by Jade Alyssa Wallace
Reviewed by Terry Trowbridge
Asymmetrically, when a Canadian poet becomes the editor of the book review section of a major Canadian literary journal, there is not a clamouring of poets to review their past books and chapbooks. Because the book review editor’s place on the journal masthead is almost always a hazing ritual disguised as unpaid volunteerism, book review editors at other journals (not necessarily only Canadian journals) could retrospectively reciprocate all those volunteer hours by making some space for a few reviews. Also, by doing so, other journals offer a kind of celebratory introduction to a knowledgeable writer in a thankless job.
Poets, for their parts, might expect a transactional approach by reviewing a past work in the hope of getting their own future books reviewed. That would be one form of ethical writing, apples-to-oranges trade for whatever motivation forms the core of a review. Although, perhaps, explaining why the transaction could be ethical is itself difficult. Would CanLit culture need to decide whether honesty (in reviews) is a commodity that can be banked; or if being an active reader (in reviews) is a transaction different from being a silent reader (whose reading experience is silent); or if a line on a CV for having written a review is tradeable at the same rate as a line on a CV for editing reviews; etcetera ethics etcetera edge cases etcetera errata?
The questions could be simplified by having poets review a book review editor’s work, if and only if, the reviewer poet has no new book or chapbook coming out in the next writing grant cycle; the poet is not up for tenure review; the poet is not particularly noteworthy in themselves. After all, such poets are unlikely to even get a poem published. What a perfectly qualified swarm of reviewers to inflict on editors. So perfect, they sparkle with red pens and dogears.
The ethical questions could be moot, because writing grants in Canada create a scarce resource by ignoring book reviews, and thereby implicitly devalue sponsorship of active reading. Canadian funding subsumes book reviews below the vague heading of “nonfiction” writing, assuming that grant-seekers think of proposing reviews under that category. Thus, even funding agencies scoff at the thankless positionality of the Book Review Editor, a token of the Editor type who is burdened with the onus to locate, persuade, and proofread active readers. The lack of specific book review funding calls into question the role of writing grants to promote a population of active readers, at all.
Canadian book reviews are financialized, in that the finance industry benchmarks that are used by granting agencies value reviews and reviewers at: zero. To review a book review editor’s book, or chapbook, thereby changes the value from one kind of zero to another kind of zero. Therefore, since nobody can really prove in court what the value of book review ethics are, the controversy is more like a riddle than something tortious (see: Osbourne, 2015).
In conclusion: Jade Wallace is currently the Book Review Editor at the Canadian journal Carousel, and that is reason enough to review one of Wallace’s early chapbooks, Artefacts, published by Niagara Falls, Canada, publisher Grey Border Books, way back in the year 2017.
Wallace is originally form Welland, Ontario, a Canadian economic equivalent of Flint, Michigan, just 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls. Welland is a city organized around the Great Lakes manufacturing trade, built around the Welland Canal. Wallace is the child of an amateur visual artist mother and Volkswagen car mechanic father. They were a high school peer of the Welland poet Eric Schmaltz, and is a graduate of Brock University’s undergraduate programs in English, and in Philosophy, where Wallace was a contributor to Brock University’s undergraduate creative writing journal. Wallace also graduated Brock’s Master’s program in Social Justice and Equity Studies. After Welland, Wallace lived in the equivalently working-class St. Catharines, Ontario, and then moved to Canada’s metropolis Toronto. In Toronto, Wallace obtained a paralegal diploma, worked at a legal clinic on Toronto’s northernmost subway line, and helped to run the prestigious Draft monthly literary reading series (Edding, et al., 2022).
Eventually, Wallace settled in Windsor, on another Great Lakes border with the United States: the Detroit River. Windsor is socioeconomically and demographically similar to Welland. At the University of Windsor, Wallace completed an MFA in creative writing, and obtained a permanent position at an urban legal clinic.
Socioeconomically, Wallace’s personal context for writing lyrical, confessional, or epistolary poetry seems to have gone full circle; or at least, traced a southern Canadian working-class triangle. And, outside of Artefacts, Wallace does write about lives; road trips; and fictive characters, businesses, family members, inspired by local events. (But no creative writing has been, so far, drawn from legal clinics. Jade Wallace’s legal work has all been in antipoverty law. For more information about the difference in genre and intent, we will need to prod Wallace for literary theories). Wallace’s writing is most often the product of exploring geographies and the political economy of someplace writ small.
However, what Wallace’s personal residences mean is not a meager claim that poet and poetry have merely laterally moved in a geographical triangle from one end of an economic hypotenuse to the other end of the same hypotenuse. Instead, Wallace’s conscious choice to remain in Windsor, instead of Toronto, reflects how eminently rational was the decision to abandon Lake Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe economy.
