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The Poet and the Sound of His Own Voice

 
Try to parse the following prose passage:

“Then again, this sort of thinking that once occupied a few momentarily idle minds, say, back in the 50s or 60s, is currently only the purview, only the stuff of wispy, glassy-eyed seminarians on a cookie drive for the church. And now we are led, by way of Literary Thug #1 to the august pages of Dooney’s, of dooneyscafe.com, which it is a blog site; which it is not a blog site because it is edited, which it is – well, which is it? – a bird, a plane—But in any case, some of its pages as of the moment seem to have to do with whether or not CanLit is dead, and if dead, who killed it, and so forth and so on. And it is supposed that anyone who appears to have less than half of an articulate response to said question is probably a comfortable white guy, perhaps even a war criminal this side of paradise or Prince George, B.C.—And there you have it – the triple-triple guessing on everything PC or non-PC, depending on who in what cultural niche got out of the wrong side of bed whenever it was their whim to so rise from pillow talk. For all that, the pages to which I was directed, those of a Mr Harris, seemed to make some sense to me in which the question is put: why should a poem willynilly have more value than a menu or a laundry list? And my answer, just off the top of my head, if you please, is of course it should have more value. The question ought not to have been entertained in the first place, but that it did points to the obvious fact that culture in general is diseased and has been so for some time, and I mean ‘culture’ in a much larger geographical and spiritual sense that that which is CanLit specific, which, God knows, was, way back when, an honest enterprise, if nothing else, before it became a parlour game for hucksters. A bookseller once said to me, rough paraphrase here: lose your faith in art and the making of it and you will have lost faith in everything. Poets who have lost their love of poetry (and they are out there and I have seen them and I have heard them) are not going to be up to much when it comes to poetry, and they can dress this loss of love (so as to disguise this loss) in any kind of political, theoretical, post this-and that costume they wish, it does not alter the fact they are simply unable to say they are sick to death of poetry and novels and all related written words as such. Why not just say it and have done with it, as per one of Robert Johnson’s homicidal blues lyrics? It would have the virtue of clearing the air and one would know with whom one was dealing. Unlikely to happen. Would spoil the fun—To be sure, there is nothing more absurd than to want to be a poet and then to continue being a poet even after the absurdity of it all has become excruciatingly apparent. Just that I, for one, am not going to let the usual gaggle of hacks go so easy on themselves as they sneer away at what it is they themselves can’t bring off and never could. Who killed CanLit? From a certain point of view, yes, as per Mr Harris, and one is aghast to hear of it, writers, as too many of them have been coached into allowing themselves to be caught up in special appeals and little else.”

This piece of heavily mannered, evidently unedited and moderately circular, um, commentary, is excerpted from a more or less daily blog written by Norm Sibum called Ephemeris at http://normsibum.com.

The passage was preceded by a reference to the Roman historian Appian of Alexandria commenting on the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla; an unquoted reference to Corinthians 13:2 (And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing); along with a half-dozen more arcane allusions one would have to be inside Sibum’s brain to source with any confidence.

My attention was drawn to the quoted passage by John Harris (the “Mr. Harris” Sibum cites), who was bewildered by its circularity, and knew that I’m familiar with both Sibum and his writing. What could Sibum possibly intend with it?  Harris’ instinct was that he’d been somehow slapped on the back and punched in the face at the same time, which I explained was a familiar experience for anyone who’s spent more than half an hour with Sibum—and that I’d get back to him when I’d figured out what Sibum was trying to say.

So, first, who is Norm Sibum?  Let’s try the biography on his website, thus:

Born in Oberammergau in 1947, Norm Sibum grew up in Germany, Alaska, Missouri, Utah, and Washington. He has been a Montréaler since 1994. Along with Bruce Serafin, he founded the Vancouver Review in 1989 and published several collections of poetry in Canada and in England with Carcanet Press. His Girls and Handsome Dogs ( Porcupine’s Quill, 2002) won the Quebec Writer’s Federation A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. “The Pangborn Defence” (Biblioasis, 2008) was short-listed for the same award.

