Contemporary, innovative poetry on tap at next Downtown Arts Series event

Editor's Note: Due to an illness, this event was postponed. It has been rescheduled for April 29.

The author of more than 40 books and chapbooks of poetry and criticism, Steve McCaffery’s work in print has drawn much acclaim, and now he’s one of two experimental poets coming to Victoria.

Steve McCaffery

It was McCaffery’s performance poetry about 40 years ago that initially made an impression on Charles Alexander, University of Houston-Victoria poet and designer in residence and co-curator of the university’s Downtown Arts Series. McCaffrey was a founding member of “Four Horsemen,” a Canadian sound poetry ensemble.

“I loved their sense that they could do literature with this enthusiastic spirit that’s both intellectually challenging but also moving and fun,” Alexander said. “Steve is one of the most brilliant people we have in contemporary poetry.”

McCaffery and Karen Mac Cormack, also a highly regarded experimental poet, will be the next guests in the University of Houston-Victoria Downtown Arts Series. They will give a poetry reading and talk about issues in contemporary innovative poetry.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 in the UHV Center for the Arts, 204 N. Main St. A question-and-answer session will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

Charles Alexander

The couple lives in Buffalo and teaches at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“Even though they are spouses, they are two very different kinds of writers, although they are both quite innovative and experimental,” Alexander said. “Steve comes out of a sense of performance art with language as a sound and physical matter. He’s incredibly witty, humorous and lively. Karen is humorous too, but it’s a dry wit. I think of her work as related to modernist writers like Gertrude Stein. She also experiments with language, but in her recent works, she increasingly has been combining that with personal narrative.”

Mac Cormack was born in Zambia and holds dual British and Canadian citizenships. She and McCaffrey met while both living in Toronto.

Karen Mac Cormack

Mac Cormack is the author of “Straw Cupid,” “Quirks & Quillets,” “Marine Snow,” “The Tongue Moves Talk,” “At Issue,” “Vanity Release” and “Implexures,” as well as a collaboration with the British poet Alan Halsey called “Fit to Print.” Many of those books were published by Chax Press, which has been housed at UHV since 2014.

In “Fit to Print,” the poems mimic and distort the format and themes of a typical daily newspaper. In “At Issue,” Mac Cormack examines the format and contents of magazines. The collection is a series of poems using the vocabulary and spelling found in magazines such as Vogue and Self.

Alexander said he likes how Mac Cormack’s poetry is shaped in unusual ways.

“She’s very interested in the craft yet not in the traditional ways that the craft is passed down,” Alexander said. “She sees each work as an opportunity to invent a form for that work. She is uncompromising.”

A Sheffield, England, native, McCaffery moved to Toronto in 1968 and was part of the Canadian avant-garde poetry scene in the 1970s. He has twice won the Gertrude Stein Prize for Innovative Writing. He has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award on two occasions.

His poetic explorations can be found in the two volumes of “Seven Pages Missing,” as well as some of his other works, including “Panopticon,” “Tatterdemalion” and “Alice in Plunderland.”

McCaffery’s latest book is “Dark Ladies.” Published in 2016 by Chax Press, the book is an explosive meditation on death and laughter. Mixing knowledge with illogicality and vaudeville vulgarity, it pays homage to William Shakespeare by both erasure and incorporation. Preserving the end rhymes of all 154 of his sonnets in mirror-reverse order and embedding stage directions from his comedic and tragic plays, the book offers a grotesque repurposing of the bard’s great themes.

When Alexander first met him, McCaffery was driving an airport shuttle. McCaffery spent many years outside academia, and he has not adopted ways of writing more commonly practiced in such settings, Alexander said

“Steve started out quite independent, and he’s remained that way,” he said.

McCaffery’s visual poetry is in the permanent collections at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Paul Getty Research Institute in Malibu, the International Concrete Poetry Archive in Oxford, England, and the New York Public Library in New York City.

“There’s a lot of range in his work from something approaching song to abstract enunciation of language and visual forms in print, which can take the shape of pictures,” Alexander said.

For more information about the event or series, contact Alexander at 361-703-5147 or

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Jeremy Shapiro