Sunday, October 31, 2010

Night of the Living Dead: Live at the Mayfair

Friday night I finally got out to see the Mayfair Theatre's production of Night of the Living Dead: Live. I missed it the first time they staged this show, back in March, and I really had wanted to catch it. So, while I was working at the Mayfair all of last week (the Writers Festival happens there)  I mentioned to Mike Dubue, the theatre's manager and the composer and conductor of this show, that I wanted to go, and he gave me a ticket. So, after about a week spent in the Mayfair behind the scenes, I found myself back there, only this time as an audience member, ensconced in the second row of a sold out theatre with some friends, a plastic cup of beer, and some popcorn. Ahhhh.

The Mayfair's website calls it "Ottawa's home of stuff you won't see anywhere else," and this show pretty much proves it (as George Romero himself commented in a taped introduction.) What Mike Dubue's done with this show is like nothing I've heard of before. It's a little like the inverse of going to see the "Met in HD" opera shows at the big cinemas, actually. He's written an original score (for a combination of strings, guitar, & percussion, with some atmospheric electronics) and done the sound design for a complete live soundscape of the film. Actors read the lines in sync with the screen, and a foley artist supplies all the sound effects (with the exception of big sounds like doors slamming or explosions, which are done with the percussion section.) The whole front of the theatre was jammed with performers: the instruments off at stage left being conducted by Mike, who was also playing a number of the percussion instruments, the foley artist and what I assume was an effects board toward the middle, and a line of actors with their scripts illuminated by little pen lights sitting in the front row of seats to the right.

I think that most of the time I was aware that there were live musicians and actors, even though it was easy to forget and just watch the movie. But it was far too fascinating watching the foley artist and the instrumentalists to only pay attention to the screen. (Where, incidentally, they were rolling a 35mm print of the movie, not a digital remaster. I actually saw that reel, up in the projection booth, earlier this week when I took an author up there to do a pre-reading interview. Cool.)

The live music had an interesting effect on the movie - it suddenly seemed a bit more like an art film. Now, I'm pretty sure that even Romero would be the first to say that he was just trying to make a movie, when he and his friends shot this film, although there are plenty of things that could be said about Romero's social commentary through his "Dead" films. But once you take the sound away from the original print, treating it, in a way, like a silent film, and add Mike's original score, you somehow are more likely to see the ways in which the film is artistic.

The graveyard scene, where Barbara runs from the first zombies, came across as almost ethereal, dream-state-like, because while Jennilee Murray, who played all the women in the show, spoke Barbara's dialogue, she didn't make any sounds as Barbara ran, and stumbled, and fell, and picked herself back up, and fought off the zombie, and tried to hide in the car, and drove off only to hit a tree, and lost her shoes, and finally ended up pelting barefoot along the road. It was all eerily silent, with just the musicians to underscore it.

Somehow it also lets you notice some of the subversive (for the time) stuff that's going on with the character of Ben. I saw an interview once with George Romero in which he said that casting a black man in the part had actually been a complete fluke: they'd written the part for just anyone, and then cast the actor they liked without thinking about it. So you wind up with a black man ordering the white men around, taking charge, being the leader, and hitting a hysterical white woman - none of which was written specifically to address the race issues of the time. But it does, simply by treating the character as an equal. The overtones of lynch mob in the final sequence also come out not because they were written in exactly, but because the audience reads them in.

Mike's score was made up largely of slow pulses of sound from the strings, with some plucked highlights, but definitely not using the high, sharp cues of most horror films of the time: it was ominous and slow most of the time, with a rumbling undercurrent of white noise as though there were a storm or a subway rolling in the distance. It worked for me.

