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Bait & Switch by Jim Johnstone  

Poet and editor Jim Johnstone presents a series of essays and reviews exploring the state of Canadian poetry in the 21st century through the lens of a trained scientist.

In Bait & Switch, Jim Johnstone—poet, editor, and erstwhile physiologist—turns his considerable analytic powers to Canadian poetry.

With characteristic empathy and a researcher’s eye, Johnstone explores a variety of topics, including the legacy of science poetry in Canada, the spark that gives rise to the pre-poem moment, and technology and its attendant opportunities for artistic collaboration. He also considers major works by both prominent and up-and-coming Canadian poets, from Christian Bök and Karen Solie to Nyla Matuk and Michael Prior, and takes a deep dive into career retrospectives by Don McKay, bill bissett, and Carmine Starnino.

But Bait & Switch is far from a cold dissection of contemporary verse; it offers a look into Johnstone’s personal evolution as he opts for a writing life based on the ‘irresistible force’ that is poetry, and gives a behind-the-scenes look at his editorial experience mentoring and promoting Canadian authors.

Excerpt from book

From the Introduction

I rarely admit to writing poetry when talking to people I’ve just met. Asked what I do for a living during a night out with my wife, I generally default to ‘freelance writer’, or more often than not, leave out writer altogether. Like most poets, I’ve held many temporary jobs over the course of my life, so at any given moment ‘freelance’ is close to the truth. The reality though, is that I cobble together a living writing, editing, publishing, and reviewing poetry--a pursuit that demands almost fanatical commitment. If I can help it, I dedicate my energy to the written word exclusively, though there’s never a time when it feels like a stable job.

All of this is to say that the deferral described above is born of love--I’ve been stuck in too many conversations where I led with ’poet’ and received blank looks to continue to introduce myself as one. In my early twenties, when I was working towards my M.Sc. in Reproductive Physiology, these kinds of conversations were easier. Going into detail about my thesis--a project centered around the developmental origins of adult health and disease--would garner blank looks too, but at least these included a grudging respect.

So why bother with poetry? And in particular, why write criticism related to an art associated with ‘dutifulness and dullness’ (as playfully described by Adam Kirsch in a recent issue of the New Criterion)? My answer is that poetry is an irresistible force, a guiding principal for those to whom it matters. From a personal standpoint, it’s one of my primary forms of entertainment, and it’s also one of the fundamental ways in which I interpret the world. Criticism, on the other hand, is a different animal. Even those who enjoy poetry have been known to consider ‘literary criticism’ a pejorative term. Still, I’ve long been convinced that the health of any artistic community can be measured by the state of the critical apparatus surrounding it, and my experience writing about poetry has convinced me of the symbiosis between the two disciplines.

Bait & Switch collects the majority of the essays and reviews I’ve written on Canadian poetry over the past fifteen years. By its very nature the book is a miscellany, a bait-and-switch, but I also like to see it as a collection of moments that combine to comment on what Canadians have been writing in the 21st century, and where we might be headed next. Flip though and you’ll find my take on Karen Solie’s post-Griffin Award winning American debut sitting beside criticism of Christian Bök’s cryptography-based bioengineering experiment, The Xenotext. Dig further and I consider several volumes of selected poetry--a form that’s experienced renewed popularity over the past decade--as well as introductions to the work of poets published in The Porcupine’s Quill’s Essential Poets series, and an essay on collaborative poetry and it’s growing impact in CanLit.

Closer to home, Bait & Switch considers origins, tracking the moments in my life that I came to poetry and editing, respectively, while thinking through the work of Ian Williams and Tolu Oloruntoba. That I count these two writers as friends has been one of the unexpected joys of exchanging my scientific beginnings for a writing life. That life includes time with all of the books explored in the pages to come, each of which I’ve tried to approach with empathy, even if my assessments aren’t always positive. It also includes the continued and constant mystery of the pre-poem moment, something I write about in the closing essay ‘On the Provenance of 9.69’.

Apart from the what and the why, the pieces gathered in Bait & Switch are archival. Their first iterations were published primarily on the Internet, and, as such, many have already vanished. I hope that by getting a second life here they draw attention to the poets evoked, reviewed and discussed. I also hope they serve as an example of how poetry can be accessible to those who want to spend time with it. I often hear from readers who feel poetry is beyond their understanding, and assume that a decoder ring is necessary to interpret what’s being written. No such ring is needed. If it were, this book--written by a former academic without literary training--wouldn’t exist. In my opinion, the idea of a poem having a single fixed meaning is antithetical to the reader’s imagination and their freedom to contribute to the poem’s sense.

All of this adds up to make Bait & Switch the book that I’d like to hand to those who ask why I do what I do. As Peter Sanger writes in his introduction to Of Things Unknown: ‘Poetry’s condition is really that of personhood. It has rights and subtle relationships with obligations and responsibilities which may or may not be those of its writer.’ That’s true of all the poetry I enjoy, and can be applied to the type of prose I strive to write as well. Now, I hand these pages off to you.

Unpublished endorsement

‘Jim Johnstone is a double rarity: at once a stellar poet and a fair, incisive, award-winning critic. Coming to poetry trained as a scientist, convinced that writing essays, reviews and criticism about the art he practices is the measure of a true literary citizen, Johnstone lives inside language at depth. Here you will find his unique combination of clarity and warmth in essays on poets from Karen Solie to Tolu Oloruntoba, on issues of disability and mental health, on Canadian poetics. What links them all together? Johnstone’s calm, personal voice and profound observations. He’s the inheritor of that special brand of North American criticism composed by the likes Eric Ormsby, and further back, Randall Jarrell, ever fascinated by his subjects. His explications of poems are downright beautiful—and always lucid. Although he titles this collection with the clever term Bait & Switch, this splendid book is anything but: it’s straightforward, intelligent, and capacious. Johnstone opens the logic of his judgments in trim, direct sentences that give you the confidence that this poet-critic is always telling the truth.’

—Molly Peacock, author of The Analyst and The Second Blush


Credit: Erica Smith

Jim Johnstone is a Toronto-based poet, editor, and critic. He is the author of seven books of poetry, and his essays and reviews have appeared in magazines such as Canadian Notes & Queries, The Kenyon Review, Maisonneuve, The Manchester Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and The Rupture. In 2016, he was the second Canadian to win Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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ISBN-13: 9780889844728

Publication Date: 2024-01-30

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 208

Price: $22.95