Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sina Queyras

by Sina Queyras
Book Thug, 2009

Unleashed is an edited record of the Lemon Hound blog between 2004 and 2008. Sina Queyras, says The Canadian Encyclopedia, is a:

poet, editor, teacher, web blogger (b at Thompson, Man 1963). Sina Queyras is the award-winning author of 4 books of poetry and one book of nonfiction, and is the editor of an anthology of contemporary Canadian experimental writing. Her writing explores the limits of individual expression and sensual experience in a landscape that is densely marked by politics and ideology. Through her critical writing, reviews and web commentary Queyras has worked diligently to create an encouraging and challenging environment for writers, especially Canadian women writers.

The anthology is Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea Books, 2005).

See also her Wikipedia entry, an interview with her about Unleashed, an interview with her in The National Post, her Desk Space interview, a questionless interview with her at OpenBook Toronto, and a Q&A with her from UCalgary.

Reviews of Unleashed have appeared online at:
(Apologies if I've missed any other helpful links.)

What do I think of Unleashed?

First, I like it. I like it a lot. Among other things, it got me thinking about the paucity of critical, non-academic responses to contemporary Canadian literature. The top reason I like this book is its illustration of a mind engaged with literature (and other aesthetic questions, e.g., visual art) in a plain-spoken yet complex way. There is also a self-consciousness about the critical aparatus being applied and a persistent questioning of perspective (i.e., there is no naive "objectivity" here). I wish, wish, wish there were more books like this.

More critically, let's examine what we have here. As noted above, Unleashed is a book made up of blog posts. Like most blogs, the entries tell the story of their author. Events happen in linear time (2004-2008). The book, however, is static. So we are confronted immediately by questions of form.

Reading a book based on a blog, one asks, what difference does form make? Is there a difference? Following McLuhan (the medium is the message), yes, there is a difference. Form determines content. The book and the blog are not equivalent, and yet they are related.

I'm not reviewing the blog. I'm reviewing the book. The blog is a subject within the book. To be or not to be, is the blog's question. The central question of the narrative of the book (Camus-like in its insistence) is whether or not to murder the blog. "To blog or not to blog" is the subject of the post dated September 3, 2005. "Winding down" is the subject on November 22, 2006: "After much consideration, I've finally chosen a date to pull the plug on ths adventure." And yet the blog survived, and continues still.

Can a blog answer questions about its own survival? Does the book enable a necessary distance about which questions of persistence of meaning and nuance can be more critically considered?

The book closes open-endedly. Its final entry dissolves into a run of "comments." The conversation continues, the form of this open-ended book says. (Though the book really closes with an essay on the art of the open-ended blog.) The book does have a hard ending (it runs out of pages), but the author's emphasis on and prioritizing of open-ended process is unambiguous.

Some, of course, may find in this approach a weakness. The book's arguments are fragmented, episodic, non-linear, and yet clear themes can be discerned.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes Queyras has worked diligently to create an encouraging and challenging environment for writers, especially Canadian women writers. In her September 3, 2005 post ("To blog or not to blog"), Queyras credits a friend with suggesting her blog is "a place to praise and inform." She then says this is "a combination of things I can get behind."

And get behind them she does. So committed is she to this mission, the blog survives multiple attempts to murder it. Like a contemporary Gertrude Stein, Queyras becomes the patron of a lively salon (one that at times puts so much pressure on her to maintain it that she contemplates killing it; one that also clearly sustains her as she shares the lively fortunes of her mind).

The reference to Stein is intentional. Stein and Virginnia Woolf appear to be Queyras's patron saints, and continuing their female-determined deep engagement with Modernism and art seems one of her prime motivations. "Female-determined" is an awkward phrase I just made up. What does it mean? In part, it connotes that Queyras distances herself from "feminism." Her post on October 17, 2006, is titled "Why I'm not discussing feminism," and it starts like this:

Wondering what happens when men speak is a lifetime occupation. All over the globe women with their heads in between their knees, wondering. This is an occupation. This is wondering. How do men weep? Is it like thinking? When men think is there a little pause before speaking? Why have they not changed the world, men? How many years of thinking and still there are so many problems. Maybe it's time to give up on them? After all, men are only half of the population. Troublesome as they may be. This is why I'm not discussing feminism. This is what it leads to.

