A 15-year-old kid goes to the Ottawa Public Library and searches for ‘gay poetry.’ A paltry 10 titles are returned. Of them, about half are either literary criticism or — strangely — video. There are a couple of good US collections and one historical anthology. The search returns just one book-length collection by a gay Canadian Poet: You Don’t Know Me by Orville Lloyd Douglas.
Because of the limitations of the search engine, the search does not return any of the 14 books in the library’s system written by queer virtuoso Sky Gilbert. Nor John Barton’s 11 titles. Nor poetry collections in the system by Stan Persky, RM Vaughan or Richard Teleky.
“I don’t know where to lay the blame, if blame is the right word. They might not include a full description of a book of poetry the way they might do if it was non-fiction, if it was a book on waste disposal, say,” says Victoria writer John Barton. (Waste disposal generates 277 hits.)
Barton’s been working on something new: what amounts to the most comprehensive marker in the card catalogue for gay Canadian poetry.
In the works for over three years, Seminal: The Anthology Of Canada’s Gay Male Poets is the first definitive historical collection of poetry on gay themes by Canadians. It includes work that appeared originally in both English and French and which spans over 100 years. Barton co-edited the collection along with Vancouver poet and former Xtra West columnist Billeh Nickerson.
“I see it as a bit of a calling card for the poets that are published in it. If someone picks up the book, presumably the reader can then look into their other books,” says Barton, a former Ottawa resident and poet himself.
Even in the first half of the 20th century, no gay Canadian poet captured the literary imagination the way Hart Crane (a US resident) or WH Auden (a Brit) did. It wasn’t until the post-war period that gay writers in Canada like Robin Blaser and bill bissett found a place at the literary forefront.
That’s why there are fewer dead writers in this anthology than living, as Barton points out, a rarity for a historical collection. Over half of the contributors did not publish their first book of openly gay poetry until after 1990 — although many of the men had been producing work for 20 years or more.
“I think it’s a positive thing; it means that the dam has been broken,” he says.
Barton’s introduction quotes Jane Rule in former Xtra supplement The Church-Wellesley Review. Of gay writers, she claimed that “content still too often overpowers form because we are new at being able to speak the range of our experiences, and urgency overcomes us. Critical of styles used to disguise, we must not make the mistake of discarding eloquence now that it can serve the truth.”
Several poets in the anthology could take Rule’s advice. They seem to expect the subject matter to carry the work without careful enough attention to craft, especially where the writer is not primarily a poet. Others fall victim to the other side of the coin: a fear of being explicit, which creates stilted, veiled work.
“That’s a reflection of the times, for sure. Patrick Anderson is included among the poets; he was a significant influence in Montreal. But his gay poems were not well accepted at the time,” says Blaine Marchand, who with Shane Rhodes and Craig Poile makes up Ottawa’s representation to the book.
Rhodes points out that the pressures of publishing mean that there is incentive to produce simple, direct verse that readers can easily digest.
“There’s some fear of making things too difficult, making things too challenging,” says Rhodes.
“With this type of anthology, it’s important to reach as broad a readership as possible.”