I met with Carmine Starnino at a bustling bistro in Little Italy. Our conversation about his various roles in the literary community – as poet, critic, essayist and editor – inevitably led to a discussion about craft, and a debate about aesthetic camps and standards of judgment.
“Things are never settled,” Starnino says. “A good poem is just a poem you can make a good argument for. We have to admit that.”
Starnino has sharpened his arguments for over a decade now, and is known to not hold back. He’s not one to retreat from a literary scrap, and seems to thrive when the dust is kicked up.
“If you have a hundred people who agree that Al Purdy is a major Canadian poet, then you have the beginnings of a canon. But if you have a hundred people who agree that Al Purdy is a major Canadian poet and you have one person who disagrees, then … you have something that’s alive and you have debate and disagreement and that’s where things get interesting. I just like it when things are interesting.”
The willingness to take a position and stir up opinions can likewise be observed over at Maisonneuve magazine, an eclectic national quarterly, of which Starnino is editor-in-chief.
“I try to run a magazine that displays fresh thinking. You don’t want any clichés, you don’t want any borrowed thinking, and you want your angles to be fresh and to surprise people.”
“You can get into the weeds very quickly,” he admits.
The Starnino stamp, though, is not so much a mark of provocation as it is of vigilance and craft. Whether the latest issue of Maisonneuve or a reimagining of the Canadian poetry canon, whether an online essay or an individual sonnet, one gets the sense that there is always shapeliness to the works that bear his name, a dedication to les mots justes and to the forms that best organize and hold them.
A devotion to the nuances of language, to core principles such as musicality and economy, has helped solidify Starnino’s reputation as a demanding editor, a tough critic, and a very good poet. He has won numerous accolades, including the QWF A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, the Canadian Authors Association Prize, the David McKeen Award, and most recently a Governor General’s Award nomination for his fourth collection, This Way Out. Starnino is very aware, however, that the ultimate arbiter of poetry is the passage of time. He is deeply invested in the notion of poetry as part of a living tradition – in the countless things that need to go right for a good poem to earn its historical keep.
“It’s like making a movie,” he says. “With all the variables at work in any movie, the fact that they get made at all is just extraordinary. When you consider the amount of work, the million and one ways that any movie can go wrong… I feel the same way about poems. The fact that good poems get written is a small miracle given the ways in which they can go wrong. That’s why I think they’re scarce.”
“If there’s one principle that criticism is based on it’s the scarcity of good poems.”
And so as Starnino the poet and Starnino the editor string together an impressive list of collections, Starnino the critic continues to hold the poetry of others up to the same standards that he holds his own, and to defend and celebrate the principles by which great poems are crafted. A new book of his poetry criticism is due out from Biblioasis in 2011, and as his critical vocabulary evolves, so do his tone and approach.
“The angry young man has grown older. I don’t know if he’s less angry, but it does get tiresome. Now I’m much more curious about how poems work, in ways that would’ve been foreign to me five years ago. I realize growing older that the more difficult task is to persuade people to think the way you think rather than enrage them into some reaction.”
“My hope now is to appeal to the academic sense of fair-play, and come up with a body of work so unavoidable – and not just my work – that when they say ‘A’ they have to say, ‘on the other hand B’. I want to be on the other hand. I want to be part of the discussion.”
Regardless of whether it’s a discussion of poetics, the Canadian canon, or the future of publishing, whether online or at a makeshift panel in a bookstore, you can expect to find Carmine Starnino standing firm in the middle of the debate.
Kasper Hartman is an editor, translator, writer working in Montreal. He is an average poet and an extraordinary poker player. First appeared in the Quebec Writers’ Federation QWRITE May 2010. Reprinted by permission.