Thursday, December 15, 2011

What's in a story

One of the things that struck me, as I was listening to my friend Marie's show at Voices of Venus last night, was that we were not just hearing a story, we were getting a look inside the process of writing that was far more effective than any Q&A session where the writer talks about how she does it. I could imagine for a moment that I knew what it was like to be the kind of serious (although, not always serious, if you know what I mean) writer that Marie is.

What she'd done was quite clever, I thought. Asked to bring a storytelling set to Voices of Venus, the kick ass women's performance series, she brought a series of kick ass female characters - her own and others' - and took us through the journey of finding the right ending for one of them. She started with a very real object - a broken hoe, one that she had found when she took over her brother's apartment - and put it in the hand of a character, Mariella, who, I realized as she started telling the story, was the main character in the first story Marie had published. "The Taste of Strawberries," I think I remember it being called. The story ended on a serious downer, and I thought to myself, that's not how it ended the last time I heard her tell it. But that's also the point at which Marie started off on a different story than the one we thought we were listening to. She started telling us a story about making a story.

In trying to find a better ending for Mariella, Marie went on, she looked to other characters. Other emotions to give Mariella, working out, almost backward, who this character was. So she told us another story about a different woman, and when it was done, came back to the last scene of Mariella's story and started it again, but infused with that character's feeling and emotion. She shifted from story to story, some of them her own, some of them other authors', and each time she finished a story, she came back to that one final scene of Mariella's story, with her standing over her husband's grave and having to decide what to do next, and she retold the ending.

It's a risk she took, there. Going back, again and again, to the same scene, the same lines. Telling it again, but then taking it in a different direction each time. (Once, even, when things had gotten really wild, there were zombies. Yeah. I should have expected something like that.) But it paid off. We got to know the scene so well that returning to it rang this familiar motif before Marie did whatever she was going to do with - or to - Mariella. (I mentioned there were zombies; Marie also killed the poor woman off at one point.) Meanwhile we got to hear about King Arthur and Guenivere, Barbara Allen, and a brave girl who only wanted to save, and then avenge, her brother. And come back to Mariella and the grave and whatever the right decision was for her to make.

Like I said, one of the things I really liked about it was the way we got taken along for the fun and sometimes ludicrous ride of trying to work out a story. We got to experience it without being told that's what we were experiencing, exactly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tree Seeds and Learning Things

Yesterday I managed, finally, to make it out to the Tree Reading Series for the season-ending open-mike and the workshop with Phil Hall. Tree so often conflicts with other things on my schedule that I hardly ever get to go: I was amazed to find myself free this time.

Tree is unique among the series in town in that it offers the Tree Seeds workshops, before the reading, and creates a lot of other ways for the readings to be a chance to learn, overtly as well as the learning that happens whenever you listen to writers read. There's the workshop series, held for free for whoever wants to come. There's the Dead/Undead Poets Reading, in which someone is invited to read from or talk about the work of a poet that he or she wants to introduce, or sometimes re-introduce, to the audience. And this evening there was also a talk by Shane Rhodes on the found poem, its history and variations and the theories behind it.

I came in moments before - or maybe after - the workshop started, bike helmet in hand and looking for a place to put my damp, gritty rain pants, and got the last free chair. It seems like a lot of the people participating in these workshops are repeat attendees, although there were, I think, other new faces than mine. Phil seemed surprised at the numbers - about 15 altogether - and said there were about twice what there had been the last time he ran a workshop. I'd love to think that had something to do with the publicity I've been doing for Tree, but I rather think it might have more to do with the fact that Phil won the Governor General's Award a month or two back.

He'd talked, at the previous workshop, about tryptychs, and was continuing on the same sort of theme, bringing out some illustrations and encouraging conversation about what the underlying relationships we have with numbers can do for a poem. Number of syllables, numbers of stanzas, numbers of natural pauses in a line, patterns and rhythms. Rather than present a fully formed theory, he nudged forward a couple of ideas at a time and let them sort of steep. I did feel like I was coming in to the middle of something, a bit, but I didn't feel excluded by the fact that some of the others had clearly been at the previous workshop. I scribbled down some notes and we shared the example poems between us ... an hour went by fast, and then it was time for the reading.

The Dead/Undead Poet for the night was Leonard Cohen, and Rod Pederson and his daughter Jennifer did something quite lovely; she sang "Hallelujah" while he read it, simultaneously. Besides the fact that "Hallelujah" is one of the more simple and lovely melodies out there (and Jennifer's voice is beautiful), I found it fascinating that with Rod reading the words as Jennifer sang, I started seeing how eerily the spoken and sung words matched up; it was a really subtle illumination of the musicality, the singability, of so much of Cohen's work. His poems are lyrics and lyrics are poems because both of them preserve the natural pace of the words even under the constraints of form and melody.

And then Shane Rhodes got up for his talk on found poetry, which was short enough that I really wanted to hear more. I picked up, and so did some others, I think, on the similarity of found poetry (and other kinds of conceptual poetry) and abstract art in terms of the relationship of process to product. In abstract art, and in some of the poetry that Shane used as an example, the physical thing produced at the end - the painting or the book - is really more of a byproduct of the artistic conversation, thought, process, and questioning that produced it. "The idea is the fascinating thing, and the book becomes something you can put aside," was what Shane said.

And then there was the open mike, with some readers I knew and some I didn't, and then it was time to pack up and head over to the Avant-Garde Bar for Baltikas and conversation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Had to do it

This just sums up so much of the bandwagon-jumping happening lately, since apparently all things geek culture are, these days, cool and therefore need to be copied and reproduced by people who actually don't get the genres they're trying to sell, that I had to repost. Plus, the harmonies are lovely, and the lyrics are freaking clever, particularly the rhythms.

December word-related events!

Recently Local Tourist Ottawa asked me to run down the literary events of the month as a regular column. Since I work for VERSe Ottawa, I'm actually supposed to be pretty plugged in about literary stuff - that is, members of VERSe Ottawa are supposed to get in touch with me about their shows. I've already been to the Dusty Owl's annual food bank fundraiser on the 4th, and Urban Legends' last slam of 2011 last Friday, and then there's this list of upcoming stuff. I've added a couple of new shows, too, that weren't on the list for LTO: the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam on Monday, this month's Once Upon a Slam, and the Ottawa Storytellers season opener at the NAC this Thursday, among them.

On December 13th (that's tomorrow,) the venerable Tree Reading Series is holding an all-open-mic session at the Arts Court Library, along with a talk on contemporary poetics by Shane Rhodes, one of Ottawa’s edgiest poets. Tree’s known for offering more than a simple reading, being one of the only series in town that offers talks and conversations on poetry as well as workshops. This evening will start at 6:45 with a free workshop with Governor General’s Award winner Phil Hall, then Shane’s talk at 8:00, and then an open mike – with prizes!

Marie at the Storytellers Festival
On December 14th, Voices of Venus is presenting local author and storyteller Marie Bilodeau. An award-winning fantasy author, with four novels under her belt and a fifth about to be released, Marie is known – maybe notorious – for her strong female characters, her humour, and her appetite for epic destruction. Marie is also an entertaining storyteller – sometimes hilarious, sometimes lyrical. The show starts at 7:30 at Venus Envy with an all-women open mike: $5/PWYC and open mike performers get in free.

