Treating letters like Lego

Poet derek beaulieu argues that poetry doesn’t have to be read

derek beaulieu has a plea to his fellow poets: Please no more poetry.

Given that it’s contained within a poem beaulieu’s plea isn’t to be taken literally. But it’s not completely tongue-in-cheek either. The manifesto was a call to wake up to a changing world one he believes most poets refuse to change with. Poets are marginalizing themselves he believes by insisting poetry must be read in a world where reading is an increasingly outdated concept for most people.

“I think that in a lot of ways we’re training ourselves now particularly with the Internet to avoid reading” he says. “We’re training ourselves to skim. We’re training ourselves to look but we’re not necessarily training ourselves to read. For instance when you walk down the street you’re inundated with information — there are street signs there’s telephone poles as part of our linguistic environment — but we don’t actually read it we stare at it we look at it.”

Although it contains some conventional poems his first selected works collection Please No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu (published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press’ prestigious Laurier Poetry Series) also features word collages photocopy degeneration and found material such as a list of Alberta licence plate numbers the aptly named “Wild Rose Country.” That might seem tedious but creating stimulating reading isn’t beaulieu’s objective.

“I’m very interested in trying to create poems that compare favourably to corporate logos” he says. “Poems you would want to wear as a button as a T-shirt see as a billboard that they work within non-poetic spaces as moments of poetic fusion imagine them as logos for fictional corporations street signs for the streets in your dreams. I’m interested in trying to treat letters like Lego and combine these things in ways that don’t follow the instructions on the box.”

Some would argue that poems like these aren’t writing at all a criticism beaulieu seems to have anticipated with the poem “That’s not writing” (sample lines include “That’s not writing that’s art” “That’s not writing that’s a mad scribble” etc.). But it’s a point beaulieu freely concedes. Conventional poetry for him was a case of being there doing that and wanting more.

“What I was finding was as I was writing it and certainly now in retrospect it wasn’t connecting with me in the same way as comic books advertising campaigns television the credit roll of any good movie” he says. “The poems that looked like poems acted like poems sounded like poems they became poems they became part of this artificial space where I didn’t feel comfortable and I was no longer challenged by that. That wasn’t the space that excited me anymore.”

The physical space beaulieu inhabits however does excite him. He praises Calgary’s poetry scene as one of the best in North America citing its youth and its willingness to take risks and he believes it’s not unique in Canada in this regard. But risks he believes don’t always come with rewards for those who challenge the idea of what Canadian poetry should be which much like the stereotype of the national character holds it should be friendly and comfortable.

“It’s always easy to ignore what we don’t recognize as adding to our cultural recognition of ourselves that doesn’t add to our recognition of Canada because it’s not hung up as being part of Canadianness” he says. “I find it very interesting that my cultural reception is much stronger in places like Northern England and Scandinavia and Northern Europe.”

But wherever they ply their craft beaulieu believes poets have the same obligations. Just because they shouldn’t write more “poetry” doesn’t mean they don’t have a vital role to play.

“I think it’s the responsibility of poets to be opening up conversations to be pushing understanding to start dialogue to be challenging our audience.”