Then she continues:

There sill be no discussing feminism here. Anyone who wants to discuss feminism should go and read about feminism. Reading about feminism is a way into feminism. Imagining being a woman is another way into feminism. Imagining then, is feminism. Thinking is also feminism. So, there will be no arguing about feminism. After all, what is feminism? Feminism is doing. Feminism is being and doing. Talking about being and doing is a way to keep women from doing. Really, women need to be doing and not thinking of ways to explain to men what it is to be a woman. ...

Who is invested in having women not doing? Suddenly everywhere people are thinking. Wow, that is what doing is. And now there is a lot of doing. ...

Still, if everyone is doing then men therefore are women if they are thinking and women are men if they are doing and everyone is feminist if they are seeing. So if looking then feminist. If looking is seeing. If you look and what you look at looks back, not you looking back, then feminist. Naturally things are more complicated than they seem, and naturally, quite naturally, it is time for tea.

Got it?

I would paraphrase the above as follows. Women shouldn't be so concerned with what is "holding them back" that they remove themselves from the role of producer of art, producer of criticism, producer of literature, etc. Also, one should look at art/literature/reality with self-awareness, so that the Self and Other are not confused. Especially in criticism, one should avoid the risk of colonializing the art object and projecting onto it meaning and connotations that it doesn't itself intend or hold. Such an approach, is feminism, but because feminism has become loaded with so much ideological baggage (and is subject to enormous waves of public and critical discourse), let's leave that term aside and focus on something simple. Doing. Making and discussing art. But let's discuss and do this in complicated ways that acknowlege the influence of gender (where appropriate).

In her mission, Queyras's pole stars are Stein and Woolf for their "female-determined deep engagement with Modernism and art." (I hope I've now explained myself.) Readers will not be surprised, therefore, that the entries in Unleashed engage the work of writers and visual artists. Most of the writers/artists are women, but not all. On April 23, 2007, for example, she blogged about a Jeff Wall show at the MoMA.
I'm going to become more specific now, because there's a point I want to make clear. There are hints of it in the above, but it's been nuanced in a way that could easily be missed. The point is about ordering, the making of hierarchies. Queyras is not interested in canon-making. Her blog is "a place to praise and inform." But that doesn't mean she is uncritical and without judgement. She is, however, not an "evaluative critic."

I don't want to re-hash recent debates about the role of literary critics here, but let's summarize. On one hand, some critics (mostly men) believe critics should sift and order literary works and sit in judgement over writers who need smacking down for their errors. One example is a quotation by Frederick Philip Grove (from 1929) that Nigel Beale repeated favourably in a recent issue of Canadian Notes of Queries (#79):

Literary criticism - or the body of critics - should be to the writer what the Roman senate was to the Roman general in the field: an unseen presence sitting sternly in judgment over his blunders; but also voting him a triumph if he did his duty well.

Other Canadian critics who fit this school include Carmine Starnino, David Solway, Philip Marchand, John Metcalf, and, um, Elvis Stojko.

In short, Queyras disagrees with Grove's suggested approach. At one point, she suggests that lover's quarrels are better left in the bedroom. This is a not-so-subtle reference to Starnino's sometimes incendiary and controversial book of essays and reviews (2004). This reference disappointed me. It was a rare moment of turning away, a shutting down of dialogue, and a missed opportunity. Queyras, to her credit, however, later engaged the question (not in the book, on the blog) about how the Self ought to approach the Other; I mean, how the critic ought to approach the work, in a series of interviews on her blog with literary reviewers (yours truly among them).

Is this ordering and canon-making really a male/female thing?

Gosh. All I'm gonna say is Queyras wonders repeatedly where are the other female critics. On August 9, 2008, for example, in an entry called "Make the world your salon," she writes:

This goes out to the women who read Lemon Hound and other blogs. Those who don't comment, don't enter into public discourse. What would it take to make the world your salon? To be as comfortable with one's opinion at a conference table, or weblog, or site otherwise filled with experts (all men, of course, with endless commentary designed to undermine your place at said table) as one is sitting across from friends in one's living room, a cup of tea and endless streams of commentary about everything from the design of the cup in hand to the possibilities of poetry as political tools? ...

What if Susan Sontag had blogged? What if Gertrude Stein or Mina Loy had blogged?

Make the world your salon.

There's that metaphor again: blog as salon.

[Incidentally, Jane Smiley said similar comments about "playing the game" in the New York Times (2006), quoted here by me.]