If you’re looking for a Christmassy event, try the Ottawa Storytellers’ season opener at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage on December 15th at 7:30. Storytellers Alan Shain and Kim Kilpatrick will take the audience through 500 years of Christmas traditions, with live harp music by Janine Dudding from Acacia Lyra. If you’ve never heard live storytelling before, you don’t know what you’re missing. Tickets are $20 at the NAC box office.

Ottawa Fountain
If you like the fire of slam, Capital Slam is rounding out the year with a fantastic feature at the Mercury Lounge on Saturday, December 17: they’re featuring “Ottawa Fountain,” the National Youth Slam Champions. This team blew the competition away at the Nationals this year with their powerful team pieces and stage presence. The youngest of the team is only 13, but anyone who’s seen them agrees they could all hold their own on the mainstage alongside much older performers. The doors and slam signup are at 6:30: cover is $8, and free for performers.

And if you like what you're hearing out of the new crop of slam poets, you can catch the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam, featuring Kingston PEN, on the 19th at 5:30 at the Main Public Library. Kingston PEN came in fourth overall at CFSW 2011, in their first year of existence, and feature some new faces as well as some you might recognize from Ottawa's scene, like Greg "Ritallin" Frankson and arRay-of-woRds. Any time I've been to the Main Public Library for a youth event I have come out amazed and energized at the talent and capability of young artists. The Library is smart to be hosting these events: there's no better way to make the library cool than to have it be a venue where very cool kids do their thing.

On the 22nd, The Peter F. Yacht Club, a writer’s group/community/journal which has had a powerful influence over the poetry community in Ottawa, is holding a “regatta/reading/Christmas party” in the upstairs room at the Carleton Tavern (223 Armstrong) from 7:00 pm – there will be readings by Yacht Club Irregulars like Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Vivian Vavassis, Monty Reid, rob mclennan and others. Hosted by rob mclennan, the Carleton Tavern readings are always warm, smart, and fun. 

Ronsense at Once Upon a Slam (photo: Jason Walton)
December 30th is the final Once Upon a Slam of the year too! Held at the Mercury Lounge, Once Upon a Slam is a unique storytelling competition. It works like a poetry slam - time limit, audience judges, and all - except you get five minutes to get up and tell a story. No props, no paper, just storytelling. The last feature of the year is Sicilian-Canadian storyteller Charly Chiarelli, who I got to see at the Storytellers Festival a year or so ago. He's a whole lot of fun. Sign up for the slam at 6:30, the show's at 7:15. $8 at the door, or tell a story in the slam to get in free.

Meanwhile, end-of-year deadlines creep up: might as well end the year by sending out your own writing!

Your next chance to get into the awesome online poetry mag comes up this week, December 15th - Ottawa residents and former residents are eligible to submit poetry. Deadline is the 15th of each month. 

The Tree Press Chapbook Competition’s deadline for submissions is December 30. It costs $10 to enter and you can submit a chapbook of up to 32 pages; the winner gets an ISBN for their book. Submissions can be sent by mail to Tree Press Chapbook Contest, c/o Claudia Coutu Radmore, Managing Editor, 49 McArthur Ave., Carleton Place, ON K7C 2W1.

In/Words, Carleton’s literary journal, is also looking for submissions of poetry and fiction for their winter issue. The deadline to submit is December 31 – send your work to The Winter issue will be officially launched at VERSeFest 2012 (Feb 28-Mar 4.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Taking my affirmation where I can get it

One of the reasons I don't post on this blog very much is that, really, I'm pretty sure about 80% of the world has a better, more-informed opinion than me on most things literary. It's hard not to feel like that when the universe of literature is so vast and infinite, and they teach university courses on criticism of it. (Most of which, in university, I avoided, or coasted through, or - in one memorable case - accidentally attended a totally different course, not discovering my mistake until I received the "Fail" on my transcript for non-attendance.)

But, I tell myself, how stupid is that? Today on her blog, my friend Marie posted this lovely list of reasons she gets up (insanely early, I might add) to write. And her reasons must pay off, because she's working on her fifth published novel and was a finalist for the Aurora Award last month. She loves to write and she works damn hard at it.

Now, getting up to work on your novel isn't the same as sitting down to write your blog... or is it? It's all about keeping at it, after all. And it's also about not being paralyzed by worrying about what other people are going to think. Whether you're being 'useful' or not. Or, as another friend put it to me, when you do get recognized for your work, "it makes all the time and care you put into tending your blog-garden worth it."

What she was referring to was this: the other day, I got home with an idea (suggested by the aforementioned Marie) for a blog post for my other, more well-followed, blog, The Incidental Cyclist. It was just a funny little burst of "flyting" (which I occasionally indulge in, because I amuse myself) about the meaninglessness of certain Internet comments. Within an hour, I had a message from the collaborative news site OpenFile, asking to repost my rant, and offering me actual money for it. When I wrote it, I was completely uninterested in who was going to read it (other than Marie, who had gone into giggles with me talking about the idea.) You never know. You just write stuff, from where you are, and sometimes other people like it and sometimes they don't.

But if you never write stuff because you think someone else out there has probably already written it better, or someone else out there will think you're wrong or ignorant, or whatever, then you know what happened?

You didn't write it.

Now, to try and remember that. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Happy Birthday CBC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is 75 years old today. Today I've been listening to all that archive tape; the CBC voices from 1936 and beyond as they're replayed on the radio. And I've been thinking about my relationship to CBC Radio, which is a lifelong, warm one. Those voices are like friends or extended family; people I've grown up with. A couple of weeks ago, when I had the chance to meet and talk to Barbara Budd though the Writers Festival, I felt like I'd known her for years: which, I suppose, in a way, I had.

When I think of the CBC, a couple of instant replays run through my mind:

The low, rolling hills in the middle of Germany, lit a sort of golden green because it was near sunset and the light is low, and a highway curving between them. There were patches of blackish green pine wrapping the hills, and I was sitting in the back seat of my family's car with my younger sister, and we were listening to CBC - was it on shortwave? Was it rebroadcast from the military base? I'm not sure. We were living in Germany at the time, because my dad was teaching at a university there as a guest professor. However it happened, however the sound waves got to us, what I remember is that there they were: Morningside, and As It Happens, and Disc Drive, filling the car while we drove through German fields and pine stands, thousands of miles from home.

Washing the dishes after dinner when I was home for the summer from university: our kitchen radio would go on right after dinner and it was always tuned to the CBC. My parents were still out in the dining room, at the table talking, and I was at the sink looking at myself in the mirror above it (funny: the geography of the kitchen has changed and the sink is no longer in that position; the mirror is also gone) washing the dishes and listening to As It Happens. This was during the Alan Maitland/Michael Enright years, and Michael Enright was interviewing a representative from the Red Cross of Canada about the tainted blood scandal. Enright absolutely cornered and skewered him. You could see it happen, like watching a really good border collie ducking and nudging a sheep, inevitably, in through the fence gate. It might have been the first time I realized that listening to a good interview can sometimes be like watching a good sports game. I dropped my dishcloth, wiped the suds from my hands on my jeans, and went straight to the dining room to tell my parents what I'd just heard - to try to give them some idea of how exhilarating it had been to hear Enright just go for the jugular like that.

In 1997, standing next to the radio, in the corner of the office at the New Brunswick Committee on Literacy, where I was working summers when I was home from university, listening to the last ever episode of Morningside, and crying. (Luckily, I was working alone in the office that morning.) Of course, I also laughed. Particularly over the parting gift of a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

I also remember the day the news hit that Peter Gzowski had died: the flurry of grieving emails that went back and forth among members of my far-flung family, as though someone we knew personally had just been lost.