This leaves a few things out, and contains a fairly egregious inaccuracy. He didn’t really co-found the Vancouver Review any more than I did. He was merely in the area when it was born, and Serafin bounced ideas off him. The first run of the Vancouver Review was all the vision and labour of Bruce Serafin, but the remarkable Serafin, unfortunately now dead, can’t argue his ownership papers. Sibum also leaves out the 20 years he lived in Vancouver. He became a poet there, and developed the eccentric persona that seems relatively unchanged today.

Here’s my alternate biographical notes:  Norm Sibum is a tall, skinny, dour dude with a droopy moustache, a man rarely spoken of without an adjective attached—with the adjectives ranging from “weird” to “brilliant”. He is, if I recall this correctly, an American army brat, which explains his exotic birthplace better than he does. He’s an American who loathes and romanticizes his native country at the same time, and disdains the provinciality of his adopted one, Canada. He’s a man disaffected from his tangled roots in about six or seven profound ways, most of them self-inflicted. He’s an autodidact, a poet of wildly asymmetrical erudition who writes a lot, revises little, and publishes only occasionally (not counting the blog); and he has a unique way of treating everyone as either out to get him or assault his sensibilities.

As a social being, he used to be an Oedipal jumble who, while he lived in Vancouver, seemed unable to keep from insinuating himself between whoever he socialized with, whether it was husband and wife, two poets discussing the best way to describe a sunrise, or minor Roman historians arguing over the barbarism of the Gauls—all of which appeared to have roughly the same reality value in his mind.  He had a knack for getting couples fighting with one another, and was the occasion for several broken relationships if not quite the cause. I don’t think his insinuations were intentionally malicious, and they were certainly never effective. He may have wanted people to fight over him but instead, they ended up scrapping with one another, usually without understanding they’d been set up. The most profound influence on him during those years, literary or personal, was William Hoffer, the sometimes crazed, sometimes eccentric, occasionally brilliant antiquarian bookseller and prophet of cultural doom.

A couple of years ago in Toronto Sibum revealed a new social talent, that of Back-biting Dinner-Guest-From-Hell. I’d run into him while George Bowering was in town, and invited Sibum to a dinner party I was hosting for George.  Sibum accepted the invitation as if he was doing us a favour, arrived late without a bottle of wine or flowers, obliquely criticized everything that came up at the dinner table (including the food and wine) as beneath his standards, and then went home to Montreal and wrote a critique of the “scene” at the dinner table in so hilariously ungracious a way that the piece could serve as an illustrative model for the phrase “let no good deed go unpunished.”

Sibum has been writing poetry since the 1970s, and is one of the few poets I’ve ever encountered who writes and reads every day. He does it not so much to refine his lines, improve his craft or extend his knowledge as to feed the interior conversation that is his personality. One suspects there is a mountain of notebooks somewhere, (now online as a blog) all filled with that intense but haplessly interior conversation, which is never quite about the subject under scrutiny so much it is about the poet’s stance in relation to the hostile world beyond the stance: if the poet can keep the persona and stance solid, the conversation going—and unresolved—then the hostiles won’t get him.

The odd fact here is that I like Sibum as a person and have for a very long time despite his chronic treachery and bad manners. He’s oddly charming, maybe particularly when he’s at his transparently self-involved worst, which is as often comic as it is disagreeable. And I to continue to respect his work ethic even if it rarely produces anything—possibly because of his aversion to serious editing and revision, which he can’t do because it is an inherent insult to his intelligence and erudition, which is, you know, greater than yours and mine.  I liked him in his Vancouver days, too, but we were never close friends because I knew I couldn’t turn my back on him without getting something jammed between my ribs. Usually it was an obscure shard of contempt because I hadn’t read enough Catullus, dismissed Josephus as a liar or didn’t think Charlie Potts was as important as Allen Ginsberg, or else I’d been dismissive of some woman he was involved with (usually in his own mind) or I was catching for the local writer’s baseball team and wasn’t sufficiently admiring of how well he’d played centre field in a game where I got two more hits than he did. Back then our respective approaches to baseball told more about us than we could have: As a catcher I was in the game second by second, pitch by pitch—and impatient with the game’s mythology and its ballet. Sibum  was in the outfield, ignoring the game unless it came to him, at which he would glide over gracefully to snag a fly ball, toss it back to the infield, and tune out again until something else forced itself on his solitude.

