Celebrating Inability: Canada’s Bizarre Approach to the Ghazal

Pat Collins

It’s interesting how the ghazal—that ancient Middle Eastern form of poetry consisting in couplets marked by a consistent inner rhyme and refrain—has found a place in Western culture in recent decades. Examples of the form have been popping up in American publications increasingly since the mid 1990’s, and a magazine dedicated exclusively to the form first appeared in 2003. Probably the most significant testament to the form’s growing popularity is the fact that two English-language ghazal anthologies have been published since 2000, and a third is rumored to be in the works.

            What’s even more interesting than this adoption of the ghazal in the West, though, is the bizarre manner in which many Canadian poets, editors and critics have approached the form, adopting it in name only out of little more than expediency, apparently.

            In order to celebrate such a dubious approach, of course, someone has to chronicle the poets and justify their shortcomings. Enter Ontario native Rob Winger, who received a Ph.D. from Carleton University for his thesis, “John Thompson, Phyllis Webb, and the Roots of the Free-Verse Ghazal in Canada.” His highly contrived “A Brief History of the Canadian Ghazal” appeared in the Ontario magazine Arc Poetry in 2009. “Ghazal Mania: A Guided Tour by Rob Winger,” read the blurb on the front cover of No. 62. Winger’s far-from-complete story begins in the 1970’s with the publication of the second book by the British-born Thompson.

            Stilt Jack by the English ex-pat was posthumously published in 1978. Six years later, Phyllis Webb’s Water and Light was brought out to the public. Both books were promoted and sold as collections of ghazals, despite the fact that composition in couplets was the only ghazal attribute that their contents possessed. Webb even went so far as to refer to her volume’s poems as “anti-ghazals.” Whether Thompson and Webb were incapable of incorporating the other elements of the ghazal form, or if they were simply unsure of said elements to begin with, is still somewhat unclear – particularly in the case of Thompson.

            Whatever the case, both poets’ so-called ghazals developed a cult following in the ensuing years, especially among young burgeoning bards. Oddly enough, it seems none of these admirers and imitators ever bothered to research the validity of Thompson’s or Webb’s verse structures. A little research might also have uncovered the fact that Saturday Night magazine editor Robert Fulford rejected Thompson’s “ghazals” on the grounds that they were “not suitable,” and that Thompson’s publisher, Anasai, showed no apparent interest in publishing Stilt Jack while its criminally insane author was still alive. Such details are often overlooked to this day—presumably out of convenience. Also ignored is the rather telling fact that Webb never dabbled with the form after the publication of Water and Light, and has never commented on the particulars of formal structure that have come to light (and into practice) in the post-Ravishing DisUntities era (she’s still alive in her nineties). In spite of such conundrums and anomalies, Winger sees Thompson’s and Webb’s attempts at the form as seminal, and claims they “respect its historical roots” (Winger: “A Brief History of the Canadian Ghazal,” p. 29).

            Winger’s bizarre story is somewhat foggy and short on details when it comes to the period following Thompson’s and Webb’s supposedly remarkable experiments, but it seems to suggest that the likes of Douglas Barbour, Jan Zwicky, and Harry Thurston—all writers of free-verse “ghazals,” not surprisingly—have been the form’s essential Canadian flag carriers in the decades since Stilt Jack and Water and Light first appeared. What is so curious about this is the fact that Winger makes no mention of Eric Folsom, who, in the mid 1990’s, followed the lead of American poets Gene Doty and William Dennis, and published a series of couplets-only “ghazals” in Lynx, a Californian journal dedicated to Asian poetic forms. Doty and Dennis would go on to discover the attributes of the real ghazal, with the former launching The Ghazal Page webzine and the latter publishing examples of the form that would be worthy of inclusion in the 2014 Contemporary Ghazals Anthology. Folsom, on the other hand, would not make such a transition, and subsequently disappeared from the form’s bigger international picture. (A chapbook of his couplets-only attempts, Northeast Anti-Ghazals, was published in January of 2005.) One can’t help but wonder if Folsom was excluded from Winger’s article because of the company he kept – i.e., the fact that he published in Lynx might have opened up a whole new can of dangerous worms. In other words, by acknowledging Folsom, Winger might have been obliged to acknowledge another Canadian poet who had attempted the ghazal form for that same Californian journal—one who had managed to get it right.

