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Strike Anywhere by Michael Lista  

As Michael Lista is quick to point out, being a critic can be dangerous for your career. In his collection of essays, Strike Anywhere, he bravely takes on the inherently contradictory nature of artistic expression and tackles the moral and artistic implications of boob tube blockbusters, all while attempting to answer the age-old question: Why does poetry suck?

"I’d like to think that I’m polarizing the way a battery is," explains Michael Lista in his introduction to Strike Anywhere, "energizing the flashlight by which you read in the dark only because it has a negative and a positive side. Collected here, under one cover, are my cathodes and my anodes."

In his self-described ‘arsons’, Lista assesses with equal fire our literary darlings (Anne Carson, Don McKay), talented veterans (Steven Heighton, David McGimpsey) and promising newcomers (Stevie Howell, Aisha Sasha John) of the poetic genre. He depicts a literary institution pathologically averse to the sustenance of a traditional repertoire and addicted to the empty calories of poetic experiments. Television, too, falls prey to his jaundiced eye, from the militant sincerity of The Bachelorette to the receptacle of American anxieties that is The Walking Dead. But beyond passing judgment on the contemporary Literary Industrial Complex, Strike Anywhere acknowledges the inherent contradiction of poetic expression—that its power lies in its uselessness—and recognizes that poets are, nonetheless, the happy few, the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

With thoughtfulness, wit and considerable humour, Michael Lista offers a refreshingly candid take on the moral and aesthetic implications of storytelling in all its forms, from boob-tube blockbusters to the latest volume of verse.


2017—ForeWord Indies Book Award,


2017—eLit Awards,

Review text

Provocative and profound but eminently readable, Strike Anywhere demonstrates a critic of high order, unrestrained. It’s great fun watching Lista play with matches.

Michael Lista casts his discerning eye toward poetry, television, music, and the relationship of the arts to the wider world in the illuminating essay collection Strike Anywhere: Essays, Reviews & Other Arsons.

Lista is a respected poet, with two published collections and five years of poetry columns for Canada’s National Post to his credit. The bulk of Strike Anywhere is culled from those columns, in which Lista praises, criticizes, and occasionally excoriates poems (and poets), including Canadian luminaries like Leonard Cohen. He defends traditional figures like Robert Frost while suggesting that Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje might be coasting just a bit. After discussing poetry and writing, Lista focuses on television and music: Dancing with the Stars, The Walking Dead, and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," among other topics.

All of this is cogent and entertaining criticism, but it serves as warm-up to the pièce de résistance, the longest essay in the book, "The Shock Absorber." This entry examines the responsibility of artists outside of their art by analyzing Canada’s prestigious (and remunerative) Griffin Poetry Prize and the means by which its founder makes his money, in parallel with a profile of a writer and Saudi Arabian political prisoner. Lista points out the ethical conflicts, but it’s handled in a way that evokes mature thought; these are not the adolescent screamings of a student who has found his or her first example of hypocrisy in the world.

The book’s title is apropos, as is its cover, with a burning flame on a black background; Lista’s writing is incendiary, and there’s no doubt he’s burned some bridges along his path. Although sometimes harsh, Lista is often amusing and never falls into mean-spiritedness or mere attempts to shock—every opinion is justified with examples.

One of Lista’s targets is the common practice in Canada (and elsewhere) of publications only providing favorable reviews; by challenging this system, he simultaneously points out its flaws and magnifies the weight of his own praise as it’s bestowed on those he finds deserving.

Provocative and profound but eminently readable, Strike Anywhere demonstrates a critic of high order, unrestrained. It’s great fun watching Lista play with matches.

—Peter Dabbene, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

‘Lista’s [criticism is] at least articulate and consistent with his theory of what poetry should be, and it offers a place to have an ongoing conversation about writers and their writing. In other words, it does just what good criticism should do. It may be controversial to some, but it really shouldn’t be.’

—Jeremy Luke Hill,

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‘As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a "negative" critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

‘This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality and intelligence that makes the best of them worth revisiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.’

