amongst books

amongst books

Friday, March 15, 2013

VERSeFest Day 3 Notes

Another three fabulous readers last night at the festival: Stuart Ross, Catherine Owen & Don McKay. I have to say that for me this was probably the smoothest of all the events so far. The readers read for twenty minutes each. The introductions by Tree Reading Series hosts Carol A. Stephen & Deanna Young were brief and not sycophantic. At the end, there was enough time for us to stand around socialize, buy books and have the authors sign them & still get home by 9pm, unless you were staying for the second event, the Women's Slam Winners, which I wasn't, not having any stamina for it.

My favourite kind of poetry  is poetry that is not obviously autobiographical or poetry that plays with the concept of the I. It's not that I have anything against autobiographical poetry; I write it myself, but there is often less variation of style & voice in  a purely autobiographical poem that doesn't attempt to use the opportunity of the I to play or to vary.

One of the things that I enjoy about the poetry of Stuart Ross is his playfulness, his ability to write in the voice of a child with that mix of wonder. even the poems written from an adult's point of view tend to convey a tone of humble befuddlement, disorientation with the way the world works, with social convention & hierarchy. the poems often go off into the land of imagination, which is part of the way a child sees the world, but Stuart has extended the child's world view to the adult voice as well.

Stuart read from his latest poetry collection, "You Exist, Details Follow" (Anvil Press, 2012) & also from new work. Many of the poems he read sprang from writing exercises that he has developed based on the work of poets he studies and admires, such as Joe Brainard. I know this because I've attended two of his excellent workshops: a Poetry Bootcamp that took place in my own apartment a few years ago & a Tree Reading Series workshop last year. This method of writing allows for a lot of freedom, playfulness & stretching of the imagination. Many of his poems give life to inanimate objects or reverse or make us think about what we commonly know about how life works: "Soon the day became rusty; the furniture went to bed." 

Stuart is a writer who unleashes my own creativity. His poems combine compassion, humility, humour & imagination. I admire Stuart for many reasons, but particularly because he continues to read the poetry of others & to study it, to let it serve as an influence for his work. One poem was a cento made up completely of titles of songs. I also consider him to be a dear friend who shares my love of Ceylonta & So Good, two local restaurants & who I have debated with about a variety of subjects, which is always fun.

Here's an excerpt from the title poem, "You Exist, Details Follow" which he read last night:

I smoke the permanent clouds,
and listen to the citizens
badmouth the city. Meanwhile,
the pleased furniture rumbles
to victory. An echo scrapes
across the doomed surface
of a laughing golf course.
I have come to talk about manners:
we live by lost rules.
Do you know why?
You leave by the back door,
where the supermarket pauses,
where the smooth night relaxes
into rusting box springs.

[...] You Exist, Details Follow (Anvil Press, 2012)

It was a night of friends at the festival & in Ottawa's tight-knit literary community, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by friends throughout the festival. Vancouver poet Catherine Owen first came into my life in 2009 just before my health crisis. She is the partner of one of my closest friends, Warren Dean Fulton & actually stayed in my home when I was in ICU at the Ottawa General when she read at the intellectually whimsical Dusty Owl Reading Series. We had made the arrangement beforehand. She and my husband bonded over whiskey and sad stories. Her book "Frenzy" was the first book I was able to read after I got out of ICU & was in the wards. It helped me through the long boring stay in the hospital, especially at first when I could barely leave my bed. In 2012 I had the honour of publishing Catherine's chapbook, "Steve Kulash & other autopsies" through my micropress, AngelHousePress.

I've been attracted to her work because I have felt we were kindreds. We've been fascinated or plagued, depending on how you look at it, with some of the same obsessions: misfits, art, flaneurs, music, photography, rusty found objects, trees, historical figures or periods of history & the edge, darkness.

Catherine's latest book "Trobairitz" (Anvil Press, 2012) combines medieval French women troubadors, trobairitz with heavy metal music of this era. One of the things that gives Catherine her cool cred is that she actually played bass in a heavy metal band for a decade.