             Ironically, Winger’s article and his thesis on Thompson conveniently ignore the fact that R. W. Watkins had a proper ghazal (“At Night”) published in Lynx in 1999. Along with “In Bogs” (which lacked a complete/consistent qafia across the couplets), it would become the only Canadian content in Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing DisUnities (2000), the world’s first anthology of English-language ghazals. This is also ignored, even when Winger addresses said anthology in some (dismissive) detail. Also unacknowledged is the fact that in 2003–04 Watkins edited and published the first two issues of Contemporary Ghazals – the first and only English-language journal dedicated exclusively to the form.

            Curiously, Winger doesn’t fail, however, to acknowledge the fact that in 2003 Lorna Crozier published a volume of free-verse “ghazals,” Bones in Their Wings.

            At its core, Winger’s article seems insistent that the Canadian free-verse “ghazal” is a worthy “form” which should be considered on par with its Eastern namesake, and that the “few” examples of the real deal are to be conveniently ignored. If this is not a save-face celebration of Canadian inability and defeatism, then I am at a loss as to what is.

            Such a celebration also proved self-serving, for in 2010 Winger published his own volume of free-verse “ghazals,” The Chimney Stone. The book received modest “acclaim” from unquestioning Canadian critics, and universal disregard from the conveniently avoided ghazal traditionalists south of the border. Not surprisingly, it is at this point that the “official” story of the Canadian ghazal seemingly comes to a convenient end.

            Of course, for those who cherish truth, disclosure and cultivation of the poetic craft, the story far from ends in 2010. In fact, one might very well say that the history of the ghazal in Canada since 2010 is synonymous with the country’s contributions to the real ghazal, whose story continued significantly in 2013 with the return of Watkins’s Contemporary Ghazals after a lengthy hiatus. The long-awaited No. 3 was published in the spring of that year, followed by No. 4 and the Contemporary Ghazals Anthology in 2014; the latter collecting 40 poems by fourteen poets from the U.S., Canada, Holland and the Indian Subcontinent. Issues 5 and 6 of the magazine were subsequently published in 2015–16; the most recent containing “Ghazal for M.,” a genuine example of the form in English by another Canadian poet, Fern G. Z. Carr.

            So one is left wondering why Winger and his fellow travelers (editors, publishers, Carleton University) insist on such omissions and misrepresentation of the facts. Why the false history? Why the deception?

            “Canadian poets are quite adept at changing the rules in order to accommodate their own shortcomings in the talent department,” insists R. W. Watkins. “This is certainly true in regards to a form like the ghazal.  Such poets—and their cronies who run the state-funded journals and publishing houses—base their arrogance on ignorance, expediency and deception. Black is white and white is black. It’s a very generic left-wing way of doing things, bordering on the Orwellian.”

            Watkins avoids most of the traditional Canadian publishing outlets these days, and instead takes advantage of the new online platforms like CreateSpace and Amazon Kindle—“mainly because I like to make some money,” he adds. Fiercely non-compromising in his approach, Watkins has been heavily influenced by the Ayn Rands and Steve Ditkos on one hand and Gen-X-focused independent record companies like Sub Pop on the other. He sees the literary establishment in Canada as little more than a farce.

            “Many of these editors and publishers are the type that screams ‘Hippy!’ when they get cut off at an intersection by someone with thick sideburns.  Some of them are such anachronistic numpties that when they hear a term like ‘goth’ or ‘grunge’, they probably envision Elvis impersonators.”

            According to Watkins, the ineptness extends into even the most remote corners of Canada’s literary environment and borders on the completely ridiculous.

