"Post-prairie poet" is an appealing phrase, one that could become fashionable in years to come, and yet it's subversive enough to make poets across Canada shudder with either anticipation or, for those staunch romanticists, possibly alarm. The critical term was coined by Winnipeg-born poet and Montreal transplant Jon Paul Fiorentino, who co-edited with Robert Kroetsch the collection Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry
"These are the poets who unwrite the prairie," Fiorentino writes in the introductory dialogue with Kroetsch. "Where, specifically in hell, did the prairie get to? I think it's still here/there but the poets are elsewhere, or hiding, or resisting. The anxiety of geography is reshaping content." For Fiorentino, the prairie poet identity has shifted from its poetics of place, that old pioneer backdrop of rolling plains, locust scourges, and long winters, to a poetics of search concerned with more personal and fragmented urban ruminations.
Fiorentino continues this iconoclastic reshaping of Canadian poetry traditions in his new book, The Theory of the Loser Class
. It's his fourth book of poetry, following on the heels of 2004's surreal, pharmaceutical-laced Hello Serotonin
. His previous book, Asthmatica
(2005), a collection of comedic fiction, was a marked departure for him and carries the same self-deprecating wit Fiorentino displays in person. I ask him about the genesis of his book titles.
"I always come up with the titles first," replies Fiorentino. "It seems to me that more people pay attention to the title than to the actual writing. That may sound cynical, but titles are key to me. I collect the writing with the title and the mandate it suggests in mind." The Theory of the Loser Class
, itself a sardonic skewing of sociologist Thorstein Veblen's 1899 book title The Theory of the Leisure Class
, held particular resonance for Fiorentino, and not only for its potential as a creative constraint. "(So many poetry books) have the same sounding titles, some unintentionally comedic - like Breathing in My Grandmother's Garden
," he says, grinning. "I wanted to offer up the idea that poetry could be more culturally relevant."
Indeed, in The Theory of the Loser Class
, what emerges from the pages are unexpected but poignant re-imaginings of such mass culture icons as suburban malls, video games, late-night television, comedians, and, for a significant portion of the book, mass murderers.
The book started when Fiorentino took a year contract teaching at the University of Winnipeg in 2003. "I was living by myself for the first time in my life," he recounts, "and I was in a little bachelor suite almost exactly on the spot Earle Nelson was hanged. That kind of sparked the book." Nelson, a Bible-thumping American serial killer known for strangling his victims with his bare hands (he was nicknamed the "Gorilla Killer" for his strength) was caught and executed in Winnipeg in 1928. From "Via Graham Mall (song for Earle Nelson)"
You are with me tonight
The potential of a ten-foot extension cord
the limitations of sainthood
"Most of the losers in the book are people who have done amazing things," Fiorentino confesses, "but Earle Nelson was probably the closest to me in that he did absolutely nothing."
The poems about Nelson ultimately contribute to the darker tone The Theory of the Loser Class
has over Hello Serotonin
, but the majority of the collection contains Fiorentino's trademark playfulness. In "Front-Faced," Fiorentino structures his lines like a BASIC program. "Sonnet of R2-D2," a startling foray into robot verse, is written wholly in blips and pings, yet still adheres to the form. Many of the poems are composed in quiet layers. Others thrum like a Drenched whiskey jack
limp limbic iamb
Scrape fence climb
Payphone prayer drift
tonic tact breach
Primp proper prick
A quick flip through the book will bring readers to its most visible experiment, "Binary Code Sonnet 1.0" - three pages of verse rendered only in 1's and 0's. Luckily, Fiorentino provides a translation. Its opening stanza has the disruptive effect of an Andy Kaufman act:
I can't believe you bothered to translate
this sonnet made of Latinate syntax,
this failure of a versification.
I can't believe you stole this fucking book.
It's boring and it's such a waste of time.
"Andy Kaufman is one of my role models," says Fiorentino. "He was never afraid of failure, but delighted in it and the failure of the audience. I think poetry is capable of these Kaufmanesque gestures, more than has been explored. It can be provocative in that way."
The Coach House Press legacy of poets also influenced Fiorentino, starting in his formative years. "I was drawn to the artistic imagery of bp Nichol and others for their sense of play. Poetry is a space that doesn't have to be just for tweed-coat-wearing professors. It can be a place for subversive acts, a place in which we play and discover things about ourselves in a non-preachy way. I struggle with the dominant idea of poetry and literature as high art and sophistication and an art form for the elite."
Perhaps that's why Fiorentino chose to take on Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class
, a text which he admits baffled him at first with its near-Byzantine language and logic. One of the epigraphs in Theory of the Loser Class
is a gambit of sorts, a mischievous nod to readers of what is to come, as well as an invitation to a not-so-secret club:
I'm not suggesting we're all losers
I'm insisting on it.
"A lot of people consider Veblen's book a work of satire," Fiorentino explains. "But that's about authorial intent versus what the actual writing does." It's a dualism aptly illustrated in the third (and last) part of the book, where Fiorentino draws on Veblen's harrowing lingual aesthetics to craft his own "theory." Intricate and filled with a fervour that parcels out ire and pride in like portions, the poems here border on the indecipherable. Yet, like the esoteric babble of many theorists, when stripped of any meaning, they curiously become a pleasure to read. From "Premature Devout Observances":
Cut and paste dactylic reason
squalor, splendour, trochaic flailings
Reward yourself with tenet etchings
cynical cipher conventions, clinical
Then take the piss with von Humboldt,
finite use of finite means, an endless countability
The poet's life, at least regarding Fiorentino, seems far from the leisure class. At the time of the interview, he was only days shy of leaving for St. Petersburg to take part in a literary symposium. On other days, he teaches creative writing at Concordia University and is a contributing editor to Matrix
magazine. In recent months, he and Montreal writer Robert Allen have already published two books by upcoming writers, "voices that are peculiar, experimental." It's a chance for Fiorentino to karmically return the favour of his own first publication.
And what of his theory of the loser class? If one exists, readers won't find it in Fiorentino's book. "The payoff is not based on theory," he reveals. "It's based on poetry. We'll read our own payoff even if there isn't one. The fact that you got to the end of the book is its own punch line."