Sure, the voices didn't always sync up perfectly, and at least once there was a glitch (I assume) that meant a section of the film that was supposed to have its original sound didn't. (The actors ad-libbed a couple of references to it later that made the audience burst out laughing.) And one of my friends took exception to Ian Keteku as Ben (said his voice was too high for the part: I thought he sounded fine, and was particularly good at syncing with the film. Jennilee Murray played all the women, and occasionally had to have conversations with herself: she managed to sound different enough that it worked. Through the last bit of the movie, too, her screaming abilities were definitely put to the test. And it was fun that the radio announcer was played by, um, a radio announcer: Alan Neal, from CBC's All In A Day.

And most of all it was entertaining. I enjoyed Mike's scoring, I got to watch him direct with one eye on the screen, I got to watch the foley artist bashing about with chunks of wood and hammers and drawers full of silverware, and I got to watch the actors having fun (and I think ad libbing in spots.) It was entirely satisfying: glad I finally got a chance to see it. If they do another production of it, I highly recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Festival, and the writing groove

Yup, the Festival kicks off tomorrow, so I'm about to vanish into the real world for seven days or so. I can't even start to do my picks: I won't, sadly, get to see a lot of this stuff, actually, because I'll be running around backstage (and driving authors back and forth, and helping at the box office, and doing school visits.)

But you can see Amanda Earl's picks here: and the Apt 613 highlights list is here.

My last evening before the Festival, though, was spent entirely satisfactorily: although I did work right up till the Creative Writing Play Date at 8:00, I made myself a promise I was going to stop working in time to go to the Play Date. Which I did.

It's an odd thing that sometimes when you're stressed out, the writing can flow much more easily. I've had days at the Play Date where I felt like I was forcing myself to write. But this evening, I not only slipped right into writing mode, but I got that lovely sensation, which I rarely get, that I was surprising myself. The exercise started with us writing three words - a room, a family event like a wedding or birth or funeral or some other large occasion, and an emotion. Then Sean talked a bit about descriptive writing, setting, and mood, emphasizing those aspects in what we were going to write, and then we all traded pieces of paper randomly. (I particularly like the tendency for Play Date exercises to randomize the prompts that way: keeps me from falling into writing ruts when I'm being handed something I wasn't expecting to have to write about, and so don't have any 'motor programs' built up for.) And what I ended up writing had a couple of those moments where ideas popped into the story that I hadn't been expecting. Usually I take a long time to actually get to the story and this evening there was none of that.

So, that's the secret then? I can really get into writing when I ought to be doing something else? That makes some kind of sense, actually.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Because Hallowe'en is nigh...

... I thought I'd pass along this story contest, which I got posted through the Writers Festival's Facebook letterbox. I assume that the deadline for this contest would be sometime before Hallowe'en, but I don't know when exactly. I bet they say on their website though. (Sorry about any formatting weirdness: that's what I get for cut-n-pasting things.)

Whippersnapper Press wants your scary stories for Hallowe'en. Bonus points if you're holding a torch under your face while you write them.

We like short, snappy writing that's biting. We also, (for 'tis the season) want it gory, unnerving, suspenseful - or in some other way thoroughly worthy of treats.

As ever we are poor artists and we run the website on good will and shoelaces, but because it's Hallowe'en we will be posting sweets/candy to any authors we publish.

Email your tales of terror to
   with 'Submission' in the subject line.

Word limit: 3,000 max.

Some more info on what we take:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Slam Poetry in the Schools