Riding my bike home in the dark, in late fall when the air was cold, along the bike path on the river, listening to Ideas on my headphones and watching the lights of the Montreal Road Bridge on the dark water: my headlights lighting up a small circle of the path as it ran through the trees, with Paul Kennedy's voice in my ear and no one else around.

Coming home from work a couple of years ago, dropping my keys into my bike helmet where it hung on the handlebars, going into the kitchen to unpack my groceries, switching on the radio to All In a Day, and saying, out loud, as I usually did, "Hey, Adrian: tell me what's going on."

Happy, happy birthday, CBC: here's to many, many, many more years of sounding like home, feeding my brain, being part of my family, filling out my life, and telling me what's going on. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stand up for the Writers Festival

photo by Pearl Pirie
I worked the Writers Festival again this fall (last week, October 20-25.) Since I had to leave the team last winter, it's been a bit of a comfort that they can still bring me back for the week of the Festival to deal with driving and some logistics help and general backstageiness. Really, I feel like even if I had a regular nine to five job I would bank up my personal days to take that week off and work for the Festival.

Every time I do, I remember how exhausting it is, how hectic, and how very, very cool. By a few days in I'm fighting fatigue but still managing to sit in on events, come up to the hospitality suite afterward to talk to people, and get myself home in time to wake up early and do it all over again...

And then there are the amazing guests and the conversations that happen on stage. One evening I walked in to the back of a jammed room and on the stage were Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi and Miriam Toews. I stopped for a moment: sure, I knew about the session, but the full weight of the names in it hadn't quite hit me until I saw them up there chatting with Mike Blouin. The session about love with Kevin Chong, Ann Enright and David Gilmour was about as good an onstage as I've seen.

I have huge admiration for the Festival team for pulling this thing together season after season with the resources and manpower they've got. But that's the thing. They do this - two nationally recognized and acclaimed Festivals a year - with a grand total of three full time staff, a few temporary contracts, and a part-time position. IFOA has thirteen people listed as staff on their website. Vancouver International Writers Festival has twenty. And do note - those festivals run once a year only.

Do you see a bit of a disparity here? What's going on? Twice a year, the Ottawa Writers Festival team pull minor (and not so minor) miracles off; with a fraction - literally a fraction - of the staff and funding of other festivals across the country. In what way is this fair, or appropriate for the capital of the country and a city that has produced some of Canada's finest writers?

I'm adding my voice here to those of people like rob mclennan and Amanda Earl, who have written, on a regular basis, about the mystifying lack of support Ottawa seems to get for the arts. I hear, every Festival, that the literary community in Ottawa can't really imagine the year without the Festivals, how much they look forward to them each spring and fall, how impressed they are with the work that Sean and Neil and Kira and Leslie have been doing to put the Festival together for fifteen years now. Every so often I hear someone talk about how amazing it is that they do what they do with what they have - but not nearly often enough. This is our Festival, and I think we need to stand up for it. Be proud of it.

I think there needs to be more noise made in support of the Festival. People who go, as members of the audience or as participants on stage, and who enjoy it - especially the members of the literary community with some name recognition - should write letters of support (send them to whoever you like, but cc the Festival; they use them in applications for funding.) David Gilmour did, a few years ago, and there was response. If they can do what they do with the funding and manpower they have now, just imagine what they'd be capable of if they were given funding commensurate with the work they do. Funding equal to what other festivals get.

Because this last Festival was really great., by any measure. I can only imagine how good it would be if, like VIWF, they had the staff to make it even greater.

(Incidentally, do you know who's still coming to town through the Writers Festival this fall? Wade Davis, Niall Ferguson, and Steven Pinker. Yeah.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's that time of year again: The ottawa small press fair is nearly upon us!

The New Quarterly's table at the book fair...
For a lot of people, there’s something deeply satisfying about browsing through tables loaded with stuff you just can’t find anywhere else.  There’s just something cool about it: you think of flipping through vinyl at a record store looking for that rare find, or being part of the 'in crowd' before the rest of the world catches on to the next big thing.

And then there are people who love small presses because, face it, almost every writer starts in a small magazine, or with a chapbook, or even by publishing themselves. (For example, H.P. Lovecraft, the famed horror writer and author of The Call of Cthulhu, was a prolific self-publisher of small press chapbooks, newspapers and journals, under a multitude of pen names.) All those different forms of the small-to-micro-press lover will be in attendance at the fall edition of the Ottawa Small Press Fair on November 5th.

Started in 1994 by Ottawa poet rob mclennan and his colleague James Spyker, the Small Press Fair has evolved and grown over the last 17 years. Spyker is no longer involved with the fair, but it has been faithfully nurtured by mclennan and has steadily grown in popularity. As a university poet many (many) moons ago, I remember bringing the hand-photocopied and stapled books I’d produced for the Carleton English Literature Society to the fair, and later attending with Dusty Owl Press: our biggest publication was the novella Tattoo This Madness In, by Montreal writer Daniel Allen Cox, who went on to garner nominations for the Lambda Award for his novels Krakow Melt and Shuck, and for the ReLit Award for Shuck. Which just goes to show, you never know what future award winner’s work may be on the tables at the small press fair.

The fair usually contains exhibitors with poetry books, novels, cookbooks, posters, t-shirts, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, scraps of paper, gum-ball machines with poems, 2x4s with text, etc; vendors at previous events have included Bywords, Dusty Owl, Chaudiere Books, above/ground press, Room 302 Books, The Puritan, The Ottawa Arts Review, Buschek Books, The Grunge Papers, Broken Jaw Press, BookThug, Proper Tales Press, and others. It’s a great place to pick up brand-new literature at a bargain price, to discover your new favorite local artist, and to meet others in the literary community. Besides, you get to poke through piles of bleeding-edge, cool, local writing!

The small press fair’s fall edition will be held on November 5th at the Jack Purcell Community Centre, room 203, on Jack Purcell Lane (just off Elgin Street), from 11:00 to 5:00 pm (and if you stick around till 5:00, there’s usually a traditional mass-exodus to the James Street Pub for drinks and bookish conversation afterward.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

SF and Atwood and me

This weekend my dad sent me a link to this article from the Globe on Margaret Atwood, and then this morning on Q Jian Ghomeshi interviewed her about her new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. I saw the book on the new release shelf during my shift at Perfect Books last week, too, and meant to take a look at it, but then wound up busy with other things.

These recent interviews have been making me think, again, about Atwood and SF (and, as my dad said, more favorably.) But there's still something about her take on speculative fiction versus science fiction that bugs me. In her interview on Q today, she said, again, that she defends that distinction because she doesn't want someone to pick up a book expecting one thing - rayguns and aliens, for example - and get something else - say, Winston Smith or Offred.

Well, why not? I've picked up books expecting a YA fantasy and actually gotten adult magical realism. And vice versa. And I've been fine with that. Lots of people pick up what looks like a mystery and get a crime thriller. When I opened Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, I was expecting fantasy/horror, and in fact got more or less realistic fiction. (Except for the weird bit with the alien cars.) The owner of Perfect Books picked up David Gilmour's latest book expecting it to be like other Gilmour books he'd read, and it wasn't. I don't see what Atwood's aversion to people reading something unexpected is.

