Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish
How to Write. Talonbooks, 2010.
How to Write reworks the tradition of the writing manual written by a poet acting as an authority on being a writer. Its cover immediately undermines this writerly authority in crediting not only its ostensible author, derek beaulieu, but also the authors of How to Write’s predecessors—Ezra Pound’s 1930 “How to Write” and Gertrude Stein’s 1931 How to Write. While Pound and Stein would likely claim to have written these manuals, How to Write suggests that writing is now the wrong verb; rather, beaulieu compiles his text. In a typically modernist fashion—nodding to the tradition while simultaneously subverting it—he authors a book about writing that writes out the author. He writes a book about authorship that has no single authorized writer. He rewrites the modernist author’s manual to mangle the authority of the postmodern writer. He playfully—and tellingly—points to the paradoxes inherent to the act of writing in an era when The New York Times quotes from Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, a book that quotes one day’s edition of The New York Times in its entirety. If Pound instructs writers to “make it new,” beaulieu emphasizes not the writing, but the making. He suggests that writers rearrange the old into the new, raid the old and present it anew, recognize that there is no new.
The cover of How to Write makes beaulieu’s main point—that writers steal, and the better the thief, the better the author—as effectively as the text the book contains. beaulieu directs writers to “X the text,” to reveal the work that exists within and between the lines of an extant text. Initially disguised underneath the book’s title and its claims to instructional authority, a struck-out excerpt from Pound’s “How to Write” palimpsestically reveals new rules for postmodern poetics that exist within Pound’s X-ed text, rules that are enacted throughout How to Write: “Question the Art of Poesy.” “Avoid good poetry” for “it has been debased.” “Direct the subject.” “Use the presentation.” “Phrase the sequence.” “Function without sanction.” “Appear new.”
The final dictum—not to make it new, but to appear new—is the key to beaulieu’s conceptual fiction. Each chapter of How to Write is composed of found text selected and re-presented by beaulieu. Before reading the notes to the text wherein beaulieu outlines his constraints, How to Write reads less like a writer’s manual and more like an exercise in modernist difficulty. But like Agatha Christie, from whose novels he mines all numerical references to compile “And Then There Were None” (15), beaulieu leaves clues. The questions in “Nothing Odd Can Last” (11) repeat an oddly familiar refrain: the programmatic questions repeated in Coles Notes-style reading guides, in this case those written to accompany a famous predecessor to beaulieu’s steal-and-rearrange strategy, Sterne’s Tristam Shandy. The license plate numbers that pepper “Wild Rose Country” (21) reveal how limited and yet how varied our immediate textual environments are, and just how unconscious we are of much of the text that daily passes before our eyes—text that becomes significant only once it is authorized by official publication. beaulieu’s source texts are unfailingly eclectic—the story that inspires Batman, commercials, spam email, every text beginning with A contained in Project Gutenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Christie, Sterne, Austen, Goethe, Wells, Shelley, cummings, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Poe—evidencing that for a committed thief, any text can contain treasures ripe for the plundering. Both “How to Write” (45) and “How to Edit: A” demonstrate the obsession with language and language-manipulation that runs as an undercurrent through a vast spectrum of texts, suggesting that the question of how to write is endlessly answerable, and ever unanswerable.
It is fitting that in How to Write beaulieu makes manifest a very old idea, one that concerns Northrop Frye in his essay “Canada and Its Poetry” (1943): “Originality is largely a matter of returning to origins.” Appearing new, How to Write suggests, is about new ways of discovering, and stealing from, those origins.
At press time: Melissa A. Dalgleish is a doctoral candidate in English at York University. Her primary areas of research are mythopoeic Canadian modernism, contemporary Canadian experimental poetry, and the links between them. She did her B.A. at the University of Toronto, her B.Ed. at Queen’s, and her Master’s at Dalhousie. She is the founding editor of Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought.
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