In one review, Catherine is described by her friend and collaborator, Joe Rosenblatt as a "neo-romantic bard." I would have to agree. I love Catherine's sense of language, its precision, the imagery, the sound play. All of her poems can be read aloud. I've always loathed the term page poet because to me a a poem must work for the ear as well as the page. To divide the page from the ear & vice versa for me is like trying to separate conjoined twins. Catherine's poems amuse my mouth as well as my ear, eye and mind.

During her reading last night, the lights in the room caused looming shadows of Catherine to appear on the stage's back wall. Sometimes the shadows were doubled. I felt like the ghosts of medieval balladeers were present, co-conspirators. poem shiver.

One of the poems I particularly enjoyed hearing Catherine read & which is exemplary of her work is one of the Eneugs, which are lists of hates & contrast with the Plazers, lists of loves, words that come from la langue d'Oc, the language of Ocitania, which is where the French court was in the Middle Ages.

Eneug 1

Hating the stench of the undigested, relegated cellars,
beer scrim on all the tables, hating the wrecked red carpet,
the lost-toothed patrons lumbering off their bar stools,
Hating their paw-fulls of sticky coins, the cheap, cheap
swill & butts glutting the toilets,
Hating the twittering girls, their apropos tatties,
stabbed against tongues that clack against their chatter,
tits that shrink men's eyes to bite-sized leers, the dirty,
pretty, plump and pale tweens, twirling their youth
in my face, hating the youth youth youth of it, the
anthemed, apocalyptic air of the thick & pitiful mosh
pit with its bashing, pumping hurls of flesh and the asshole
who asks my sign, lynching a ridiculous cowboy hat
beneath an unscriptable bit of beard.

Trobaritz, Anvil Press, 2012

The final reader was Don McKay, who I have never had the pleasure of meeting or hearing read in person before, but I have had the honour of republishing in 2011 his piece "It Won't Work" written for Brick Books' 25th anniversary in the AngelHousePress series of essays. I had a chance to chat briefly with him & to thank him for allowing me to republish the piece. I was pleased to find that he is a charming & approachable person. 

I know I complain a lot about banter during readings. I don't usually like a lot of introduction to the poem. Don McKay expressed concern during his reading that his introductions might turn into lectures. Except they didn't, but I appreciate his awareness & concern that this is what can happen. His intros were just as interesting & poetic, in my opinion, as the poems themselves. They added to the work rather than summarize it blandly or meander off in all directions. 

Don read from his twelfth poetry collection, "Paradoxides" (McClelland & Stewart, 2012). If you're like me, you had no idea what that word means. Don explained that it was a trilobite. The picture on the front cover is one that he had found, if I understood correctly. If not, I'm just making this up. 

One particularly striking  poem, "Snowball Earth" talked about a time when the earth, according to a hypothesis, was covered in ice for 100 million years in the Protozoic era. Don invoked Persephone in the poem & imagined her journey in such a world. He used lines from one of my favourite carols, In the Bleak Midwinter (based on the Christina Rosseti poem)…"Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone."

I found his poems mesmerizing & wondrous, inventive & playful, beautifully constructed & compelling to listen to. I also liked his manner, which was humble, even apologetic for his obsession with birds in his poetry. I am not someone who has found much interest in nature as subject before, simply because it is often so cliche or reverently presented, but I admit that I liked his treatment of it within these poems, not as something separate from humanity or giving humans a dominating role in nature, but as part of us. Here is a wee excerpt from "Snowball Earth" for your reading pleasure & i apologize for any typos. I found the poem reproduced & translated into Russia here, but there were several typos in the transcription of the poem on that site.


In the middle of the frozen pond
we pause: blow noses;
tighten snowshoes. Around us

snowdevils skirmish and disperse.
Loose tresses sift, braiding, un-
braiding, and where

the ice is bare the slant sun,
like a glass eye,
glances. Biology is elsewhere,

busy with its death-birth
buzz. Here we are simple citizens
of Snowball Earth, the cosmic disco ball

[…] Paradoxides, McClelland & Stewart, 2012

I'm looking forward to tonight's Irish celebration with poets Matthew Sweeney & Rita Ann Higgins. Rumour has it there may be cheese. See you there.

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