Unless - and I think this is why I'm uncomfortable with her argument - she's implying that one is more valid, or worthwhile, or important. Because really, her distinction - that science fiction deals with things that are unlikely to happen, while speculative fiction deals with things that could possibly come to pass - also carries that implication; that the one is entertainment only, and the other has more intellectual or philosophical value.

But I don't see that H. G. Wells talking about the ultimate division of the human race into indolent rulers and troglodyte workers is less of a comment about our social structures than Winston Smith being watched by his television and controlled by fascism. It's just that one has a scientifically improbable time machine and the other takes place in the future without the intervention of a narrative gadget. Neil Gaiman said that all SF was playing 'let's pretend,' and that you can go higher and see further by playing 'let's pretend.' Let's pretend that England is invaded by an absolutely destructive enemy. What would the mass exodus of London look like? That's what I feel The War of the Worlds is actually about. Not octopoid aliens in metal capsules. They're just the reason for the collapse of order (remember, Wells was writing well before the kind of absolute destruction the 20th century brought us was even imaginable.) Same for the zombies in World War Z. What's scary is the description - the believeable description - of the fall of our infrastructures, our social orders, our security, and the ways in which the end could sneak up while we're all going about our daily business. Lemonade sellers around the crater where the killer aliens have landed. A protagonist who can really do nothing but run and hide and hope to survive.

Or let's pretend that there is an androgynous society out there. What would that look like? Let's pretend that America is taken over by a radical fundamentalist theocracy and women lose all the rights they've fought for for centuries. Let's pretend that there's a way to live permanently on a submarine, completely self-sufficient and cut off from the rest of the world. How would you do that? The Enterprise, the TARDIS and the Stargate aren't the point of the story: they're a means of getting to the story. The Dispossessed takes place on another planet, yes, and the people in it are not human. That doesn't mean that it isn't a game of 'let's pretend someone actually created an anarchist society: what would that look like? Would it work?'

But hey, that's just me, and far be it from me to argue with Margaret Atwood of all people. Having read and heard some of what she has to say about this latest collection, I certainly feel like I understand more of why she says the things she says about speculative and science fiction. I like that she goes back far enough to distinguish "novels" from "romances." (Novels being 'realistic' and romances being 'fantastic.') I like that she's even bringing back "romance" in its old definition; that is, a wonder tale. Frankenstein was called "a scientific romance," right? But then to go back to "romances" and "wonder tales" and claim a strict division from thenceforward between probable and improbable settings ...  it still feels to me like there's a value judgement buried under that. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Jeff Cottrill's back in town

The Dusty Owl Reading series will be bringing Toronto spoken word artist Jeff Cottrill back to Ottawa on October 16th., with his high-energy, darkly funny, sometimes uncomfortable monologues and short stories. If you're easily offended, look away.

Last seen in Ottawa at the Fringe Festival with his one-man show Grouch on a Couch, which debuted at the Fringe in June 2010, Jeff Cottrill is a satirical writer, performance poet, journalist and occasional actor based in Toronto. He has gigged in literary series throughout Ontario, England and parts of the U.S over the past decade, and recently had a role in an independent short film called "In the Can." With a darkly comic flavour, Jeff likes to make audiences laugh, cringe, or (preferably) both.

Jeff is the Literary Editor of Burning Effigy Press, through which he has authored four chapbooks, including the most recent, the book version of Grouch on a Couch; he has also recorded two spoken-word CDs and written theatre and film reviews for several Toronto publications, including EYE WEEKLY and NOW. has called him "one of the funniest spoken-word artists in Canada". This is Jeff's third feature at Dusty Owl.

Jeff’s website is at

“A one–man panorama of rage and pop culture. Jeff Cottrill has high energy. Funny and sometimes frightening.”
– Katie Penrose, VIEW (Hamilton)

“A crude but delightfully funny inside look at one of the grouchiest characters in children’s television. Jeff Cottrill is creative and energetic and draws his audience in. Be sure to see this show… just leave the children at home!”
– Amanda Nesbitt, Artword (Hamilton)

“Hits on the perfect balance between slightly exaggerated, tell-it-like-it-is sarcasm, and it’s-funny-because-it’s-true humour.”
– Ashly Dick, Fully Fringed (Ottawa)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

So very much to do

Things are pretty crazy busy these days: between my gig at Arc Poetry Magazine, my other gig with WIEGO, my new gig at VERSeFest, and working the occasional night at Perfect Books, there hasn't been a lot of writing time. But I did want to post this! Yesterday I got an email invite to read as part of the Tree Reading Series' Hot Ottawa Voices show, on August 9th! I'm pretty pleased to have been invited - in fact, I didn't really believe it at first. But, it's now been confirmed.

Also, while I'm tootling away at my own horn, the Ottawa Storytellers' "Stories and Tea" series will be featuring me next Tuesday, the 12th, as part of a show called "Live, Love, Laugh." I'll be telling a story from my own life, all about the trials, the triumphs, and the earth-shattering humiliation of being a not very athletically inclined kid in a rural New Brunswick school. Hearts will race, listeners will be moved, and pudgy kids will careen their way through hurdles. It'll be epic...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Earthborn 2011 & Story Slam

This weekend is going to be a busy performance weekend for me! The poster above is the gorgeous poster Sean Zio created for the Kymeras' summer show - Earthborn 2011. We'll be at the Clock Tower Pub on Sunday at 7, reprising some of the stories and poems we did in Almonte when we opened for Evalyn Parry, along with some new material, all about bicycles. I've got a couple of new poems to bring, and I hear Marie's telling a story about bike that falls in love. Funny how bikes and love seem to come together. As a bike blogger, I'm pretty happy that it seems that my friends also see the fun of bikes (and have such great stories and poems to share about them.)

I'm also going to be competing in the Once Upon a Slam finals on Saturday night. . . somehow I made it in as a finalist! Check out the website for updates and profiles of all the finalists... and here's a preview of a story I told earlier this spring for your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Seriously not cool, and illegal

Sending out an APB:

Yesterday I saw a series of messages from Rusty Priske and Ruthanne Edward asking if anyone knew anything about someone recording one of the old Oneness Poetry Showcase shows at the East African Restaurant. . . because Rusty had just discovered a website that was selling mp3s of his work, and that of a few other poets in town (Ian Keteku, Chris Tse, PrufRock.) I'd link to the site but I don't want to drive them any traffic, because what they're doing is illegal. None of these poets were asked, or told, and none of them are getting any of the money.

It seems that what happened was that someone recorded the show on video, posted it on YouTube, and someone else downloaded the audio from that, and decided to sell it. Entrepreneurial, I suppose. And illegal and infuriating.

Rusty's putting together a cease and desist order (Google your name and mp3-find, and if you come up, contact him - @RustyPriske on Twitter.) And I started thinking about it. Posting YouTube clips of your work is getting to be practically de rigeur for spoken word poets. Someone will argue that if you posted it publicly, online, you gave up your ownership of it. But that all collapses as soon as money is involved. Rusty's response, on his Facebook profile, was to tell people emphatically not to buy the downloads. "I'll give you the poems if you want them," he said. And someone questioned whether his being willing to give them to friends invalidated his claim against the people who'd put them up for sale.