            “I once received feedback regarding a short story I’d entered in the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts and Letters Competition that stated, ‘Good fiction doesn’t contain adverbs.’ I mean, bloody hell – you can’t make up stuff like this!”

            One of the best and most up-to-date essays on the ghazal form can be found in a recent edition of The Ghazal Page webzine. “The Evolution of the North American Ghazal: Orientalism, Revolution & Heresy” by Eugene A. Melino actually started out as a history of the Canadian ghazal, but quickly changed direction when its author hit a brick wall in regards to content. “I dropped the original premise,” says Melino, “because, quite frankly, there was no story there, or not a big enough one. To my mind, Canada is not particularly relevant to the real ghazal, and Contemporary Ghazals is not a Canadian journal.  Not really.  It is an international journal that happens to come out of Canada.”  Melino points out that a random glance at the contributors’ bios in Contemporary Ghazals reveals a vast majority of American writers, with overseas input hailing from India, Australia and The Netherlands.

            Watkins claims that there was very little Canadian interest in his publication from the outset. “I spread the word through the various journals and organizations—like the League of Canadian Parrots, er, Poets—and stirred up zilch interest,” he says today. “It’s the poets south of the border who made Contemporary Ghazals a worthwhile project. Ditto for my new journal, Eastern Structures. The talent and initiative is simply lacking up here.” Watkins admits that things have improved somewhat on the Canadian front over the years, but not substantially. “When I had a copy of the Contemporary Ghazals Anthology sent to some Ontarian named Michael Dennis for coverage on his blog, he didn’t even bother to review it. I guess he didn’t have the necessary qualifications.  He did, however, review Rob Winger’s The Chimney Stone. That tells me everything I need to know about Dennis’s literary standards and politics.”

            Watkins has also taken it upon himself to extend an olive branch, as it were, inviting Rob Winger to try his hand at writing some proper ghazals. Alas, his dovelike effort has not proven fruitful. “When I emailed Winger a couple of years ago, inviting him to contribute some real ghazals to my journal, he never even bothered to get back in touch. That’s what I call a resounding silence of the negative variety.” Watkins now takes a dim yet jovial view of the dubious poet and the system that produced him. “Rob Winger’s silly thesis proves that a Ph.D. from Carleton University is worth just slightly less than a Bazooka Joe bubblegum comic in VG condition,” he says with a laugh. “In fact, given my background in essays for The Comics Decoder website, maybe Carleton would award me a doctorate for a thesis on Bazooka Joe.”        

            Such contrived essays and Ph.D. theses may not have any real bearing on the way in which Canadian ghazal poets (whether rule-regarding or corner-cutting) are perceived of on the international front, however. Watkins insists that books and essays like those of Winger are intended primarily for Canadian eyes—especially fellow writers’ eyes—and are all about reassurance. “Things really haven’t changed much since F. R. Scott was writing satirical poems about the self-important Canadian authors of the 1930’s and ’40’s,” he assured me. “A large percentage of them are still rather deficient in the talent department, and seeking solace in each other’s mediocrity is still a means of propping themselves up.” Eugene A. Melino is convinced that his recent up-to-date essay on the Western ghazal should help bring attention to Contemporary Ghazals, Watkins and other relevant Canadians shunned undeservedly at home by a self-serving circle of redactionists. “It is the only source for the comprehensive story of the ghazal in English,” he insists. “Any poet or scholar interested in the subject will have to read it.”

            Melino is also convinced that free-verse ghazals have run their course, pointing out that he very rarely encounters new examples in his native U.S. any longer. “The zeitgeist is right for the real ghazal,” he says. “To write in a traditional form rooted in Muslim culture is controversial in a time of rabid Islamophobia. The real ghazal has become ‘sexy’ in ways that the free-verse ghazal, with its non-sequiturs and obscurities, can never be.” If Melino’s assertions are correct, then the poets of Contemporary Ghazals and Eastern Structures are in the vanguard, and Canada has been exuding sexiness for some time.