A similar relocation will happen to the anxious rows of creative precariat living along Lake Ontario’s commuter arteries. Burlington-Oakville-Mississauga Lakeshore Road, the Don Valley Expressway, Highway 407, the Queen Elizabeth Way, the GO Train network, et al., have been feeling financial and real estate pressures that far outweigh political economy or familial reasons for living in the area. Hordes of commuting writers and publishers are doomed to migrate because of socioeconomic upheaval under the rentier-economics policies of successive layers of governments in Canada’s neoliberal, often neoconservative, federalist system. Wallace’s ostensibly early gentrification-escaping arrival on Windsor’s literary scene facilitates a leadership role that other Ontario literati will follow, must follow, are fated to follow.
Wallace’s early writing life, as a starting poet building a CV and a readership, is therefore an example that will instruct the displaced and clambering next generation of central Canadian writers. The MFA program at the University of Windsor is used to seeing graduates migrate to the Golden Horseshoe. Wallace is among the first few droplets that are forming a returning tsunami. Artefacts, though, can be treated as the last chapbook of their early career, before their move to Windsor. There is reason to interpret that when it was published, they knew it was a watershed collection, however modest compared to the echoing sound of Niagara Falls.
Artefacts has no single consistent theme. The archaically spelled title seems to imply a disparate collection of items in the back rooms and drawers of a museum. Grey Borders’ Poetry Editor, Priscilla Brett, managed to collect what feel like a selection of the poems that Wallace wanted to hold onto from that earlier Brock University experience, rather than containing intimations of what would come after the MFA and legal clinic cultures made different impressions.
There is no indication in Artefacts that the poems appeared in other publications. Wallace was published in literary journals in Australia, Austria, Canada, England, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, The USA, Wales, before attending the MFA program at Windsor. The choice to disconnect Artefacts from the international world colours a different exploratory aura of a hidden, local, circumspect, hodgepodge.
The poems in Artefacts share a voice with what Wallace was writing in Brock University’s turn-of-the-century milieu (Wallace, 2010, 2011a), that included writers, small press editors, and critics like Jozsef Szabo (2013-2021, 2014-2022), Lindsay Cahill (Cahill, 2010; 2011; Cahill, 2017; Cahill et al., 2012), Jeremy Colangelo (2010; 2011; 2020; 2022), Craig Dodman (2010; 2011; 2014), Phil Miletic (2010; 2011; 2017, Miletic and Dodman, 2014), Emi Morimoto (2010; 2011; 2011), Eric Schmaltz (2010; 2011; 2018; Schmaltz and Doody, 2021), Helen Tran (2010; 2011; 2018; 2020), Tom Vaine (2010; VWC, n.d.), Brian Lightbody for his influence on Wallace’s syntheses of various philosophers into poetics (2015, 2017), especially their Master’s advisor, ethnographer and Geography Professor Ebru Ustundag (2016).
Which is to say, being an English major and Philosophy major at Brock University was, for Jade Wallace, a similar practical experience to being an MFA major at Windsor University, equally immersed and engaged with the future of CanLit. What the difference between immersion in the Brock and the Windsor environments substantively entails, though, is to be found in the contrast between stages of Wallace’s writing career (if somebody wants to go looking for it, and somebody should).
If there is a connection between Wallace’s poetry and legal work practising poverty law, it might be found in a St. Catharines social life outside of varsity writers. Wallace befriended Jordan Fry (Fry, 2017a; 2017b), the sarcastic, bombastic social critic of Niagara Falls, as well as publisher of Grey Borders (see also: Wallace, 2011b, 2011c, 2012a, 2012b); and James Millhaven (Millhaven, 2010; 2014; 2015; 2017), the chronically pessimistic observer of the Niagara region’s working class political economy. Wallace, Fry, Millhaven, could be found either at St. Catharines’ Merchant Ale House or Fine Grind Café, either as regular patrons or poetry reading emcees. Various literary figures from the Fine Grind have been activists, like feminist advocate and poetry editor Karli Woods (Woods 2018; Editors, 2022; HA&L, 2017), and like former Fine Grind barista Kasia Zgurzynski, who is only one of many poet-horticulturalists/curator-mycologists/eco-activists/visual-artists to work behind that café counter and help curate art shows along with literary events (Zygurzynski, 2017).
Other Fine Grind authors, sharing the early-career spirit of Wallace, Millhaven, and Fry, skewed toward limited output and Niagara publishing, because of their commitment to mordant, sardonic, highly literate, targeted satire that was too local and too politically direct for publishers in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal. That political iconoclasm marked the turn-of-the-century St. Catharines’ townie literary scene’s alienated trade-off, compared to Brock University’s literary connectivity. For example, the spiritually gifted poet Yoshiyah Nahson rejected the publishing industry conventions of Brock University on transcendental grounds (Nahshon, 2010a, 2010b).An opposite example is sceptical materialist flaneur J. Grebe’s novel Play (Grebe, 2011), set in a semi-fictionalized Fine Grind Café and all it’s sarcastic nerd glory. Still, Wallace managed to live in both tiny St. Catharines worlds and also to engage international publications with individual stories and poems. Artefacts, although published while Wallace lived in Toronto, reads like a scathing St. Catharines townie book.