Nope. It totally doesn't. Rusty wrote and performed his poems. They are his, to do with as he will. If he wants to give them away, that's fine. What isn't fine is a third party taking his work and making money off it without asking him, getting permission, or sharing the profits - or exposure - with him in some way. It's not that they're making money that Rusty would have somehow otherwise got for his work: Rusty doesn't sell his poetry that I'm aware of. It's not that this site is stealing money from Rusty, exactly. But the people that download the poems may think that Rusty was the one that uploaded them, and that the money is going to him, for one thing. They may not know that they're not supporting the artist with their purchase. But that's not even the point.

The point is that even in the broke-ass and not-always-money-based artistic economy, you don't get to profit off someone else's work without compensating them in some way. Maybe this isn't a question of economics (come on, the poems are probably selling for a buck apiece) but it's a question of where the ethical lines have to be drawn. It's not about the money. It's about people knowing, or being taught, about what it means to respect an artist and the work they've put into their art. The money is just a convenient way of marking that respect, but it could just as easily be marked with credit, asking permission, directing someone to someone else's website. There is an intangible economics that has to be respected. What this website has done undermines all that.

Monday, June 6, 2011


This weekend the Kymeras got to open for Evalyn Parry and her fantastic show 'Spin.' A celebration of the bicycle (and in particular the phenomenal changes it created in the lives of women), this show is a little hard to describe. Part musical show, part documentary, part one-woman-and-a-guy-playing-a-bicycle show, it was moving and mesmerizing and surprising. Personal and political.

Evalyn's songs and stories and snippets of theatre take us, mostly, through the 1890s and the bicycle craze, when bikes became not just ubiquitous, but also, serendipitously, propelled a good chunk of the women's movement. She tells tales of rebel entrepreneurs, suffragettes and the Ladies' Christian Temperance Union, and interweaves them with her own relationship to bicycles - your bike is a part of you - and the rich metaphors you can wring out of this simple machine. "The past is behind us / the back wheel is the power / the front wheel freewheels / hour after hour . . . "

I was riveted. As well as giving us the songs and stories - Google 'Annie Londonderry' sometime! - Evalyn was joined on stage by Brad Hart, who played a vintage bike mounted on a mechanic's stand. I think I heard him say there were fourteen separate pickups mounted on the bike, so he could play the tubes and fenders with drumsticks and brushes, whack on the seat for a bass line, spin the pedals, ring the bells, use a bow on the spokes, and rattle drumsticks on the spinning wheels. Add to that a set of looping pedals, and the bike sang. It was an absolutely constant presence in the show, a third character, the main character. Your eyes kept drifting to it where it hovered on the stage.

Sean, in the audience, just before Evalyn's show. And the bike.
The Kymeras - well, three out of four of us, since Ruthanne was at a storytelling conference and couldn't come - lucked into this gig. We'd been out to Almonte last year as part of Mississippi Mills bike month: arts organizer and poet Danielle K.L. Gregoire knew that I was a cycling blogger, knew the Kymeras, and asked me if I thought we could do a show about bikes. We did - to a small crowd, admittedly, but it was a fun gig, and this year, with a star like Evalyn coming in, Danielle thought of us again.

So we came out to do a bike-themed Kymeras set, to open for Evalyn. I don't think any of us really realized how big it was going to be until we got to the Almonte Old Town Hall for sound check and saw the seating. There were going to be about 170 people in the audience at this show.

Sean and Marie doing a sound check. Me getting artsy with the camera phone.
 We did a very quick sound check and went for dinner with our host and Evalyn and her band, then headed back over to the Town Hall where people were starting to fill in the seats.

We went back to the green room to munch on the lovely bowl of fruit the hosts had put out, run through our poems and stories one more time, and get dressed in our performing getups. Yup, we had a 'look': coloured summery t-shirts and black pants with one leg rolled up (to stay out of the gears.)

Sean and Marie: fashion icons.
And then it was time to go out! I have to admit to being pretty nervous, but the audience was not just big, they were warm, responsive, receptive, and a joy to perform for. I had brought my poems on paper (as the 'page poet' of the foursome, but also because I don't have Sean's confidence for memorization) and as I read, out of an embroidered notebook I'd bought and copied the poems into for the occasion, I could feel the audience coming along with me. It really breathed a whole other life into the words I was performing. The same thing happened the last time I performed in front of a really large audience, in January at the NAC. I could feel my performance getting kicked up a notch. I highly recommend the sensation.

Marie anchored our set with a pair of stories, about love winning over a bicycle, and then about a bicycle winning over love. I came between the two stories with a trio of poems about childhood bikes, about the one I have now (which changed my life) and about taking up my space on the road, and then at the end of the set Sean did a couple of his own poems - which echoed mine in their themes of love and summer and freedom and nostalgia - and then ended with a Mary Oliver cover, "Summer Day."

And then we were done, and giddy, and happy, and we headed down into the hall to watch Evalyn's show, which was, as I've said, totally mesmerizing. Watching Brad play the bicycle was a whole lot of fun, and Evalyn was a complete chameleon on stage, becoming a half-dozen different characters as she recreated the 1890s, and then took us through her own stolen bike and the bits of her life that had been tangled up in it. She got a standing ovation at the end: I was one of the people on their feet first, I think. Jumped up.

And I was so darn happy to get on my bicycle the next morning.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A weekend of fairs

As some of you might know, I was just hired as Circulation and Marketing Manager for Arc Poetry Magazine. I'm pretty chuffed about it - I love Arc, and the idea that I can actually work for a poetry magazine makes me do happy dances. This weekend I wound up at two separate fairs for Arc: ArtsPark in Hintonburg, and the Ravenswing Craft and Zine Fair.

The table at ArtsPark was organized by some of the Arc board members: I just showed up with back issues, me, and helped to man the table, smile at people, and hand out poetry cards. They had a Poetry Factory set up - a couple of metal boards and about eight different magnetic poetry sets, where people could create their own poems (and possibly win a prize) and a typewriter manned by a volunteer poet who, for a dollar, would write a poem on the spot for you.

I was fascinated by who stopped off at the table. The magnetic boards, perhaps predictably, pulled the kids over. Children, usually, are drawn to any chance to make marks. They see a board full of magnetic words as an invitation to come and move stuff around. Adults, on the other hand, struggle with this worry that they might 'do it wrong' or be judged. That someone might be watching. So, the first ones over were the kids, bringing their parents with them. Usually.

There was also a contingent, usually of older folks, who sidled over to the table and asked, after a moment of blinking, "Is that a typewriter?" and a healthy crop of people, my age and older, who said, with a sort of happy recognition, "Oh, my god, I learned to type on one of those!" I recalled, a couple of times, the old electric typewriter I wrote many of my first stories on (until my long-suffering parents, whose bedroom was next to mine, finally got me a computer to silence the 2:00-AM clatter.)

And then there was the interesting pattern of who would ask for poems, and what they asked for poems about. There were a lot of parents, often of infants, who asked for poems for their children. One boy, maybe 10, pouted and insisted that he didn't want a poem, so his father asked for a poem about fathers and sons. "No!" the boy said insistently. So, Claudia, who was on the typewriter at the time, wrote a poem called "This Is Not A Poem."

Meanwhile, the fair around us was pretty amazing. I used to live in Hintonburg, back when it was less of an artist's haven and more, well, sketchy. The community that has developed and its sheer vitality is inspiring. The crowds were out in force, even if it was kind of a rainy day, and the whole things felt, well, good. I was completely disarmed, in the afternoon, by a unicyclist pedalling around the whole fair, with a flock of small kids running after him and cheering. Like something out of a movie.

