’s literary circles)
of the city.
in defence of Post
love, truth and
On February 10, 2012, The Twisted Cork held Postnorth 4: For Love, a poetry reading featuring Jana Tausendfrende, Melodie St. Jean, Shane Darroch, Darcie Smith, Azedeh Gagnon, Dave Ogilvie, Andrew Kenway, Kael Walske, Matt Partyka, GP Lainsbury, Alex Buck, Barry McKinnon, Arianwen Geronwy-Roberts, and myself.
It was free and all were welcome.
Postnorth 4: For Love was successful in respect to the quality of the readings, the audience’s experience, and the momentum the event created for Postnorth 5: Exile and Desire. The CBC and CKPG ran stories to promote the event, and over 100 people attended. Enthusiastic reviews appeared in the university and college papers.
Most of the critics didn’t show up. They missed Darcie Smith reading, “my boyfriend has a dress in his closet/ I had two orgasms yesterday… my mother hates men/ but not if they’re fucking the gay out of me… feminism is dead.” When Smith finished her reading with “I don’t believe in poetry/ crafty motherfuckers,” the critics missed a moment of collectively held breath, the sigh – knowing we (the crafty motherfuckers) didn’t believe in it either. A wolf howl from the middle of the room initiated laughter and cheers and a feeling that we needed to be here: something was happening.
The reading was something that I felt proud to have organized and happy to attend – but Postnorth is not about me. It’s about and for the poets of northern BC who are often ignored as being too inexperienced for a major stage and for the experienced poets who want to read to an energetic and diverse audience. Beyond this, it’s for the exiled writers, the poets who have something to say that doesn’t necessarily jive with the pomo mandate of the current gatekeepers. In this way it’s a warning, like Robert Creeley said in “The Warning”:
For love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.
Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.
Creeley, Robert. “The Warning.” Prince George: Gorse Press, 2012. Print.
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “The Dirtiest Girl in the World.” Rolling Stone Magazine. 14 May 2009: 52-57. Print.