Book Review – Paper Reunion

Paper Reunion: An anthology of Phoenix: A Poet’s Workshop (1976-1986), published by Big Pond Rumours Press showcases the work of writers that were central to the Phoenix poetry workshop.

This substantive anthology is edited by Sharon Berg and Julie McNeill and it appeared in 2016.

image598The Paper Reunion includes the work of sixteen writers associated with the Phoenix workshop: Rosemary Aubert, Sharon Berg, Heather Cadsby, Richard Harrison, Maria Jacobs, Pat Jasper, Eric Layman, Julie McNeill, George Miller, Brian Purdy, Jim Roberts, Stuart Ross, Libby Scheier, Marty Singleton, Paul Smith and Christine Spear.

While the writing personae of the group may have found resonance within the Phoenix group, the variety and the craftsmanship of poems and fiction part of the anthology is impressive, with no common denominator – if not for the creativity of the writers featured in the anthology.

“Real life is better when we give it reasonable vacations of unreality,” Gaston Bachelard wrote in Water and Dreams, An Essay on the Imagination of the Matter.

The pieces selected by the two editors provide such an opportunity for moving from one parallel universe – of the literary ilk – to another, within the span of ninety pages.

The themes that traverse the  anthology take us into the construct of a collective literary diary that may have it roots in the decade noted, but is nevertheless of significance to literature in its most endurable form, in Canada and abroad.

For context – although poetry and fiction are not exactly time box material – the decade in question would see the ascent of new undercurrents after the dissolution of the beat literary movement: a more matter of fact approach to poetry, combining traces of storylines (in the US, poets such as Michael Blumenthal and Louise Erdrich), poignant introspection (in Canada, Margaret Atwood and Carolyn Forché) and the unassuming verses that grow into stunning metaphors (in Ireland, Seamus Heaney).

Against this background, memory – of places and states of mind – is one theme that surfaces throughout the anthology; its interpretation, fluid and unpredictable, runs from Pat Jasper’s glimpse of tombstones on a subway trip, to Paul Smith’s unwrapping of recollections into a book and to Libby Scheier’s powerful imagery:

“Some days are like an albino

rhino facing me straight on”

(from Vancouver Morning by Libby Scheier)

In The Paper Reunion anthology, however, memory appears to be a deceptive notion, just the front door for infinitely more complex scenarios of which Richard Harrison warns us in his poem This Son of York: “All the world’s a phrase.”

Wrought into the ever shifting foundation of the memory, a second theme emerges – and this one too, in line with l’air du temps of the late seventies and early eighties – decoding one’s heritage and sizing it up in stanzas.

Uncomfortable at times, raw in its mixture of disillusionment and hope, the heritage leitmotif is pervasive in poems by George Miller, Stuart Ross, Sharon Berg and Marja (Maria) Jacobs.

The subtle humour that perks up from some of poems in the anthology is arguably a binding theme among authors who appear to share a taste for the absurd and mild sarcasm:

“Borscht is circular

when viewed from above.

Both hot borscht and

cold are in fashion.”

(from Expired Borscht by Stuart Ross).

It is worth reflecting that the artists part of the Phoenix workshop were writing poems and short stories in a time that preceded the current digital age, when paper – adequately resonating in the title of the book – was the medium of the message:

“We knew you

and know you now

by the paper flag of the poet

that is our own.”

(From The Paper Flag of the Poet by Julie McNeil).

The orchestrated transitions are perhaps one of the anthology’s greatest achievements: the works of art presented flow well and echo one another, with adequate changes of rhythm and style and the occasional aesthetic surprise:

“And that was when he shouted, “This isn’t a conversation, it’s a prose poem.”

(From The cause of my rosacea by Heather Roberts Cadsby)

Bringing together the voices of the Phoenix workshop writers in Paper Reunion is no small feat; it is refreshing to see a small press such as Big Pond Rumours accomplishing it.

The anthology provides us with a historic perspective of the Canadian literary scene between 1976 and 1986, its affiliations, and the seeds of its evolution in the decades to follow.

Irina MogaIrina Moga writes poetry in English and French. She is a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Irina’s poems have appeared in literary magazines in Canada and the US such as “Canadian Literature”, “dandelion”, “carte blanche”, “Rockhurst Review” and “The Chaffin Journal.” She previously published two poetry books in Romanian. Connect with her on Twitter:@continuous_poem

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