amongst books

amongst books

Monday, September 19, 2011

Poems in the Moment

I am honoured to have been invited by rob mclennan to participate in "Call and Response: Poetic Responses to Photographs in the Red Wall Gallery," School of Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO). For this project, I had the utmost pleasure of responding to Moment(o) Mexico at a glance (un vistazo) by John Hewett Hallum, who very kindly discussed his work with me.

From September 23 to October 29, 2011, if you go to the gallery, you will see John's wonderful photos of Mexico on the wall and you will be able to read my series "In the Tempo of Now: a poetic accompaniement to Moment(o)." I hope you will have a chance to visit. SPAO is located at 168 Dalhousie St, fairly far north.

I inially wrote a fairly long statement for the project, but didn't want to bog down gallery viewers with it. To me, the photos demanded sparseness not wordiness. But this is the web and you have a bit more time to read, if interested, so I thought I'd include my revised statement below.

At some point there may be some online content that I can share with you and if so, I'll add. The call and response project is a collaboration between SPAO and the local poetry community and is curated by rob mclennan, whose praises i can't sing highly enough. once more he has encouraged us fraidy cat poets to stretch our paws a wee bit.

here's some well-deserved acknowledgments, the statement and a bibliography:


Thanks to rob mclennan for including me & for encouraging me to push beyond.

A special thanks to John Hewett Hallum for his friendliness, co-operation and assistance.

To the University of Ottawa library and the Ottawa Public Library which made it possible for me to find resources not easily available on line.


In her excellent response to Leslie Hossack's Cities of Stone - People of Dust, Pearl Pirie takes on the role of poet-journalist. Here, in a very different context, I am not a journalist; I am a fabricator whose imagination has been sparked by John Hewett Hallum's impressionistic photographs of Mexico...from the corner of his eye to my mind's eye.

In mathematics there is something called "interpolation," which is to construct new points between known points. There is also "extrapolation," which is to extend or expand experience into the unknown. This is how I worked with John's photos. I listened to the tone and the mood that the work evoked, to what was around.

In my practice and in life in general, I am a magpie. I pick up shiny objects. I keep what resonates. For this project, I read about Mexico's rich literary and cultural history. I enthusiastically dove into articles about Mescal, chapolines, which are grasshoppers served as snacks, the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, magic realism, ghost stories and legends.

I read the contemporary poets of Mexico and their influences, including Octavio Paz. Through his writing, I discovered Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century poet and brilliant scholar from Oaxaca. "Hear me one moment/I'm all set to sing!," she wrote in 1689.

Digging a bit further into Mexican literature, I took a detour into the Pre-Columbian era where I made the acquaintance of Nezahualcoyotl, the Hungry Coyote, a 13th century ruler and the Poet King of Texcoco. Much of his poetry focused on the moment. " Not forever on earth, only a brief time here!" The Flower Tree.

With his photographs, John offers us a gift: a moving landscape that changes moment by moment, eroded by time, weather and water, so that even if we visit the same places, we will never see the same images again.

To complement these photographs, I offer you poems that juxtapose the fleeting moment with the eternal, fantasy with reality. Quotes from Mexican literature are in italics within the poems. This literature, along with Mexico's art and history, shape the architecture and the landscape of the country. These poems, have been inspired both by the literature and by John's poignant and compelling photographs.

My goal here is not to impose meaning or understanding but to unleash your imagination.

The river goes by, goes by
and never stops.
The wind goes by, goes by
and never stops.

Life goes by
and never comes back.

from Four Otomi Poems, p. 119 Flower and song : poems of the Aztec peoples


A Sor Juana Anthology, Translated by Alan S. Trueblood, with a foreword by Octavio Paz, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1988.

Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith, Octavio Paz, Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.

The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, Edited and Translated by Eliot Weinberger, New Directions, New York, 1987.

Flower and song : poems of the Aztec peoples, Translated and Introduced by Edward Kissam and Michael Schmidt, Anvil Press Poetry, Neptune House, London, 2nd Edition 2009.

The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl


Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes, Translated by Sam Hileman, Ivan Obolensky, Inc., New York, 1960.

Ignacio Padilla: Latin American writers grew iguanas to make them look like dinosaurs, The Independent, July 20, 2002.

Move Over, Tequila, It’s Mescal’s Turn to Shine, Randal C. Arnold, the New York Times, July 21, 2011.

Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo ; translated by Margaret Sayers Peden ; with a
foreword by Susan Sontag. New York : Grove Press, c1994.

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, A Bilingual Anthology, edited by
Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman, Oxford University Press, 2009.

I do hope you Ottawans will have a chance to stop by the gallery, especially savour the quiet beauty of John Hewett Hallum's photographs and perhaps to open up the nearby binder and take a peek at a few of the poems I've conjured up as a complement and compliment to his work.

Conversations between poetry and art do not happen often enough, in my opinion. Here's an ongoing conversation to take part in. If you have comments, or if you are inspired by the work and want to write or create your own responses, that would be the cat's meow or pajamas. If you do so, let me know please.

The vernissage is on Friday, September 23 from 6pm to 9pm. and you're invited!

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