what is it about the writers festival? i start out expecting a good time, some fine readings and a bit of socializing and somewhere along the line, something catches fire with me and i’m under a kind of a spell. any attempts i make to resist purchasing books due to limited finances go out the window.
this year the fire started early with Mike Blouin’s launch of Wore Down Trust, (Pedlar Press), fittingly at the Barley Mow, a local pub in Old Ottawa South near the main festival site of the Mayfair Theatre. there were drinks, there were many drinks and a good crowd. [full disclosure-the author gifted me with a Wore Down Trust t-shirt and i am wearing it right now, which is clearly influencing my fondness for the work]
i admit that i was provoked early on, days before the reading (and i love being provoked) with the promos for the book and an isolated quote from Alden Nowlan on the writers fest site:
oh, admit this, man there’s no point in poetry
if you withhold the truth
once you’ve come by it—
that quote alone makes no sense to me. it comes across as didactic. hackles raised. and then poet Susan Musgrave chose Alden Nowlan’s Selected Poems for her Canada Reads Poetry selection, explaining that Canadians don’t need to be afraid of Nowlan. this irked me even more. i admit i hadn’t read any of Nowlan’s poetry, but i didn’t like the idea of some kind of pandering sycophant with delusions of knowing The Truth. i was bothered enough to take a look at his Selected.
what i read there was not The Truth, but rather brilliant and poignant observations, a wee bit old-fashioned in places, nameless women lying about on the grass, but on the whole beautiful and humble and certainly not didactic. a few poems about the operating room were particularly apt for me and i appreciated the universality of his poetry.
in Wore Down Trust the quote appears along with a few other quotes but it is not in isolation and i think it fits fine, particularly within the context of the three characters Nowlan, Cash and the author himself. in some ways, Blouin’s book reminded me of Rob Winger’s Muybridge’s Horse (Nightwood Editions), another book that plays with public and private personas of historical figures, not as well known as Cash but probably more well known than Nowlan or the author.
Blouin advises us that the voices are imagined and that “most things border the truth.” and this is one of the compelling aspects of Wore Down Trust for me, that exploration of the borders of truth and imagination. the universal truths of trying to live and survive faced with the obstacles inherent in living. the tumult faced by Cash et al in trying to live faced with addictions and sorrows.
as a music junkie and particularly as a lover of the blues, i enjoyed the structure of Wore Down Trust, the three chords AAB repeated throughout, the author as the third bar in traditional blues acts as a kind of anchor, pulls us back to a commonality between the three. “When you can find it, truth sings.” Songs are a form of truth. and yet “We lie to ourselves about who we are.”
there is duende in Blouin’s work here, he evokes the troubles of Cash and Nowlan, their demons not as an outsider, but as someone who can relate to them at least in the persona of the author in this book. “I seem to pick up feelings from everyone else around me.” The book acts as a kind of sampling of heightened emotion and passion without being smarmy.
The way this is now
I feel almost nothing
that’s a good question I tell the interviewer
don’t even remember what he asked
my tongue is heavy in my mouth
I feel like I’ve been left out to rust
I feel almost nothing
where I am is rattling around inside this body
too tired to care
and the fire continued with other readings at the festival: the House of Anansi poetry bash was excellent. i had a moment during Matt Rader’s reading of A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno where the strength of Rader’s poem and the emotion with which he read it moved me very deeply. i am not one for the idea of perfection in poetry but i recognize the skill of all three readers Sharon Thesen from Oyama Pink Shale, Rader from his book and Ken Babstock from Methodist Hatchet. Babstock’s ability with sound is so brilliant, so much fun. I am a sound junkie.
i don’t know if this has ever happened to you when you’ve attended a reading or read a piece of writing: during Matt Rader’s reading for some reason i felt as if i’d heard something so very good and strong that i found all of my own attempts to write poems passing through my mind and realizing that i wasn’t there, that i hadn’t achieved what i was trying to achieve and perhaps never would. an unsettling and somewhat worrisome thought.
a friend says House of Anansi is Canada’s best literary publisher. i don’t know about that, but they have consistently published some of the most accomplished poetry i've read and these three poets are definitely at the top of their game. and yet they are humble. each of them were nervous readers, especially Matt Rader. i liked that. they weren’t arrogant like some people can be. they didn’t have that horrid I am a Poet attitude (nor did any other poets i heard at the fest, by the way); to share work with people can make the writer feel very vulnerable. some like Rader include autobiography which can be very private to share. Rader is also a skilled soundsmith, which came across beautifully in his reading and in the book. Here’s an example of sound bliss:
Gravity and Grace
The air unravels at Cape Canaveral
and in Oregon a rain-rattle in the gutter
like chariots on cobblestone – Cape
Kennedy, you insist, Canaveral being
a canebrake, a snake able to paralyze
the lungs with its spit of neurotoxin,
a vast tract overtaken by sugarcane.
throughout the book is the subject of sickness and death, a grandfather taken away by ambulance, the discovery of a three-year old child’s body, the sickness and death of a brother. such power and emotion in these poems. what struck me was aspects of ordinary life being mentioned in the context of the experience of dying. and lines that vary from long to short pointed bits of sound, the beauty of these long lines like a requiem for the dead.