The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word’s main event is definitely the competition - the poets from cities across the country getting up on stage and going head to head for the title of National Champions. But along with the bouts - and the showcases and jam sessions - the festival also provides a chance for the spoken word community to share skills, with their workshop series. I caught the one on Bringing Slam to the Schools, led by Danielle Gregoire and Lara Bozabalian, both of whom have a lot of experience working with children and youth.
    The people at the workshop were there for all sorts of reasons - from looking for ideas, to wondering how to start a slam in a high school, to questions about details like where to find funding and how much money a poet should ask for to work with a class. And Danielle and Lara did what they could, in the limited time they had, to touch on all of them. I realized, in the workshop, that a lot of these poets are professional artists, or want to be - they were here because they want to make their poetry financially viable. And one of the best ways of doing that happens to also promote the art form and foster the next generation of poets.
    Mostly what the two leaders did in this workshop was to give their tricks - some exercises they use to get the kids writing, usually without really giving the game away that they were writing poetry until after they’d already done it: the trick, with kids as with adults, is often to get them to do the thing, then tell them what they’ve done, rather than to stand up and give a lot of theory or spell things out. In a classroom, not all the kids will even want to write poetry, so a certain amount of sneaking it in helps. “Don’t tell them what a metaphor is and then ask them to write one,” Lara said. “Set up a way that they write the metaphor first, then tell them. And high-five the teacher, because now she can cross that off the curriculum list.” (That is an important one: it’s particularly good if you can show the teacher that the kids are learning something she can report back. It’s all about showing that their time is being spent in a valuable way.)
    The exercise they had time to actually do with us was one where each table took a group of random words, then speed-wrote a group poem and performed it as a group. They hadn’t really taken into account that it was a room full of poets, so the poems produced were a little longer, and took a little longer, than anticipated, but Danielle did a great job of using the spaces between presentations to talk about how she uses this exercise to show the kids, while having them engaged in something, the basics of a slam - how she models listening, shows them how to snap and get involved in the poem as an audience member, and so on. Then Lara ran through a collection of possible exercises, mostly loosening-up exercises meant to dispel the students’ fears about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers and to get them used to just writing.
    There wasn’t a lot of time for questions, but the questions there were went straight to funding - how much to ask, where to go for funding, how to write a proposal, how to explain what the value of what you do is, how to assign a value to what you do (something I find poets have particular trouble with.) And they did pass around an email list and promised to send more materials on and keep the conversation going.

CFSW Semifinals, Bout One!

I found myself thinking about strategy while I was watching the CFSW semifinals. Not to the exclusion of the fantastic poetry going on on the stage, of course, but every so often, as the poets took the stage and the audience made its deafening noise and the score cards went up, I thought about it, in my back row seat where I was sitting so the laptop wouldn’t annoy anyone.
    Maybe that was because the scores were so damn close. In the end it came down to one or two points out of a hundred between Capital Slam, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto’s Up From The Roots. Time penalties made a difference: and I wondered if some of the teams were looking at the judges’ scores and trying to work out what this particular set of five people likes. Whether they were deciding to send up a funny piece to follow something heavy, or vice versa. So much can depend on such small things.
    But I didn’t have to worry about strategy, so I got to sit with the poetry. I didn’t even have to judge (which is a tough job.) Lucky me!
    I felt like I got a feel for the teams’ strengths in Bout One - Vancouver brought strong team pieces and unorthodox subjects, Montreal brought a strong dramatic flair, sometimes doing team pieces that only used one voice (and showed bravery in doing one poem almost entirely in French, considering they couldn’t know whether all the judges would be able to understand.) Capital Slam brought their fire and musicality (the guys on that team all have very flexible and controlled voices) and Up From The Roots brought, in general, an urban grittiness.
    A lot can depend on small things: Leviathan stumbled in a poem using a long string of animal metaphors and idioms to talk about respect between men and women, and it did cost points. Time penalties could make a difference. (But when they happened, it was entertaining to hear the whole room yell in unison, “You rat bastard! You’re ruining it for everyone! But it was well worth it!”) But still, it was so damn close.
    The team pieces might have been one of the highlights of the evening. They allow for some great staging, and something about having more than one poet up there delivering the work kicks the energy up (although some individuals are all the energy one stage can handle - Open Secret’s one-man conflagration on Joan of Arc was one example.) Moments that stick out for me? The sweet, scary delivery of Sasha Langford’s first poem, from the point of view of a little girl whose words sound innocent and belie a dark reality; Team Vancouver’s evocation of the Depression-era work projects that tried to keep joblessness and economic collapse at bay: “building libraries with the workdays of men who signed their names with X.” Dwayne Morgan’s scary rage at all the different roles black people are forced to play because of white society’s assumptions; Alessandra Naccarato’s heartbreaking story of her father’s, and her, mental illness (emotionally told, but also wonderfully worded),Chris Tse’s poem about the Asian sex trade, which started as a lyrical love story until it became frighteningly clear that the girl the narrator was in love with was being sold to Western sex tourists.
    And yes, all the other poems were fantastic too. That’s just a nearly-randomly-sampled list.
    In the end, Montreal and Ottawa Capital Slam came out on top, and are heading to the finals tonight (at Dominion Chalmers United Church, and it’s going to be spectacular.) They’re going up against Burlington and Ottawa Urban Legends - yeah, that’s fully half of the final four that are going to be from Ottawa. This is going to be interesting. And jaw-dropping, and mind-blowing, and roof-raising.