—Alex Good, Toronto Star

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‘...As for his being too negative, why am I suddenly so invested in Canadian poetry? I filled the book’s dust cover with notes of the titles of poetry collections and criticism I’d now like to read thanks to Lista’s interpretations, his apt references to seminal works, and admired his knack for interesting phrasing as a poet writing about poetry. Until now, reviews about Canadian works in Canadian publications have rarely led to my buying a book; saying imprecise things in a positive tone fails to inspire as much as it doesn’t injure. The positive review conspiracy alienated me as a potential reader without my knowing it.’

—Feliks Jezioranski, Broken Pencil

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‘Lista’s essays and articles in Strike Anywhere, which he jointly calls "arsons," span the space between lighting a fire and burning something down.... Lista clearly thrives when he is fired up; he shines when he takes risks and writes skeptically.’

—Neil Surkan, Canadian Literature

Excerpt from book

The Imitation Game

Sometime after Virgil aped Homer but before Kenneth Goldsmith nicked the New York Times, poets began robbing one another. It’s no surprise: both strands of the Western tradition’s double helix—the Hellenic and the Hebraic—begin with thefts, the Greeks absconding with Helen, and Eve filching the fruit. According to Harold Bloom, even Genesis isn’t sui-generis, having pilfered all its best bits from an earlier ur-text called The Book of J. As Beckett—or was it Andy Warhol—first said: "There’s nothing new under the sun."

When the second poet stole from the very first, he was a larcenist; when the third robbed the first two, he was a traditionalist. Ever since, the relationship between a poet and her predecessors has been described as influence—a fraught intellectual and stylistic exchange by which the old gives birth to the new. Influence’s most salient feature, as T.S. Eliot pointed out in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," is that it is anything but accidental. A literary inheritance may be many things, but it isn’t heritable. Safes don’t crack and divest themselves; it takes talent, discipline, and hard work to steal what someone else earned fair and square.

The critic who has written most obsessively about how and why poets influence one another is Harold Bloom. In The Anxiety of Influence, and its follow-up, A Map of Misreading, Bloom proposes a kind of Freudian theory of influence whereby poets enter into an agon, or struggle, with their forbearers. There comes a moment that he calls the "dialectic of influence," when the young poet realizes that poetry is both outside of her—in the library, in the canon—and nascent inside of her. If she’s a "strong poet," she’ll also realize that nearly all she wants to say has been said already, and well. But her ambition is what makes her strong, and so she will "misread" her most august predecessors, detecting an omission that only she is equipped to redress: herself.

In Bloom’s theory of influence, the young poet reads the greats with a simultaneous affinity and anxiety. The line that sings also stings, an agonizing reminder of the newcomer’s belatedness. Nevertheless, great poets breed great poets, and you can trace our English lineage like a line of bad blood. Milton comes from Virgil and Spenser, but especially Shakespeare; Keats from Shakespeare and Milton; Tennyson from Keats, etc. In A Map of Misreading Bloom charts the agon of inheritance as far as A.R. Ammons and John Ashbery, in whose prolix digressiveness Bloom detects an almost crippling belatedness commensurate with our own late hour. By focusing on major careers, he takes for granted that poetry’s trajectory is charted by great poets. But in the explosive proliferation of MFA programs since A Map of Misreading was published forty years ago, programs that graduate tens of thousands of writers every year, is that still how influence works? Who do poets want to write like today, and why?

[Continued in Strike Anywhere . . .]


Michael Lista is an acclaimed poet, editor, critic, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of two collections of poetry: Bloom (House of Anansi, 2010) and The Scarborough (Signal Editions, 2014). He served as poetry editor of The Walrus and as poetry columnist for The National Post. His non-fiction appears in The Atlantic, Slate, The Walrus and Toronto Life. Lista is the co-founder of Partisan Magazine. He lives in Toronto.

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: 9780889843929

Publication Date: 2016-06-30

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 224

Price: $25.95