Because the bathtub was as full of you
As evenings when you washed yourself
And your long blonde hair and brushed
It out before bed, we cleaned carefully,
My young wife and me, on our knees,
As if sponge bathing your absent body.
Before offering a prayer or taking a life
One must be good and of pure condition:
Feet, thighs and inner thighs, the genitals,
Pubic hair, buttocks, belly and breasts,
Right arm, left arm, fingers, fingernails,
Neck, the nostrils, ears, teeth, tongue, hair.
Tonight, when I draw my daughters’ bath,
Brush their hair, their tiny teeth, perform
The evening ritual to prepare for sleep,
The running water runs all the way back
To your brimming body and damp hair
As I held your head to wipe underneath.
Undress: take the chain from the neck,
The gold from the earls, uncuff the fingers
And arrange the rings like an alphabet
On the bedside table, remove the cotton
That covers the skin, let down the hair:
Brushings will begin with a cedar bough.
Out of the thousands of times I have lain
Naked with my wife, her brown hair falling
Across my face, her thighs open to a page
From the Heroides, I confess to one time
In our early lives when I imagined her
Body was your body moving above me.
There comes a darkness on the Salish Sea
So modest that when we stand without
Clothes on a moonless beach we cannot
See each other’s bodies and so revealing
That when we enter we see the water
Climax with the white light of basic life.
on Sunday there were two poetry events:
Messagio Galore Take VIII with the voices of jwcurry, Alastair Larwill, Grant Wilkins, Christine McNair and special guest Sandra Ridley all working together in various toned harmonies. again perfect for a sound junkie like me. Christine McNair’s Suzy Creamcheese was fun, very fun and the way she breathed, making me need to take some deep breaths, feeling claustrophobic, very disturbing. rob mclennan gives a detailed report here.
the poetry cabaret with Lorna Crozier, Pearl Pirie, Gillian Sze hosted by Sandra Ridley. some of my favourite lines came from Crozier’s memoir. Ridley’s great questions. i’ve already discussed the idea of place in terms of those questions and the answers from the poets.
Robert Pinksy’s masterclass at noon on Monday, his repetitions of some lines from William Carlos Williams “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and his description of his poetry process, how he plays with his surroundings and then with the vocabulary used to describe the surroundings, turns words backwards, rearranges them to see what they evoke.
finally the ghazal concert with Sandra Ridley, Lorna Crozier, Rob Winger and Robert Pinsky and the M E L M'RABET Quartet. i especially enjoyed the group readings of classic ghazals and the selection of ghazals from their own work and from the work of others. thanks to Sandra Ridley, who read some of Adrienne Rich’s ghazals, which i now desperately want to read because they seemed to a good counterpoint to the celebrations of nature found in many classic ghazals and instead went to dark places, used long lines and seemed dark. to be frank, they seemed to match the Canadian versions of the form more, particularly John Thompson’s ghazals. and i refuse to call these poems “guzzles”, i don’t care. it sounds icky. but other than that icky word, i enjoyed this ghazal extravaganza and had to end my festival activities there; i was sated.
on sunday night, i skipped the fiction events, came home and watched the Hunter S. Thompson documentary, Gonzo and felt a little less like all the poetry i could ever try to write was going to be weak compared to what i’d heard. it’s not that i want to write like the poets i’ve heard this past week, but that i want my work to be right, not perfect but somehow right. it helped to watch Gonzo. i need to remember that for me writing is an act of rebellion, a way to try and break out of cliché and stock imagery, which i am surrounded by, brainwashed by daily. and in these dark blue political times, i am going to need to write more than ever and read more than ever. i have fallen out of love with my current work. i guess that’s a good thing, but for now i’m disquieted. i’ll need the kind of beauty that i encountered at the ghazal concert and in Sharon Thesen’s work, the edginess and darkness of Sandra Ridley’s poetry, the sound concertos of Pinsky, Pirie and Babstock, the emotion of Rader, the passion of Blouin, the duende. i am open to it all. thank you writers fest for another amazing festival. and thank you to the writers for writing and sharing your work with us readers.
i have said that the Writers Festival should be called the Readers Festival because it is so satisfying for voracious readers like me to get a chance to hear these writers. i think we compromised and decided to call it the WReaders Festival (thanks to Rusty Priske!) i look forward to the fall edition.