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The Only Poetry That Matters - Reading the Kootenay School of Writing

The Only Poetry That Matters

Reading the Kootenay School of Writing

By Clint Burnham
Categories: Cultural Studies, British Columbia, Canada, Poetry
Paperback : 9781551524290, 256 pages, 2011
Read Excerpt (PDF)


In The Only Poetry That Matters, novelist and poet Clint Burnham offers the first book-length examination of the Kootenay School of Writing, the notorious group of poets who came to international attention in Vancouver during the 1980s. Founded in 1984 after the closure of David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, the KSW offered writing and publishing courses and hosted colloquia, critical talks, and a reading series featuring local, Canadian, and international writers (which continue to this day). Just as significantly, the KSW came to be associated with a number of "language" poets who wor

Using the psychoanalytic criticism of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek, Burnham unpacks and demystifies this purposely dense and disjunctive poetry, arguing that it matters because of its materiality, because of its politics, and because of how the writing, rather than offering a ready-made message, passes the work onto the reader, allowing the reader to create meaning. Burnham identifies three tendencies: the "empty speech" of poets like Kathryn MacLeod, the "social collage" of Jeff Derksen's work, and the Red Tory "neopastoralism" of Lisa Robertson. He also takes a tour through the KSW archive, unearthing its place in a social history of Vancouver--its art, its politics, its tumultuous geography.

The Only Poetry That Matters is essential reading for anyone who is interested in contemporary writing, in political art, and in what it means to make meaning.


When you choose to call a book about a regionally-based collective of writers The Only Poetry that Matters, you set yourself a remarkably difficult task. With a title so bold, so presumptuous, so contestable, the challenge is obvious. Fortunately, Clint Burnham doesn't leave his title stranded! Here, an attentiveness to materiality-in the archive, in the everyday, and of the signifier-combine to make a strong case for the Kootenay School of Writing's persistent impact on North American cultural politics and avant-garde writing since the collective's inception in 1984. For readers who can lay claim to a piece of this history, The Only Poetry that Matters promises an "archival jolt," with all the uncanny and pleasurable reverberations. For the rest of us, Burnham's study is a place to begin understanding why the cultural work and poetics of KSW really do matter.
-Kate Eichhorn, author of Fond and Fieldnotes, a forensic

- Kate Eichhorn

This important new book points to the potential of poetry as critique in Vancouver's long moment of rising neoliberalism - a period that takes us from Bill Bennett and the "Restraint Budget", to the coalitional "Operation Solidarity" of the 1980s up to the zombie urbanism of gentrification today. A particular energy leaps from Burnham's critical method, which is often as paratactical as the poetry from the Kootenay School of Writing poets that he closely reads: Joe Clark and Flora MacDonald appear alongside Lisa Robertson and Peter Culley, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek join Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Deanna Ferguson. Burnham's accelerated materialist reading is not only a rock solid work of a literary history that locates KSW within North American poetics, but it is both brilliant and weird enough to be a crucial critical intervention into Canadian literary studies.
-Jeff Derksen, author of Annihilated Time and Transnational Muscle Cars

- Jeff Derksen

If you are interested in great writing, great poetry or simply a broader spectrum of what some call "Canadian writing," this book is essential reading.
-rob mclennan's blog

- rob mclennan

This book will grow in significance as the conversation around the about the KSW catches up to it . .. An idiosyncratic fresh angle on a well-travelled topic.

-Canadian Literature

- Canadian Literature

This book could be subtitled "Dr. Lacan in British Columbia. " Burnham ventriloquizes the old master in his ideological and psychoanalytic readings of the poets of the Kootenay School of Writing, an absolutely crucial, compelling, and provocative poetry collective that emerged on Canada's West Coast in the 1980s. Burnham is right: it is the poetry that matters. The poems at stake here burn off the theory like the Vancouver sun piercing the city's notoriously grey skies.
-Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania; author of All the Whiskey in Heaven

- Charles Bernstein