Sibum’s brand of treachery, I came to realize,  wasn’t so much a consequence of him taking himself seriously—which  no poet can survive for long without doing because god knows, the world doesn’t take poets seriously anymore—as an absence of self-irony, and a parallel absence of playfulness. Any writer without a solid streak of fun in him (or her) is an uneasy animal. When the lack of ease is grounded in interior conversation so uncertain of its legitimacy that it tries to kneecap every intrusion across its borders, it engenders treachery.

Sibum has been what he is for 40 years. At one level his simple persistence is an achievement. But at another it’s a waste, particularly when the conversation, in its public expression, contains plenty of brilliant moments, but ultimately always sinks back into that impenetrably circular interiority in which mannerism supplants articulation. One could point to Sibum as a man who’s figured out that the ultimate camouflage of the 21st century is to wear an ascot and a mackinaw at the same time, and ridicule the absurdity of it. But still, one must also respect his singlemindedness and work ethic.

I want to approach him a third way. If I go back to the passage I ask readers to parse and try to parse it, myself, I get a man excusing the uneditedness of his blog by making backhanded attacks on everything that seems to challenge it: dooneyscafe.com, in particular. Dooneyscafe.com, now in its 12th year, has been an edited site since its beginning. The two principle posters, Stan Persky and I,  early on worked out an effective way of editing one another.  One of us will post, the other will go in and correct any obvious errors of grammar, spelling and syntax, and notify the other if something is factually incorrect or the writing is impenetrable or sloppy. Everyone else who posts goes through an edit process—sometimes rigorous, sometimes not—before the piece is uploaded.

The key sentence in Sibum’s quoted passage is therefore this one: “And now we are led, by way of Literary Thug #1 to the august pages of Dooney’s, of dooneyscafe.com, which it is a blog site; which it [sic]is not a blog site because it is edited, which it is – well, which is it? – a bird, a plane—But in any case, some of its pages as of the moment seem to have to do with whether or not CanLit is dead.”

The sentence is key because it is so typical of Sibum’s writing methods.  First, “we” weren’t “led” to dooneyscafe.com by anything in the previous sentences, nor is it clear who “Literary Thug #1” is, unless it is Sibum, who really isn’t much of a thug. And the sentence is, as so much of Sibum’s blog is, somewhere between a backhand and a sideswipe: there’s the oblique insult of the adjective “august”, the confusion of “Dooney’s”, which has no pages because it is a website, and is anyway one and the same thing as “dooneyscafe.com”. Then there’s an egregious bit of garbled syntax (one reason to have a edited site): the phrase “which it is a blog site” doesn’t make sense. Similarly, Sibum seems unaware, when he raises the issue of why a poem should automatically have more value than a menu or a laundry list, that Harris was quoting Robert Lecker, not offering his own opinion, and that it is the boys at the John Metcalf-inspired CNQ that were doing the hand-wringing over whether CanLit was dead, not Harris.

Thus we’re at the heart of the matter: high end rhetorical prose that’s grammatically and expositionally sloppy. The last time I talked with Sibum on the phone, I noted that he ought to run his stuff past an editor before he uploaded it to his blog—and then mentioned that everything on dooneyscafe.com is edited before upload. There was a silence on the other end as he figured out I wasn’t inviting him to bring the blog across to dooneyscafe.com, (and I pondered the nightmare of trying to disentangle his musings on a daily basis)—and then he backed away from what might have been an interesting argument and went on to whatever else was on his mind: U.S. politics, the character of Barack Obama, the influence of David Solway on the poetry coming out of Montreal.  I suspect Sibum has, characteristically, been stewing about editing and non-editing ever since, and thus the backhanded insults. That’s what he does, see? He treats everything said as a possible insult, and then stews about it—which is how he took my suggestion. Is it the mackinaw or the ascot doing the stewing? With him, you’re never sure.