RC Weslowski - I've Been Thinking

I heard him do this one again last night at the CFSW semifinals. I've heard it before: it's still fun. And one of the things I like about it is how different it is. Certain types of poems are such sure-fire crowd-pleasers: political rants, poems about oppression, poems about poetry, and poems praising self-respect and human dignity. They're gonna get cheers, and good scores. You do something this off-the-wall and it's a bit more of a risk. Sure, a good performance of it helps, but there's always that possibility that somene will say, "But, that poem wasn't really about anything," and thus points will be lost. (Which isn't to say that it isn't about anything: it's just not immediately obvious.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Geek heil!

Fair disclosure: I’m a poet, and I’m a self-proclaimed geek. And even I can appreciate that maybe people don’t necessarily associate the two. Especially not geeks and slam poetry. I mean, the steoetypical geek, if he writes poetry, writes angst-ridden love poems to the barbarian princesses of distant planets, or to Deanna Troi, and then never shows them to anyone, right? Slam? That thing where people get up on stage and strike fire into their audiences with their verbal mastery, captivating performances and emotional intensity? Aren’t nerds supposed to be shy, awkward, retiring folk, only truly comfortable with their computers and 20-sided dice?
    So what are they doing getting up on the mike and pulling roars and cheers and sighs from their audience?
    They’re celebrating.
    The – to use its official title – Steve Sauve Memorial Nerd Showcase, part of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, seemed to me to be just that: a celebration. Featuring Nadine Thornhill and Bart Cormier, who put together a beautifully shaped - “adorkable” - joint performance that even included a little soft shoe (at the urging of the audience), the show was hilarious and smart. Rather like nerds themselves.
    What constitutes geek poetry? It turns out that it’s not just that geek poetry is about math or science fiction or Batman. Sure, the geek references flew like laser fire at the Battle of Yavin: it helps to know why it would hurt to step on a Warhammer 40K figure, what “Sayyadina” means, and why it’s funny to say “I’m your differential / touching all your curves.” But there’s also, built into it, a shared experience of having at some point in your life felt like an outsider, like you just didn’t fit into society, and of having found other likeminded people along the way, because face it, there was a room full of other likeminded people there. All nerds and geeks have felt like that at some point – but then, hasn’t everyone? 
    So the poetry that came out at the showcase was also universal: funny, bawdy, touching, moving, encouraging. At first glance you wouldn’t think Nadine Thornhill’s poem “Loser,” which she premiered at this event, had a particularly geek-centric theme, but the basic idea of it – having been convinced at some point that if you didn’t excel at something by society’s standards, you shouldn’t try, and learning that in fact you had every right to play even if you were bad at the game – speaks to anyone who was picked last for gym class sports.
    Sure, there were blaster-rifle and jumpsuit-laden odes to classic SF, there were slightly obsessive and terribly funny love letters to Natalie Portman, there were Monty Python references, there was a poem combining Kraftwerk and Ricardo Montalban, there were allusions to Warcraft, hit points, Doctor Who and Dune, and there were self-deprecating appearances of inhalers and retainers and acne and all the other nerd stereotypes; but these were also poems about unrequited love and about loving (or lusting after) someone’s mind more than their body, they were about finding community, and about dreaming big. There were superheroes aplenty. And yeah, there was also an opening ‘sing-along’ performance of Steve Sauve’s signature ‘Clarion Call (The Geek Poem.)’
    Bart Cormier might have gotten the loudest shouts of the night with his poem that announced, bluntly, that geeks, nerds, poets, artists, and all their ilk are not cool. Absolutely not cool. Because ‘cool’ doesn’t care. ‘Cool’ has seen it all, done it all, and thought it was lame before anyone else even discovered it. By those lights, the enthusiasms, the passions, the obsessions, the loves, the joys, and the creativity of poets (and geeks, and nerds, and artists, and sculptors and dancers and all the others) are decidedly uncool. “I am not cool,” he thundered. “You are not cool.” And the whole room joined in to yell, “WE ARE NOT COOL!”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The joys of Twitter