The next day was Ravenswing. Admittedly, I didn't think of signing up for Ravenswing until it was too late, which was silly of me. I've known the organizers for years, and I've been involved with Ravenswing since the get-go, when it was a monthly craft and zine fair in Jack Purcell Community Centre. But, I showed up anyway, with a backpack full of back issues and art cards to give out. The first few hours of the fair were pretty dismal - it poured rain and everyone, stoically, even heroically, set up their tables anyway. I hovered under a friend's tent. Next to us, Adam Thomlison of 40wattspotlight stood, with a strange half smile on his face, at a table with three or four zines under a clear tarp covered in rainwater, slowly getting wetter. Undaunted, though. Bless.

But by noon, though, the rain stopped, and the sun actually came out, and even in the rain, the crowds were pretty surprisingly good, and I really got down to wandering around handing out poetry cards, talking to people about Arc, and generally being a part of the fair. Only three times did I walk up to someone and say, "Hey! would you like a poem?" and have them shuffle, look uncomfortable, and mutter, "No, thanks." (Still trying to figure that one out. What, if you take the poem you'll have to, what, read it? Talk to me?)

Most people, though, looked pleased to get the card. More than a few said "Oh, Arc! I love you guys!" Which is a great thing to hear.

Next year, we'll bring the Poetry Factory to Ravenswing. It would go over *really* well.

Friday, May 27, 2011

John Lavery Memorial tomorrow

photo by John W. MacDonald
I'll just repost the announcement I got from the Writers Festival this afternoon - I know I'll be at the Manx to remember John. 


Sunday, May 29, 2011 - 4:00pm
Manx Pub, 370 Elgin Street
A memorial/wake reading for the late Gatineau writer and musician John Lavery (December 31, 1949 - May 8, 2011) will be held at the Manx Pub from 4pm-6pm.
Hosted by David O'Meara, this informal gathering of friends, admirers, fans and otherwise well-wishers will feature readings of Lavery's own words as tribute by some of his friends
If you would like to say a few words about/for Lavery, or have the opportunity to read a short selection from one of his works, email rob mclennan at or Max Middle at
For those who are interested, a limited supply of some of John Lavery's published works will be available for free distribution at\ the event. The family has suggested that those who wish may, in his memory, purchase and donate a children's book to the Campaign La lecture en cadeau (Reading as a gift) of the Quebec Literacy Foundation or a similar campaign in English.
For those inquiring about the cd of original songs John was working on over the past few months, the family will be planning a Celebration of Words and Music in John's memory as a cd launch sometime in September, 2011, with music and readings in English, French and Spanish.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Early Summer Morning Honey

Yesterday morning I found myself, quite by accident, downtown early in the morning. (It's a long story, involving a very early appointment far enough out in the western Barrhaven Wilderness that a missed bus meant not getting there at all, thank you to OCTranspo.) So, instead of going to my appointment, I decided to head for Elgin Street and Perfect Books, which I heard had been looking for a part-time bookseller. Figured I'd drop in and talk to them about that, as I'm still on the lookout for part time work.

I got downtown by about 8:30, so wound up sitting in the Bridgehead down the street reading (Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, if you must know) while I waited for the shop to open at 10:00. In the cool morning sunshine, I walked over, chatted with the owner for a bit, and then made the rounds. Walked right back to the poetry section, since I've been looking for a copy of Michael Blouin's Wore Down Trust (don't ask me why I didn't buy one at the Writers Festival. Momentary brain slippage.) I didn't find Wore Down Trust - but I did find, with a note reading "Local Author!", a small stack of copies of Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month.

Now, I've been meaning to read The Honey Month for a long time. I follow Amal on Twitter, and while I've never met her in person, we have many friends in common, to the point where I'm not sure why and how we've never met. She recently reposted the Honey Month posts on her LiveJournal, with extra comments, but I can't read things on a computer screen. I just get vertigo when I try. Seriously.

Anyway, I picked the book up, said 'what the hell' quietly to myself - I might be looking for work but I refuse to deny myself books - and headed to the cash. It felt right. Turns out Amal used to work at Perfect Books, so I chatted to the owner some more about her, and why/how I haven't, somehow, managed to meet her yet. And then I headed out to catch a bus home.

It was a gorgeous day on Elgin. There was a light, cool breeze and a sort of clear, clean-feeling sunlight. The sky was blue, the streets felt clean, the trees had just gotten to full leaf, so they and the grass were a rich goldy-green: it was one of those early summer days. My bus even arrived just as I got to the stop. Everything seemed to be flowing along just about perfectly. And I settled in on the bus and opened the book.

Small presses make such pretty books, for one thing. But also, as the bus rumbled along and I started reading, I got sucked right in. The book opens a jar of a different kind of honey - peach creamed honey, black locust honey, fireweed honey - in each section. Amal describes the colour, scent, and taste of the honey, and then dives into a story or poem, as though the taste of the honey had triggered a synaesthetic fugue. In the stories, or poems, the colours and flavours and personality of the honey run subtly through a rich narrative. It's sensual and dreamlike. I kept emerging briefly to catch my breath and then diving back in with a smile on my face.

And I don't often write reviews per se - seems to me like everyone does and there are a zillion review blogs out there that probably do it better than me - but this is not so much a review as it is a reflection on how sometimes the book you're reading and the day you read it in can be just about perfect for each other. I haven't finished The Honey Month yet; I had to put it down and get back to work when I got back to my place. But as I stepped off the bus, it occurred to me how similar the day and the book were. Gentle, rich, clean, sensual, with a touch of magic hovering over the brickwork and a light, cool breeze. They fit perfectly with each other. It's very possible that any time I pick this book up, now, and my eyes fall on that old-looking serif font and its narrow margins, and the colour panel illustrations, I'll remember one particular day and the way it felt. I think I'll consider that a gift.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chinatown Remixed

Yesterday was the kickoff of Chinatown Remixed, a really funky little idea of a street festival that started up last year and hit a stride this year, I think. It's an exhibition of local art on the walls of Chinatown shops and businesses, which kicks off with a day of street performers, buskers and musicians. Last year the Kymeras performed at a couple of tea shops, roving-minstrel-style, but it's hard to be a roving minstrel storyteller and possibly even harder to be a roving minstrel poet. We had a blast, but as one of a very small group of performers - that year Chinatown Remixed was mostly a doors-open art exhibit - we weren't really what people were expecting.

This year there were a lot more performers for the kickoff day, and we were set up in one location. What we decided to do was a series of small sets - the same show over and over, essentially - over three hours, at Umi Cafe, where we got the background of writer and artist Ian Roy's "words words" exhibit. Fitting - his works were silkscreen prints over chunks of greyscale text from his own short stories. It worked well - people seemed to come inside in waves, hang out with tea and muffins, stay for our short 20-minute set, and then move on. Each time we performed we wound up with something like 15-20 people in the room, and twice I had a stranger come up to me afterward to tell me how much they liked my poetry; a nice vindication. It was a chance to perform for both friends (someone we knew showed up in time for each set) and strangers, which is also pretty awesome.

