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Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry

By Mona Fertig, Harold Rhenisch

Review By Jaqueline Larson

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 161 Spring 2009  | p. 140-1

There are many strong poems among the 108 contributions to Rocksalt, the first anthology of BC poetry in more than thirty years. The editors favour narrative lyric, though there is a handful of innovative texts and one visual poem. But starting with the title, there are puzzling things about this book. Considering that rock salt is common salt, mined mostly in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan, it’s unclear what the BC connection is, unless the editors had a rough “salt of the earth” sense of their selections. The very act of assembling such a collection presumes to offer something particular to British Columbia between its pages, but aside from place names and landscape, ravens and spruce, there is little that’s unique to the province from a literary point of view.

I’m curious about the editors’ motivation: why do we need this book now? The introduction explains that they “chose to produce a snapshot of what BC poets are working on right now” (viii), and, like a snapshot, the result is often fresh and lively but also rather haphazard, if not random, in its composition. 

Because anthologies have to choose some works and exclude others, they take positions on literary values, even cultural debates. I found it frustrating that this collection’s specified goal is only to “inspire a new generation of anthologies, like the ones that sprang up in the 1970s” (ix). So much is unsaid here, though there seems more than a hint of nostalgia for early CanLit nationalism – without any of that period’s political necessity. The last thirty years have seen an astonishing range of writing across communities in the province. From women’s writing inspired by the Women and Words conference in 1983 and the Kootenay School of Writing (which opened in Vancouver in 1984) to the groundbreaking Writing through Race conference in 1994 and the flourishing of publications that sprang from that event’s energy, innovation, and concern with social justice have intertwined in the work of dozens of BC poets, many of whom don’t appear here. In their statements about poetry, many of Rocksalt’s poets talk about writing as a point of access to mystery or greater depths or something otherwise extraordinary, so there may be an unconscious preference for the spiritual as a criterion for the work. 

It’s encouraging to read so many new voices and writers who live in small communities or rural areas: they make for a bigger picture of the province. But the collection could have been much more coherent with a larger editorial grasp, or at least a better-articulated rationale for the editors’ view, of BC poetries in the new century’s first decade.