I had to work this evening, from home, and I couldn't be at the first bout for CFSW. But I've got Twitter popping up in the corner of my screen, and it simultaneously keeps me informed, and makes me wish I was there. I just saw the scores - Urban Legends taking first place - and then Nadine Thornhill's quick 'tweet' right after that: "Hearing poetry always inspires mento write poetry and now I'm in parking lot making notes. @cfsw2010ottawa"

I've been able to follow this afternoon's Last Chance Slam, and find out who was going to wind up on the Wild Card Team (yay, Festrell!). I've caught the articles popping up in advance of CFSW - Xtra's kind of sweet article on Beth Anne Fischer and Truth Is, lovers who happen to be competing on opposing teams, the Citizen's coverage of Ottawa's teams (and their video of Inez Dekker performing "Wild Thing"), the buzz about the whole festival. Okay, so that means, so far, that I know what I'm missing. Damn my other responsibilities. Still cool to know what's going on.

No, it doesn't feel like I'm there, because I didn't get to be in the jam-packed venue, and I didn't get to hear the poems: although I knew, in real time, who was on stage right now - and does that ever strike me as strange sometimes. I remember a world before BBS's. And now I'm sitting at my dining room table, working, and aware at the same time, in blow-by-blow detail, of what's going on at the poetry slam I'm missing. While simultaneously watching friends and fans banter with William Gibson (@GreatDismal, in case you were wondering) and being made aware that the first of the Chilean miners is being lifted out of the pit. Right now. While I'm working, at my dining room table.

But that's beside the point. The point is that I had to miss the first night of CFSW, and I pretty much wish I didn't have to. Sounds like it was great. Congratulations to Urban Legends for carrying the day! I was with you in spirit. And in Twitter.


The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word starts today! This means there are a large number of spoken word artists from all over the country roaming the streets: keep an eye out.

Although it sort of feels like the prelude was last night - I was at Voices of Venus last night for a show featuring the Lanark County Slam Team (the only all-female slam team ever, and the only rural slam team.) The team also features the youngest ever national competitor - Satinka Schilling - and the oldest, Inez Dekker. Toward the end of their set, the doors of Umi Cafe opened up and a bunch of local members of the Capital Poetry Collective came in, followed by a handful of visiting poets, fresh from a welcome dinner over at the East African Restaurant. And things started to feel kind of Festival-ish.

I thought the Lanark County team seemed shaky, to be totally honest - with the exception of a couple of really good pieces by Emily Kwissa - who has been belying her age for a couple of years now, and who writes subtle, strong, cohesive stuff, and then performs it well - and Britt Pruden-Faraday, particularly an imaginative and funny and thoughtful piece about her emo bobblehead alter ego. Both are strong performers even when they read off the page, which is a help. I'll be interested to see what they bring to the competitions.