Across the street from us, Glenn Nuotio had his keyboard set up in the window of the vintage Tang Coin Laundry. (We got to run over between sets to catch some of his show.)
Original photo: Sizzlevizzer on Instagram
And through the glass of Umi Cafe we could hear the Oda-Wa Taiko drummers down the street and watch people walking in and out of the shops around us (some of them carrying balloons.) Sort of a mini-WestFest. Despite the chilly wind and grey sky, people really seemed to be coming out and enjoying themselves. It was just odd enough, and cool enough, and quirky enough, to fit perfectly with Chinatown.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sad news

I came home last night to the news that we'd lost John Lavery. I knew he'd been sick. Two days ago when I talked to Steve and Cathy Zytveld from the Dusty Owl, they said they'd spoken to him that day and, in Cathy's words, he sounded like "he's leaving."

But I certainly wasn't expecting it. Even though I've known a long time that he had cancer. I wasn't expecting it this soon. It's always too soon.

There were gorgeous photos of John passed around on the social networks, and words of grief from the writing community on their statuses. And I couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound empty. I didn't want to say anything in 140 characters or less, and I really didn't want to 'retweet' something someone else had said, although I tried, a few times, and hit 'cancel.' For one thing, this sort of news always sits wrong for me on a system like Twitter or Facebook, which are designed to be chirpy, full of LOLs and LMAOs. I couldn't think of anything to say in that brightly lit, neon space.

So I didn't say anything, although I felt I should. I didn't know John as well as a lot of people around me did, but I could have listened to him read - or sing - for hours without ever getting tired of it. He went unaccountably unrecognized by the national scene, but his writing, his lyrics, and his musical talent were utterly wonderful.

So I cried, but couldn't say anything. And then last night I dreamed about a guitar that had warped and broken - the neck twisted and the box cracked. It would never sing again, and I woke up sorrowful.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I'm mostly posting this picture for Dad, who gave me this copy of The Sounds of Poetry, which I brought along to the ghazal concert last night, which was gorgeous.

Last day of Festival today: I caught the noon event with Mike Carey and JM DeMatteis, both comic book writers among other things, and it was great: more on that later. Two more events to go!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Sounds of Poetry: Robert Pinsky in Ottawa

The former American Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, came to Ottawa for the Writers Festival, and I got to sit in on the second half - regrettably only the second half - of the Masterclass session he gave this noon. (I was out doing some driving, in fact taking an author to Osgoode Township High School, and missed the first half.) But the half I did get to see was remarkable.

I stole in through the back door of the basement auditorium at the Ottawa Public Library on Laurier. There was a really big crowd, for a noon poetry show. The immediate impression I got was of the quality of Pinsky's voice: quiet, resonant, measured, quite compelling. He was talking about, as I expected he would be, how the sound of poetry relates to the subject. In fact, he pretty much seemed to be saying that the sound to an extent dictates what is said. He was reciting lines of poetry - and I was amazed by the amount of poetry (other people's poetry) he could recite from memory. It's a lost art and shouldn't be. He was able to illustrate every point he was making with extended recitations of poems that he held up as examples.

The first line to grab me was "The grammar is the melody; the lines are like the rhythm section." He was talking about how to think of a poem not in terms of each individual line (and how it ends, or rhymes, or enjambs, or scans) but in terms of the grammar of it. After that, you can futz with the beats, but they're not the melody, they're the drum line. (When he answered a question, later, about his translation of Dante, he said something similar; that because of the difference in word length between Italian and English, English translations are syllabically much shorter. So, he had translated Dante by translating the sentences, and then trying to shape them with half rhymes, but had not, as many translators do, translated the poetry line by line.)

The next thing to grab me was watching him recreating the process he might go through to create a poem about being on stage in Ottawa by actually doing it, out loud, on the mike: coming up with a starting point - say, that the hotel was very close to the venue - and then ringing changes on the words, associated words, the reverse meanings of some of the words that spoke to him out of the sentence fragments he'd started with. It was absolutely fascinating. He said, "You pick out the elements, the words and ideas that seem to cluster together, and work with them: the other words are just words."

He also said, "The material psycholanalyses you. It determines what you need to say," and went on to explain that he discovers by working with the poem what it is he's saying. He doesn't start out with something he's burning to say or talk about and create a poem that talks about it. He lets the associations of sound and concept play themselves out in his mind and that way figures out what the poem is about as he's writing it.

After his Masterclass Session there was a reception at the American Ambassador's residence, where he recited some more of his own work: and I can't wait to hear the ghazal concert he's doing tonight along with Lorna Crozier, Rob Winger, and Sandra Ridley.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Storytelling workshop

Kim co-ran the first storytelling workshop I ever took (and I blame her, and Ruthanne Edward, for the story slamming I've been doing ever since...) If you've never tried storytelling, I can highly recommend Kim as a guide into the unexplored territory of getting up on a mike and starting to tell a story . . .)

Intro to Storytelling with Kim Kilpatrick
We all tell and listen to stories by our families, friends, co-workers. What is storytelling and how is it different from reading or from telling jokes? In this very interactive and entertaining program, learn what storytelling is and learn to find, gather, create, and tell stories. Everyone has stories to tell. Kim Kilpatrick has been telling stories all of her life but officially has been a storyteller for ten years. "I love creating and crafting autobiographical stories and helping others to learn how to do this." We will also talk about many genres of storytelling. From folktale to literary work, from historic to epic, there are so many kinds and styles of storytelling. Come and find your voice and find your stories. You'll be glad you did! 

Tues 1:00 – 4:00 PMMay 17 – Jun 21 (6 wks)
Fee: $120
Registration: Crichton Community Cultural Centre
2nd Floor-200 Crichton Street
Ottawa, ON  K1M 1W2
phone: 613-745-2742  fax: 613-745-4153

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Festival Kickoff

Well, today might be the first day on the posters but last night was the kickoff for the Writers Festival, with a launch for Michael Blouin's Wore Down Trust at the Barley Mow. I love when the Festival kicks off with a party for a local writer. The place was jammed, loud, happy, friendly, and celebratory. The reading even pre-empted Game 7 (it's okay, Montreal lost anyway.)

And the talk all died down completely so Mike could read from the book, which he did with aplomb, reading from each of the three sections of the book (from the perspectives of, severally, Johnny Cash, Alden Nowlan, and a semiautobiographical third character.)

What he read was grounded, bluesy, considered stuff, and I certainly thought I heard a few echoes of Cash's voice. The book itself, from all accounts, is hard to describe, and he didn't read for that long - I for one could have listened to much more. So, I got a sense of the feel of the book, but not, I think, the whole: I know I really want to get my hands on a copy so I can spend some time with it. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Short Stories

This afternoon, for Literary Landscapes, I got to interview the winner of the CBC Literary Awards for short stories, Meghan Adams - a Masters student in Creative Writing. Her story, "Snapshots From my Father's Euthanasia Road Trip, or, Esau," is a family portrait in miniature, where a daughter finds herself, vaguely unwilling but unable to refuse, driving her father from Nova Scotia to Toronto so he can jump off the Don Valley Bridge rather than die of some unnamed disease.

The show's here, if you want to listen!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writersfest Season

I can't believe I haven't actually written about the fact that Writers Festival is coming up in a couple of weeks! I guess because I know everyone else is already posting their picks, etc. - for example, rob mclennan just posted one of his "12 or 20 questions" pieces with J.M. DeMatteis, who will be coming to the Festival this spring. (Search around: he's done 12-or-20s with a few other Festival guests too.) Most Festivals, I've been far too busy running around helping to put the Festival together to write about who I'm looking forward to seeing. But, as most of you know by now, I'm not working at the Festival anymore (although, festivalgoers will possibly not notice much difference, as I will be working for the bookseller and have been hired to drive authors around to schools, so my days during the Festival will be much as though nothing has changed. I'm really looking forward to being on site and part of the team again, actually. It feels really weird to be an audience member. I keep wanting to jump up and help with the mikes or the box office.)

