On the night of Thursday May 25th I attended a discussion focusing on the state of criticism held at The Staircase in Hamilton. The discussion, as described on The Staircase‘s website
…titled “It’s Great and I Like It: What Happened to Criticism?” [was] moderated by Quill & Quire‘s reviews editor, Steven W. Beattie, and the panel include[d] Gary Barwin, writer, multimedia artist and composer; Emily Keeler, VP of PEN Canada and editor of Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series; Graham Rockingham, Hamilton Spectator music editor; Naben Ruthnum, writer and critic; Stephanie Vegh, Executive Director of the Hamilton Arts Council, visual artist and critic; and Gena Zuroski, McMaster University English professor and editor.
It was an engaging discussion, to be sure. As to answering or exploring the question What Happened to Criticism? very little time was spent. Much of the discussion found the various participants engaged in a dialogue on what they thought criticism should be–a guiding through work, providing of a lens to improve readers’ toolbox–a constructive practice, I believe, they all agreed upon. But, if the question, going into the discussion is What Happened to Criticism? what did happen to criticism? This might have been a solid point of departure. Instead, much of the first half of the discussion revolved around vague definitions which were never clarified. What is the difference between criticism and a review? And if it is supposed to be obvious, why was it tripped over?
Near the conclusion of the panel discussion, to be fair, the question proposed in the title of the event was touched on. The answer to what happened to criticism seemed to be that… it’s disappearing due to a lack of interested parties: reader/viewer and media. Lament. With arts staff cut to a bare minimum, panelists agreed that faced with the job of criticizing (or reviewing?) so many different events with an emaciated team (of one), it was really only possible to tout the best, ignore the bad, and suggest the rest.
Finally, worthy of note, was Stephanie Vegh’s desire (and call) for Hamilton to be a city where serious criticism could be found among the living arts scene which gets its exposure via the SUPER CRAWL each year, but fails to blossom (or so Vegh was suggesting) otherwise.
That was the theory portion of the night. Then, next, into the night. From my jacket pocket my phone relayed directions from The Staircase to L’estranger, a bar I have mentioned in the past. I headed over to this bar to listen to Klyde Broox and Kelsey Knight sing their poetry. This they did–plus a poem and two songs a cappella by Jack Blackmon who got the bar singing the chorus of I Just Don’t Give a Fuck, which was… I just don’t give a fuck. The majority of the performance was Klyde Broox’s material–the audience participated in chorus chanting, and they laughed, clapped and whooped. Until the drunk owner shut the whole thing down in a jarring turn of events. Claiming the poetry was shit and stupid, and in direct contradiction, that he didn’t understand it, the owner turned on the music as audience and performers stood momentarily stunned. The owner then went on to claim that Klyde was preaching and that that kind of stuff could turn him into a racist. Here was practice following the theory. I am not saying that all of Hamilton has as little potential as this unfortunately event, but it was undoubtedly a poignant contrast between the controlled discussion of earlier that night and the vulnerable reciting of poems later.
It can be difficult to find an appropriate place to flood with unapologetic poetry. If the owner of L’estranger didn’t know what to expect from Klyde, if he expected muzak and whispers… one easily thinks of the poetics of intervention and the reactions which such interventions can engender. Klyde Broox is no stranger to poetry in strange places. He tells a story about a poetry gig in FORTINOS. It also did not end well, not surprisingly, especially if you’ve heard the power of Klyde’s voice, how far it reaches. But, expectations aside, there is no excuse for the imbecilic behavior of the OWNER. Of course, he’s lost a number of patrons, rightly. Goodnightly, stranger.