I think the next thing I'll be able to get to is the Nerd Showcase (technically the Steve Sauvé Memorial Nerd Showcase - and incidentally, today is Steve's birthday: kind of fitting, isn't it?) on Thursday at 4:00: I've promised to bring my Dungeons & Dragons & DC Heroes poem, and might also drop my steampunk poem about a young lady scientist who's building a doomsday machine in her fiancé's attic. Now you know you want to come, right? The Nerd Showcase will be featuring Nadine Thornhill (the Adorkable Thespian) and Bart Cormier, with plenty of open mike for anyone who considers themselves to have written a nerd poem. Poems on anything from astrophysics to Zot! are welcome.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Now *that's* what I call ephemera.

Just spotted this: Bookninja has posted a handwritten sheet of densely scribbled ballpoint - JK Rowling (AKA Lord Volderowling) laying out the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Niiiiiiiice. Totally worth squinting at for a couple of minutes.

Just remembered recently discovering one of these that I did back in college: nowhere near as orderly. In my recollection it consisted mostly of a slightly woggly line curving downward with an arrow somewhere in the middle indicating the introduction of a character, and a cloud of scribbles at its beginning. Now I really want to go home and find it. If I do... I'll post it.

AB Series next Saturday


Readings by award-winning poets


* SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2010 *

* Doors open 7:00pm *
* Readings at  7:30pm *

Gallery 101
301 1/2 Bank Street
(top level)
Ottawa, Ontario

More info:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Literary Landscape, September 30 2010: The Rolling Darkness Revue

For the last Literary Landscapes show, I got Peter Atkins on the line from California, and Sean Moreland in the studio, to talk ghost stories: Peter Atkins and Glen Hirshberg are coming to Ottawa with the Rolling Darkness Revue, on its first ever visit to Canada. This visit was organized on our end by Sean Moreland and James Moran. The Rolling Darkness Revue is an annual ghost story tour, featuring music and stories. I have to apologize for the fact that the first few minutes of the interview got cut off: but I got the rest on tape, and Pete had some really interesting things to say about ghost stories, and why they both frighten and comfort us. The Rolling Darkness Revue will be featured at the Ottawa Writers Festival - check out the schedule at - and at a special presentation at the University of Ottawa.

Click here to listen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Another Banned Books week gone...

Yup, it's Banned Books Week - last year, I think, I posted a banned book a day, randomly selected from the ALA's interactive map of challenged books. But this week I've been run ragged with a couple of huge events, and I think I didn't really have the energy to even look at the mass of wriggling ignorance that produces most book challenges.

But the week is meant to get attention, and it's heartening to see that people have been, as usual, posting and blogging about and tweeting the top 10 banned books - most of them YA books, many of them very popular YA books, and some of them the perennial returnees (Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, Huckleberry f*cking Finn.) And Tango Makes Three has been resting comfortably in the top five for years for the horrifying, childhood-destroying observation that two male penguins once set up house together and adopted a chick. Twilight's on the list this year, I see: not for the reasons that you might think, like "creepy hundred-year-old vampire stalks teen girl, portrayed as romance," but for having "sexually explicit themes." Or maybe someone objected to the undead thing.

So here we are at the end of the week: so to set up a variation on the theme for this year: Just found a list of banned graphic novels. (I discovered it because Neil Gaiman recently tweeted his disappointment that Sandman was up at the top of the list.) I think I want to go read all the graphic novels on this list that I haven't yet read (a surprising number, actually).

I also read a blog called "Letters of Note" (there's a link to it on the sidebar to the right) which posts correspondence that the editor finds interesting or enlightening: conveniently, for Banned Books Week, he just posted a letter from John Irving to a school library which had successfully managed to stop the removal of The Hotel New Hampshire from the school. Irving's letter in response is gracious and reassuringly calm. I particularly like his observation that "Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven't finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" even read it."