Someone’s Always Killing Poetry

“Who gives a shit about Arc? It’s where poetry goes to die,” said Dr. Alex Porco at Writing North 4.

I occasionally go to writing workshops and presentations by established writers. In part, this is to keep informed about what’s happening in my local writing community, and in part it’s because this is my field of interest and I usually come out of these experiences with some new thoughts about writing and about how I can be a better editor. I rarely come away with a single quote like Dr. Porco’s above that sticks with me for longer than a few days, and I’ve never engaged in such debate with fellow attendees over a speaker’s opinions as I did after Writing North 4. In this regard, Dr. Porco’s presentation was a greater success than any other workshop I’ve attended.

“Arc is where poetry goes to die” was in his opening remarks. It succeeded in getting the attention of the room. I personally was relieved that he didn’t say, “Who gives a shit about Grain?” I was acutely aware of my presence and kept deliberately not making eye contact with my colleagues. He could have been talking about Grain, or about Rhubarb, for that matter—the sentiment was the same. He wasn’t picking on one specific journal, even though Arc was named; his argument was that literary journals in Canada do a disservice to poetry and poets. He invited the attendees to return to the habits of coterie writers, to find a group of talented friends and share work with each other, and this would, in turn, bolster creativity. By following these practices and by being aware of your own personal occasions, you could learn to write something that was both unique and true.

The implication, though, is that CanLit journals are killing poetry, to which I say, fuck that noise.

Coterie and micropress practices both are a grand idea as a means of getting feedback and support from peers whom you trust and who know your voice. But journals are a healthy and challenging step up from writing something that your friends like to something more—that indefinable more. I’ve rejected countless poems that I’m sure were beloved by the poets who wrote them and who were told by family and friends that their work was beautiful and worthy. And that is fine. That is more than fine. Keep writing. Keep expressing. Fuck my judgments on your experience and on your words. But, if your voice can be heard by an editor who doesn’t know you, your strength as a poet places you on the next tier of publication.

In that regard, CanLit journals sift out a lot (and I do mean a lot) of poetry that we call bad. And, I think Dr. Porco might hold the opinion that there is no such thing as bad poetry if it’s in the hands of the right audience. So what does that say about the audiences of literary journals, those who care enough about the craft and art of literature to pay for it on the regular? That audience and the journals they subscribe to are helping to keep poetry alive. We publish work that undergoes careful review and criticism, promoting excellence in the field. Also, most journals pay their contributors (Arc $40/page, Grain $50/page, and Rhubarb $50 total), and paid gigs for poets are few and far between. I know.

Jeanette Lynes, a poet whose work I admire—Archive of the Undressed was fascinating—was also in attendance at Writing North 4. During the question and answer period she said, “If Arc is where poetry goes to die, then my poems had a pretty nice funeral.” I was grateful to her, in that moment, for saying something in defence of lit journals, tactfully couched in a joke. I love poetry. I love it enough to spend my Saturday afternoons at workshops talking about it, to have notebooks filled with my own bad poetry, to work in a field that publishes poetry and supports poets. I’m not interested in putting poetry into the ground. I chose to publish poetry that I couldn’t wait to bring into the light of day.


CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera with Sook-Yin Lee has followed up with Rilla Friesen’s first Rhubarb blog post about rejection letters, “The Art of Rejection.”