Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler

Snare Books: Montreal, 2010

80 pages

ISBN 0981248861

ISBN 978-0-9812488-6-8

Reviewed by Christopher Doda

So, it seems that Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler are at it again. Having created apostrophe a few years back, a book largely ‘authored’ by an Internet crawler, they’ve now utilized that most ubiquitous of websites, Facebook, as a conduit of authorship for their newest book, update. This amounts to another book of computer-written poetry, though one admittedly shaped by the pair of ‘authors’ out of the enormity of raw material at their disposal. To put it simply, update is the print version of the website statusupdate.ca, which mimics a Facebook page. The catch is deceptively simple: the page is fed by actual live responses from the authors’ Facebook profiles that swap out the names of anyone who interacts it for ones listed on Wikipedia’s dead poets page. With this easy switch, they show once again that computers can be used to create poetry with more relevance and a much higher entertainment value, not to mention literary depth, than most poets working in Canada today.

The resulting series of poet profiles are both ridiculous and sublime, fictitious updates of famous (and not so famous) poets suddenly wedded to the humdrum details of everyday 21st century life. For example: “Emily Dickinson just realized my office walls are the exact same shade of yellow as Post-it Notes. What does that say about me?” or “Sylvia Plath doesn’t know where the second tomato plant came from” or “Robert Louis Stevenson considers a full-on Grizzly Adams beard” or “Arthur Rimbaud wonders if you get a mask and cape if you join The Evil League of Evil?” and so on. (And just to inadvertently highlight the poor quality of information on Wikipedia, one of the poets— Lawrence Ferlinghetti—is still alive and several others like Sophocles, Erasmus Darwin, George Eliot and Mary Shelley may have written poetry but are hardly known as poets in comparison with their other written pursuits.)

Whether intended or not, the book functions on its playful use of anachronism. It contains multiple announcements from poets doing things they could not possibly have done through a medium they could not possibly (in most cases) have ever used in parameters they could not possibly have known. An especially clever example comes in the form of “Christian Morgenstern just ran out of disk space. :(” Given the use of metrical symbols in place of words in parts of the Gallows Songs, it seems fitting that Morgenstern might be the kind of person who would finish a sentence with an emoticon. Or would have been if text messaging had been an option 100 years ago. As poets are creatures of conjecture, it is amusing to imagine what some of the ones used really would have done with social networking technology (this may be a good literary parlour game). If subjected to Facebook, would the crème de la crème of the Dead White European canon seemed this boring or silly? Given the choice, who would have used it at all? A populist like Shakespeare certainly. Ditto for a gossip-monger like Catullus. An elitist like TS Eliot less likely. Dylan Thomas would probably have used it but regretted it later. Personally I think Milton would have an account but have graduate students or secretaries maintain it in his name.

One drawback of the book may come from its source; not Facebook but the authors themselves. Because the content is provided by Kennedy and Wershler’s ‘friends,’ many of whom are likely writers and artists as they are, the material of update is not as random as Facebook might have had it. Lines like “Joyce Kilmer is thinking about Jeff Chapman, maker of hilarious zines” or “Aldous Huxley is excited because the boxes arrived from the printer” make a queer kind of sense for all their improbability. One wonders what the book would be like if it had been fed by more chartered accountants, sewer workers, lacrosse players, tool and dye makers, drug dealers and Hooters waitresses.

Nonetheless, Kennedy and Wershler have produced another dynamic, surprising and hilarious read. With update, they have yet again taken Canadian poetry in a new and refreshing technology-driven direction. While other forms of art like filmmaking, visual art, video installation, theatre and music constantly utilize technology as a means to new creative expression or to reinvigorate old ones, poetry can be quite conservative in this respect. update shows us that this need not be the case. And kudos to the authors for co-opting Facebook, a web service that has already co-opted so much information from the populace. I wish that in doing so that they could become as rich as Mark Zuckerberg.