Take these lines of poetry from the beginning of a sectional poem on his site called “Everything and Nothing”:

Listen: all is everything. It’s nothing, too:
What signifies to me may signify so much less to you.
A thought for all or a smaller piece of heaven
Might occupy the mind of a sullen nation
Were it mindful, the August sun spilling light
Between cumular columns in the sky.

Anyone see an argument there? I see some juxtapositions followed by a relativism followed by an overblown image “a smaller piece of heaven” that might “occupy the mind of a sullen nation/were it mindful”. Anyone out there able to define what a “sullen” nation might be, or provide an example? That’s what I thought. And can nations be “mindful?” Just exactly what does “mindful” entail? And so on.

It’s entirely too easy to get lost in a Norm Sibum sentence or stanza of poetry, and there’s a reason.  Both are usually jumbles of over-rich declaratives; too-weighted fixations on adjectives like “sullen and “cumular”; poufter nouns like “mindful” that sound portentous but don’t connect firmly with anything. Together they leave the poet, who is genuflecting with his mackinaw or his ascot in some mirror only he can see, adrift in both the self and language. And it leaves the reader, despite his or her good will, bewildered and—this is important—on the outside wondering what’s going on.

It is, I think, both telling and typical of Sibum that there is no search engine on his website. This is a poet who desperately needs a search engine so he can track his thoughts—whether they are ideas, images, or word choices. This absent search engine leaves him with no way of casting back across his blog to find out if a thought on one day, postured out, might have some connection with something he said a month or a year ago. They could also track words he uses (or misuses) frequently, and ideas or people he obsesses over.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a search engine on the blog. Every few months I’ll get an e-mail or phone call from Sibum, letting me know he’s mentioned me or dooneyscafe.com, and what do I think?  Or, I’ll get a query from another reader, as happened with John Harris, puzzled at what Sibum has stuck in his craw. Mostly the notices come while I’m busy or demoralized enough that I don’t want to deal with a minor attack on my kneecaps or my grip on reality, and so I set them aside for another day. But if I leave it for five or six days, it moves beyond the blog’s page (where Microsoft’s search function can locate it) and it is gone to the unsearchable archive.  And that’s a shame, because Sibum is often onto something interesting, notwithstanding the little insults and sideswipes and pointlessly erudite asides you have to wade through to get at.

My dislike of blogging is well known. Because it is unmediated and without research standards, it supplants both art and discourse with public diaries: bull moose honking in the swamp, up to their ears in mosquitos, wanting love or sex or merely relief from the bugs. Blogging is the Internet’s Trojan Horse, because it seems to offer freedom of expression and democracy of discourse: magnificent aspirations sought by Western artists and intellectuals for 200 years. Yet we’ve arrived on their shores to find the frameworks of coherent thought and expression disemboweled. Freedom and democracy in isolation are empty, particularly when they’re conferred on the fourth or 40th floor of the Tower of Babel, surrounded by lunatics shouting in languages they’ve made up for themselves.

Thus I have some suggestions for Norm Sibum, which I’ll offer without the slightest hope that he’ll listen. 1.) Can the blog and kill the diary. We’re here to make sense of language and experience, not swirl our capes (or our mackinaws) at the general darkness and/or the untrustworthiness of other people’s minds. 2.) Get an editor and (since you won’t stop blogging just because I’ve advised it) install an search engine on the blog so others can track what you’re trying to say.  3. Stop flailing at everyone’s kneecaps. Even if it doesn’t hurt much, it builds scar tissue, and John Harris has better things to be thinking about.

 .

3350 words, May 10, 2012

 

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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