To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.
Jeff Derksen was born in New Westminster, B.C., in 1958 and teaches in the English department at Simon Fraser University. He's probably best known as the enfant terrible of Vancouver writing in the 1980s, when, as a member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he helped instigate what came to be the most radical movement in Canadian poetry.
The KSW - which featured such fellow-travellers as Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Peter Culley, Deanna Ferguson, Nancy Shaw, Kevin Davies, and Lisa Robertson - saw poetry as socially collective and as an art in which politics emerged in form as much as in content. Derksen's books over the past two decades - including Down Time, Dwell, and the collection of essays Annihilated Time (2009) - have consistently made a case for the political stakes of poetry.
Key here are his strategies of disjunction, the productive reader, and (what I call in my forthcoming book on the KSW), social collage. That is, Derksen's poems are not expressions of a lyric ego, and neither are they reflections of a static world. Rather, they are interventions into that world, constructions of texts that rely on the reader to produce meaning, that rely on a gap between lines and meanings, and that collage various registers of discourse, from literature to economics, into an unstable whole.
And as his title Transnational Muscle Cars (2003) demonstrates, Derksen is as concerned with class and its signifiers as with neoliberalism and contemporary social theory. Derksen's poetry works at the level of the sentence: each one perfectly clear, with a subtle ironic twang, but together forming a text of unsettling perspicacity, one in the reading of which we become aware of a new social relation, where the productive reader, no longer just the passive consumer of romantic lyrics, participates in the contestation of meanings and utopian possibilities.
But, as was evident when Derksen read at the KSW in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside earlier this month, the "socialist one-liners" (as Derksen himself characterizes his poetry) are often as funny as they are political.
But Could I Make a Living from It
That's a nice sunset you have there.
I'm three years younger than the term Third World.
This is where your body goes after you donate it to "medical research."
I'm a cultural nationalist waiting to happen.
"Note: these awards are custom made to individual requirements and are NOT mass-produced."
This landscape demands another attention span that mediates me flatly and broadly.
It's the apex where sexuality's spliced in.
Do you really want to use it that way, I mean to use it?
The sun reflects off the triangular glass tower downtown and into my bed - I sprawl on this corporate light.
"Writing can be no more definitive than can one's place in history."
Just don't touch me during the drum solo.
Trees are cod.
Outside of a metaphor I have a body, but as a statistic I can at least show up on a bar graph.
F rom Transnational Muscle Cars, Talonbooks, Vancouver
Photo of Jeff Derkson by Sabine Bitter