Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets Edited by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson


Review by M. Maylor.

As a heterosexual female and poetry fanatic, I love men and I love poetry as much as the next guy and was curious about this anthology. Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets is a terrific read. It showcases a wide array of talented works and an illuminating introduction. John Barton’s preface is a mini-thesis of Canadian poetic history blended with enlightening facts about being gay in Canada. It is comprehensive, educational and filled with interesting details. For example, it has been less than 40 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised by the Trudeau government. That’s a long time after “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and Oscar Wilde oakum picking his fingers to bloody pulp. And, there were only 17 years between the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and the start of the AIDS era.

Barton introduces the reader to the authors in the context of Canadian poetic history. These interesting facts do much to explain mood and trajectory of the timeline, and, for example, include tensions brought forth by John Southerland’s 1940’s reviews of Patrick Anderson and Robert Finch. These tensions were erupting at the same time that Robert Duncan outed himself and referred to “the crime of his own feelings.” Yet, it wasn’t until 1963 that the first book of openly gay poetry was published by Edward Lacey and financed by Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee. Though there is some speculation as to why such an anthology hasn’t been published before now, Barton’s preface creates a full picture of the obstacles overcome to attain the material required to amass such an anthology.

The stunning range of poetic style and voice is a result of calculated forethought by the editors. Had I skipped the preface and dived into poetry, I’d have been impressed by the latitude of inclusion. The preface added dimension to the choices. Poetic form spans from formal villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets to fractal and visual forms. Topic, tone, and voice, span a wide range also. Douglas LePan and Michael V. Smith illustrate such contrast.

Douglas LePan conjures mystic imagery with “The Green Man.” (p.58)

Leaves twist out of his mouth, of his eyes, of his ears,
twine down over his thighs, spring out of his heels,
as he runs through the woods as a deer or an outlaw, or curled
up in moss and bracken, light speckling him feckless,
he watches the other animals, himself hidden
like an animal, although so strangely human
that if you surprise him you might think yourself looking
into the eyes of the mad but all-wise Merlin.

In contrast is Michael V. Smith’s gritty physical descriptive in “The Sad Truth.” (p. 307)

You aren’t at home. You are in the park
with your hands parting the cheeks
of an ass spreading disease
while two feet away another man
pulls at himself just out
of reach with a look that says
he costs more than you’re worth.

Narrative moves from looking into the eyes of mad Merlin to being inside the eyes of the drunk-mad. Range in poetic form is equally met and matched by the range of emotion. These emotions move from the comfortable and relatable, such as love, heartbreak and anger, to that of disgust and pain, which can challenge a reader’s boundaries in terms of subject. See the rest of “The Sad Truth” and read for more commentary. Additionally, look at “Wounds: Valentine’s Day” by Ian Stephens (p. 228) which is a journey through pain, or “from Blue Ashes” by Jean-Paul Daoust (p. 181) about the seduction of a six and a half year old boy, as examples of how subject can challenge mores.

There are the usual suspects, too, in terms of subject. There are cowboys, priests, and Ganymede’s. These poems balance out some of the more startling inclusions and there is a good dose of tenderness, too. Ian Young’s 1969 offering “(Poem)” (p. 170) captures a mood.

               On rainy afternoons when we would share cool music                        in this little roomI’ve thought of that blonde boy you likedand asked myself if you could ever lean against me        and be stillor draw down sleep to keep us from our rainy grieving.And yet I’ve wished that he could take my place        beside you here –For him you had hands and yearningand your heart’s warmth hurt in its cool centre.

Billeh Nickerson’s “Why I Love Wayne Gretzky – An Erotic Fantasy” (p. 311) stands out for its humour and honesty.

Because sometimes my dyslexia makes me see
a giant 69 on his back.

Norm Sacuta’s “Alberta Pick-Ups” (p. 267) has insight and feeling.

There’ve been two surprises – once after passion,
the boy from Wapiti said
Wanna see my Hummer? And he showed me.
We barely fit the McDonald’s drive-through
and drove around sipping shakes,
everyone staring, wanting, needing
his massive truck. I felt important.
His date to the prom.

Sky Gilbert’s “Assfucking and June Allyson” (p. 220) stands out, partly for the unforgettable title, and partly for the description.

which is, as I said
sometimes painful
but more often than not, incredibly, incredibly wonderful.

Edward A. Lacey’s “Eggplant” (p. 124) is a journey into play with language that is commendable and delightful.

Eggplant, berenjena, beringela, aubergine, melongene,boulanger,   babaganush,                          Baigan,juicy names, full of labials and lingual, luscious voicedvibrating   consonants- what is it that they remind you of?

This anthology is educational, diverse, feeling, startling, erotic, and skilled. In the preface, John Barton points out the arrogance of labelling the book The Anthology of Gay Male Poets while simultaneously posing the question, “Who is Canada’s great gay male poet?”

I surmise the answer is not one name but several and this anthology is just The place to form an opinion.

M. Maylor lives and writes in Calgary.