From Lemon Hound, June 4, 2007:

Further, I hazard say that there are few women who have the power of chronicaling literature, ordering it, as the Bersteins, Sillimans, Wahs, Olsons, Duncans, Creeleys, Lehmans, Geddes, Patersons, etc., of the world do. To be fair, many women I've spoken to have said that such ordering, such canonizing, is not something they are interested in doing... so why whine? Still, it's the world we live in and so at least acknowledge the terms and conditions.

These terms and conditions, Queyras, points out include such statistics as:
[I found that last link by going to the Lemon Hound blog; i.e., it wasn't in the book.]

So, feminism, as a term, may be spurned, but feminism as a corrector is in full force. I also find feminism in a cute story (November 26, 2007) that Queyras tells about "one of the most inspiring people I've ever heard of," a man with a head injury who could no longer work who started taking daily walks in Toronto's Don Valley. He noticed garbage. He picked it up. He started recording what he was doing. He talked to others. They got organized. And the Don Valley revitalization program began.

So ... don't talk about it. Do it. That's feminism.

(On November 27, 2005, writing about why she hasn't killed the blog, she says the "most important" reason she hasn't pulled the plug is the "question of gender," i.e., "there are not enough women engaged in the discussion of poetry and poetics. Over and over again the voices seem to be male, shouting about this or that school or lineage .... Where, one might ask, are the women?")

So ... we've covered off how Queyras approaches her subject (what: visual art and literature), and we've covered off some of why. I want to end with who. If Lemon Hound is about praise, who is she singing about? In no particular order:
I've put links (where available) on the names above to (one of) the relevant posts (Queyras writes about many of these women more than once). My final summation follows. Random comments first.
  1. Queyras called Christakos "the most inventive 'domestic' poet I've ever encountered." I've written about Christakos here. I liked her. Queyras likes her, too. It's not the domesticity that she likes; it's the innovative word combinations.
  2. Domesticity, however, also comes up in Queyras's interview with Stephanie Fysh, a photographer. They speak about a series of photos Fysh took, using herself as subject. The photos were misinterpreted as commentary on domesticity. Fysh: "I don't want to have to photograph men in order to say something that isn't gender-specific."
  3. Queyras is very, very pleased with Lisa Robertson.
  4. Queyras's interest in photography often returns to questions about portraiture. Susan Sontag's On Photography is invoked. "But what Sontag didn't anticipate was the extent to which these technological advances in photography would turn our gaze upon ourselves."
  5. The entry that includes the quotation about Sontag is a rumination on narcissism. Interestingly, blogs are often little more than centres of narcissism. Web logs about ... trivialities. Lemon Hound is anything but.
  6. "Are you kidding me?" That's Zoe Strauss's reply when told about the 7% figure at the Tate Modern. "We're post-post-feminist, post, oh, we've made it. Like we're a Virginia Slims ad. Fuck you. (Just for the record, I'm a radical feminist, and I believe that we're still in the process of creating a feminist movement. I believe the idea that social movments are fixed or static is false, and we're as connected to Seneca Falls as much as we are to Tribe 8...)"
  7. A Hemingway quote I hadn't heard before (on Stein): "She used to talk to me about homosexuality and how it was fine in and for women and no good in men and I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it."
  8. There is a hilarious and insightful entry about marginalia in Sharon Thesen's A Pair of Scissors. Queyras bought the book used in New York City and the margins were marked up by someone who had serious problems with the poems. The interplay between the poems, the riled critic, and Queyras is quite lovely, IMHO. Best to read in full, except it appears to have been removed from the blog (August 1, 2008).
  9. Then there's this quotation from Alice Notley: "You can fuck/ a visiting poet: you can be paraded before/ a visiting poet as fuckable but not fuck...." About which Queyras says: "Refreshingly honest in a poetic economy that is as much about 'fame' and 'fuckability' as anything else, though of course the poem itself is making fun of 'the poem' itself."
  10. April 24, 2008. Queyras comments on Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm (Yale U Press, 2007), also reviewed by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books (October 25, 2007).
Kimmelman's review begins with three framing paragraphs:

Janet Malcolm begins her remarkable work on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by recalling how, half a century or so ago, like many other pretentious young Americans feeling hemmed in by Eisenhower-era conformity, she gravitated to Toklas’s cookbook. Its carefree, worldly snobbishness “fit right in with our program of callow preciousness,” she writes. “We loved its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice.”