During Wallace’s Brock University days, Wallace was a peer and confidante of the St. Catharines Poetry Slam’s founding organizer, Thomas Hoad (Hoad, 2010, 2013). Wallace was also a notable friend and literary discourser of the multiple-championship-winning Burlington, Ontario slam poet Dan Murray (Murray, 2011, 2012), as well as the neurodivergent activist poet (who migrated to Windsor before Wallace did), JC Bitoni (Bitoni, 2022), the slam poet KT Job (Job, 2015), and cyberneticist dis/ability advocate poet Sarah Burgess (2012, 2015, 2016, 2019). The audience Slam also attracted international poets, like Mexican expat and bilingual poet-translator Javier Zamora (Zamora, 2012).
At the St. Catharines Poetry Slam, Wallace informally participated in several social justice initiatives and was an integral poet establishing the range of lyrical poetry and critical parody of downtown institutions (for example: a bakery that only made and sold Bundt cakes and lasted a few years on St Catharines’ major downtown street), on the stage at Mahtay Café. There, poets were social justice organizers. Slam poets became surprisingly effective political voices in the public culture of the Niagara region’s civic politics, both urban and rural. (For journalism about how the St. Catharines Poetry Slam’s influence has evolved under the longstanding leadership of Kathleen Driscoll, while retaining the anti-oppression tones set backstage by Wallace, and onstage by Bitoni, Burgess, Job, in particular, see: Anon., 2017; Barton, 2016; Special, 2019).
The first of Artefacts’ poems, in contrast to empowerment, sets an alienated tone. “We don’t live anywhere anymore” is about travel, displacement, and boredom with local neighbourhoods that verges on imagery of broken windows theory (Kelling and Wilson, 1982). Wallace contrasts how a local social scene became rote fun, where the fun is real, but the setting recedes into meaninglessness. A night out becomes a pub crawl, after closing time the pub crawl turns into hiking through parks and city streets, and sitting on a curb so familiar that it takes the place of a private space. “while we melt/into our own/mindfuck memories…We’ll go Caulfield-crazy” (Wallace, 2017, 4). The poem that follows, “Fossils” invokes an image of the poet on that curb looking at the moon, in the standard side-street yellowish Ontario streetlight glow, “dead lights saved by the distance and time/caught in the amber of your bright eye” (6). Then the poem “You Are a Sliver Under My Skin” (7) completes the night out with what happens at home after a boring, too-familiar date.
“Egalitarians make bad lovers” is a poem that is perhaps critical of the social justice milieu of which Wallace was, and is, a part. Indeed, it may also critique the friendships and relationships that evolve from young adults embedded in Philosophy seminars and studying literature. Wallace levels a strong criticism that the ideals which attract the students to the work, the culture, are also ideals that attract them to each other. However, when those ideals also become the tacit framework for interpersonal intimacy, the immediate value of touch, the consequences of preferring one person to all the others, are at risk.
From this point, Artefacts continues to analyze the dissolution of banal settings alongside the deconstruction of intimate relationships. The final poem, “Supply Cycles” (20), suggests that reflecting on the connections between people, places, and events, might not amount to philosophy or autobiography at all. The events of Artefacts, whether fictional, fictive, or true, are about a poet whose choices were driven by inspirational people, attraction to gentleness, and aversion from cruelty, only for those characteristics to make no perceptible difference to the materially dispossessed, rote political economy of Ontario’s medium-sized city. Events are connected only because they happened one after another, and not because there is any sort of cause and effect. Their significance is almost entirely immaterial – intellectual or emotional.
Philosophically, Artefacts is a claim that sometimes, even for years of a person’s life, the meanings they wish amounted to a proof, a biconditional cause-and-effect, the “if, and only if…” of strong emotions, turn out to be meaningless, ineffectual, or illusory. There are no conditionals in Artefacts, only post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies (see: Lanham, 1991, 117), and a narrator who watches their need for meaningful events dissolve into the mundanity of an eventless place. If that is what southern Ontario’s Great Lakes society can provide for a life, then post hoc fallacies are not errors in critical thinking, but rather more like disappointments in critical thinking.
Error and disappointment can be two different things. Philosophy and poetry, theory and experience, can be nothing more than post hoc mnemonic devices for each other. Maybe in certain contexts, that is all they are. In an ambivalent, reversible context like that, the dilemmas about transactional biases in writing a book review about the work of a book review editor are resolved. They are post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies (if somebody wants to go looking for it).
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Terry Trowbridge is a PhD candidate in Socio-Legal Studies who is spending the pandemic isolated and vaccinated as a plum farmer on the shore of Lake Ontario. His chapbook reviews have appeared in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Studies in Social Justice, and Episteme.