Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What the Kids are Learning (#2 of 2)

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A couple days ago we took a look through the options available to new students at the University of Toronto. We imagined hypothetical students with an interest in both the poetical vein in literature, and the Canadian one. The results were something of a mixed bag for an institution that literally borders a street named after a Canadian poet. Today we move uptown to the suburban environment of York University. I came in with some high hopes for York, it’s the kind of place where, in the first tentative weeks of September, you can hear things like, “My name’s Doug, not ‘Professor’”, where students of mixed levels can share a cheap beer or seven, and where a person might be treated to the odd requisite text they’ll enjoy. Same thing as last time, I trolled through the reading lists to find what I could find.

York University, Fall/Winter 09-10

Introductory Level: Not every section of the fall semester’s survey course had posted texts yet. One that did found time for Hunter S. Thompson, the ultimate “I assigned this so you’d know I’m the cool prof” essayist, and specific mention of the two W.C. Williams poems to be taught (The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say). I love both of those poems, but it’s a little suspect that the instructor felt the need to include them on the syllabus when they’re a combined few hundred words long and the kind of thing you memorize in grade six. Is this it for assigned poetry? Anyway, the 1000-level course for Creative Writing majors states “A small collection of exemplary poems will be assembled and distributed when classes begin.” One would assume these exemplary poems would not all be assembled from the freshmen writers’ portfolios, so there’s something.

Middle Levels: The standard second-year poetry lecture makes room for three single-author works (including Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid) before giving way to the Norton, version five. The CanLit seminar includes works from ten authors. Grab a pen and try to write down their names. Done? You nailed it, good job!

Meanwhile, a course on modern-age Canadian poetry does the Geddes (15 Canadian poets) and Thesen (long poem) anthologies. I looked for a reading list for the “Intro to Creative Writing” class, and couldn’t find one. I hope there is one, if any class should be weighed down with an overabundance of required reading, it’s an introductory creative writing course. I can say that York does a nice job of jumping into thematic and critical concerns fairly early, instead of front-loading their curriculum with surveys along set national and chronological boundaries. There’s interesting stuff on the coming-of-age narrative and apocalyptic fiction as early as year two. There’s also a junior-level course on Italian-Canadian literature that’s full of good stuff, including Pier Giorgio DiCiccio’s anthology, Roman Candles.

Senior Levels: The trend towards cross-genre study continues here, and a couple of the seminars they come up with look good enough to eat. A whole course on “the concept of play”? Really? Where do I sign up?

Also, there’s an impressive five (!) shout-outs to the slumping relics of our petty nationalisms. One’s an intense study of four specific contemporary Canadian writers that manages to pick the only four writers a typical English senior can pretty much guarantee a knowledge of anyway: Findley, Urquhart, Atwood, and York U favourite Michael Ondaatje. Another contemporary lit. course does two of these four and also the likes of Andre Alexis, Dionne Brand, and Daniel Jones. A Canadian-specific class on “Life Writing” mentions no set reading list, so I can at least hold out hope for the Bret Hart biography being included. The Canadian Short Story seminar has an impressive list of Quebec writers you won’t see anywhere else in the city. The most exciting of the five is a seminar on the History of Canadian Publishing, which fulfills prerequisites in the fields of tragedy, farce, and satire, all at once.

Final Grades: This is definitely a deeper list of Canadian talent than downtown at U of T, and while that talent mostly writes prose, it’s still an improvement. I can’t find fault with York’s commitment to CanLit that isn’t systemic to the entire country. Sure, most of these Canadian-focused courses are upper-year electives, and a person could likely snake through the required courses without getting their hands too dirty, but after the sobering experience of plumbing U of T’s website, I’ll take what I can get.

Still, it’s confusing to me that Canadian Literature, and specifically Canadian Poetry, is something many students are introduced to only after a long slog through other traditions and contextual markers. Maybe this idea I keep hearing of our national literature being a series of reactions to trans-national trends is a product of it being introduced only after those trends have been fully cemented in the minds of its audience. I don’t want to just chock this all up to 1970’s “cultural inferiority complex” stuff, because I feel like we’re beyond that and when it comes to our immediate neighbours to the south, our biggest obstacle to get over is our sense of cultural superiority, not inferiority.

Anyway, I don’t have any answers, and I’m not in charge. I would suggest this, though: a cultural education that begins with the arms-length world of contemporary, national (even local) authors, and expands out with an ear to historical order, but isn’t beholden to it, would create a qualitatively different kind of scholar than one that positions our nation’s literature at the end of a long list of titles based on its newness alone. This would provide for something more approximating a national paradigm, and if there’s one thing this country doesn’t have enough of, it’s national paradigms.

Sipping maple syrup from an igloo shaped like beavers,
-Jake

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page