Years later, coming again upon her old food-stained copy, she reads the chapter about life under the Nazis, which she hadn’t read before. Toklas recalls how she and Stein hid in an area of provincial eastern France called Bugey, where they kept a house in the town of Bilignin, discovered one summer day in 1924 on the way to visit Picasso. When the war broke out, they wheedled a military pass and drove to Paris, fetched winter clothes, then settled back in the countryside for the duration. Toklas’s tone is cheerful. Malcolm, who has made a career of not taking writers at their word, asks herself what Toklas must be hiding. Two Jewish Americans in occupied France, and she is reminiscing about “Restricted Veal Loaf”? Why no mention of their Jewishness, “never mind [their] lesbianism,” she asks.

And so begins a rich meditation, born from articles in The New Yorker, on a storied relationship in modern letters, which, not coincidentally, also leads Malcolm to contemplate the slippery and shifting nature of language. As much as any experimental twentieth-century writer in English, Stein made a point about getting to the deep truth of language, its fundamental nature, but she also manipulated words to mean things very different than they usually do. In life, it turns out, as in art.

Queyras, on the other hand, isn't convinced that Stein has a Nazi problem:

Not surprisingly, Janet Malcolm's project rests on the question of how Stein and Toklas managed to survive the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France. Compelling, yes. And one wonders, one does want more information. And we are given some information in the form of Bernard Fa├┐ a man with a complicated relationship to Stein, homosexual/Catholic and a collaborator under Vichy. Is this altogether surprising? Stein was conflicted politically, did not seem to want to bother with politics in a direct way, and there is more than one slant reference to unseemly connections in her own writing: one assumes that there were forces at work.

The facts are glaring, and one must wrestle with them, but Malcolm offers little insight into the episode because, quite frankly, there isn't much to illustrate. What is curious to me is the narrative of obliviousness that she crafts for Stein, a strand rooted in the by-now cliched crtique of Stein's ego (we know all that...), her status as last born child, a person with a sense of things "always working out for herself," and them doing so. (In a way, Stein is a perfectly modern American subject isn't she? Just imagine help and abundance and it will arrive...). It would be interesting to imagine the making of that ego and the implications of it, the uses of it in terms of the risk of her multiple and complex identities.

Unfortunately, I don't see much "wrestling" with complicity with fascism here. The topic is too lightly passed over for my comfort. It's strange, too, to me that Queyras, politically engaged with percentages and the ecology of the Don River, can say simply (naively?) that Stein did not seem to want to bother with politics in a direct way. Living in Nazi-occupied Europe, was that possible? The review, however, does provide evidence (for those disbelieving that Queyras can be not-an-evaluative critic and also critical). She links to a number of other reviews of Malcolm's book to illustrate her points, then ends with:

But really, if one is going to take up the trope of the scathing and insouciant biographer, one might want to have something to say not only about one's subject, but about one's relationship to it, something to back up the penchant for the whip of a good quip (Malcom recently here on Gossip Girls), for the flaying of the unfortunate object who has managed to catch her eye. It isn't that I was looking for a love affair with Stein, it's that I was looking for some genuine insight.


So ... in closing ... the blog and the book are two different things. The blog has many, many more entries than are collected in the book, and the book (apparently) has entries that have since disappeared from the blog.

Re: the book, Unleashed. Once again, I liked it. I liked it a lot. In 165 pages, it introduced me to a range of people, places and things, often returning to common themes: poetry, aesthetics, visual art, photography, female-directed criticism, ecological concerns, and, yes, feminism.

To blog or not to blog. No question. Do, don't talk about it. Blog.

Queyras has a lot of interest to say. A more linearly organized collection of essays would enable her readers to understand her thoughts in greater depth and detail and allow her space to expand on her positions. The blog form, on the other hand, provides her opportunities to explore topics and ideas in a hit-and-miss manner, interacting with readers, and participating in an ever evolving, often highly charged community.

The blog and book are not opposites, not in competition; they merely have different strengths and weaknesses. As e-readers become more prominent, it will be interesting to see how literary bloggers like Queyras take advantage of this form.

There is also a sizeable dollop of good natured subtle humour in this book. (Overheard dialogue of the week [November 9, 2005: A says:] "I mean I know this class isn't high on her list of priorities, but I have things to do too, and I have to give them up, so you know, she should at least be prepared .... [B replies:] Yah, or at least dress properly.") Since I haven't mentioned this before, it seems a good place to end.

p.s. - An index please.

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