Anyway. Have you seen the new and beautiful Writers Festival website? It's gorgeous. I really like the way you can print off your own tickets, and how the information is organized. Bye-bye scrolling and tiny brown font. And that index page is bold-looking.

What am I looking forward to? Well, I know I'll be selling books a lot of the time, so I may not be able to sit in on many of the events. But I'll be driving for the school program, which means I may get to sit in on sessions with JC Sulzenko, JM DeMatties, Mike Carey, AJ Lake, Lesley Livingston, or Arthur Slade - all of whom are people I really like and/or whose books I enjoy (not having yet met JM DeMatteis, I don't know what he's like in person, although I'm betting he's cool.)

The geek in me, too, is looking forward to Mike Carey and JM DeMatteis's talk on graphic novels, as well as the session where Mike and Andrew Pyper will talk about creepy stories. I'm also very curious about the You Are Not A Gadget session with Jaron Lanier and Lee Smolin, and the session on science's quest for immortality with John Gray. And of course, the geek in me will be there for Robert J. Sawyer's Webmind event. Can't miss out on one of Canada's most important SF writers.

Meanwhile, the poetry nerd in me is looking in anticipation at the next Messagio Galore (if you haven't seen one of these, you've been missing out on some exhilarating mental exercise), wiggling happily about getting to see Pearl Pirie read at the Poetry Cabaret, hoping to sneak in to the Poetry Masterclass with Robert Pinsky, and hoping to finally wrap my head around what a ghazal is and why everyone's so het up about them at the Ghazal Concert (besides,with Lorna Crozier, Rob Winger, Sandra Ridley and Robert Pinsky reading, it's sure to be awesome.)

I've found that, inevitably, going to hear poetry makes me more determined to try and write poetry. Once I get over sitting there with my jaw dropped thinking, "well, crap, I'll never be able to write like that..."

Other things that catch my eye - Marina Nemat, who is always lovely and gracious and whose story is just heartbreaking, is going to be at the Books and Brunch. Michael Blouin is reading from Wore Down Trust at the Barley Mow. There's a Short Story Masterclass with Clark Blaise. And Giller winner Johanna Skibsrud's coming too. And I can never resist an adventurer, so I'm eyeing the Will to Live event with Survivorman Les Stroud.

But that's just me. You be keen on all the stuff you're keen on. And see you there!

Friday, March 25, 2011

More Local Touristing

My second piece on Local Tourist Ottawa just went up: an extended mix of the review I wrote here of Clare Murphy's show at the Fourth Stage. . . May be doing some writing for them about Once Upon a Slam, too, which I'm heading off to tonight (which reminds me, I really need to run through my story and get it down to 5 minutes! It's a break from my past stories: a historical true story from the last days of the Vietnam War. You'll have come out if you want to know more!)

And then, just for a change, maybe I'll write something for them that's not about storytelling.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

First Local Tourist piece!

Hey, check it out: just posted my first piece on Local Tourist Ottawa, where I'm writing about the lit scene. This post covers the wrapup of VERSeFest and why I think it's going to make a huge difference to Ottawa's poetry scene.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gods and Monsters

Am I ever glad I ran - ran - from the CKCU studio to the NAC in time for Irish storyteller Clare Muireann Murphy's On The Heels of the Hound. This was a presentation by the Ottawa Storytellers Fourth Stage Series, and not one I wanted to miss (even if Thursdays are choir night, so, sadly, I often have to miss OST Fourth Stage shows.)

I'm an Irish mythology geek, so I was pretty happy to find out Clare Murphy was going to be here. On Saint Patrick's Day. To tell the really old stuff; origin myths and creation stories and ancient epics.

The room was pretty full when I came sneaking in minutes before the show (and my friend Ruthanne had saved me a seat right up at the front, bless her!) The teller came on stage singing, carrying a staff, in a white dress with a green shawl and ogham letters written down the back (and yeah, I knew what they were and thought that was a great touch.)

Murphy's storytelling is conversational, and vivid. The sound effects and different voices she could produce with just her voice were amazing, and she leaped from character to character, becoming a a warrior poet, a snorting, belching, repulsive giant, a crafty old Druidess, an arrogant king, a little boy - often back and forth between lines of dialogue. She spoke straight to the audience - to particular people in the audience at times - involving us in the story as well. We became, through the show, the chant that healed King Nuada's arm, the sound of the wind, servants put to sleep by magic, druids being chosen for a task, and by the end, the chorus of the song she'd been singing between stories. So in a way we became shapeshifters as much as she did, as did her staff and shawl, which became different objects through the stories as well.

Something about the updated, conversational, 'this is all happening in a time and place we can recognize' tone she used kept the myths she was telling fresh: these stories are thousands of years old, but she kept them from feeling distant. You could relate to these people, which is one of the things I find so interesting about the Irish legends. The characters are very human, even when they're gods. They have human failings and passions and fears and loves - and senses of humor - and Murphy brought that out. I don't think I've ever felt quite so much compassion for Fionn mac Cumhail in his search for his lost wife, or for little, stubborn, innocent, pigheaded, terrifying Setanta (he grows up to be Chu Chulainn, who Murphy described as "like Hercules, but psychotic and homicidal.") And I'm not sure I breathed during the warrior poet Amairgin's crossing of the nine waves to land in Ireland.

I wanted more: when she was done it felt like no time at all had gone by. Certainly not a couple of hours. Now where's my copy of the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology? Think I want to spend some more time with these stories.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

VERSeFest Taught Me

I'll be on CKCU's Literary Landscape tomorrow 6:30-7:00, 93.1 FM) talking about the repercussions and impact of VERSeFest with Jessica Ruano (and possibly other poetry people).

I'll also have a blog post up soon about VERSeFest on Local Tourist Ottawa, which I'm right now composing, and struggling not to drag the possibly-not-yet-embroiled LTO readership into the heated, sometimes vitriolic 'page/stage' debate. But still wanting to give them some sense of why that debate exists, why it matters, and why what VERSeFest did, in bringing together a very diverse group of poetry organizations, was not only important, but got a few people all verklempt at the closing party.

I think it was really important to have a space where people got to hear what was going on at other reading series and among other groups in town. It was very, very cool to hear the spoken word audiences snapping their fingers for the page poets, and the page poets responding to the spoken word. And for me, it was particularly interesting to be there for back-to-back shows and to hear - along with the differences between styles - what was similar.

At the moment, I'm running a quick Twitter campaign - using the hashtag #VERSeFestTaughtMe, I'm hoping to garner some responses on what people learned from this opportunity to be exposed to other people who might be practicing poetry differently from them. Just sent out another call - I'll read whatever I get back out on-air tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

True fandom

Okay, now this is a strange and yet kind of impressive tribute. I just stumbled across this tattoo.

Yes, that's fragments of text from William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. Say what you like about tattoos, when so many of them are fairly generic 'tribal-knotwork'y graphics, I have to be impressed by someone who wants an entire sleeve of text. And fragmentary text. And, well, cyberpunk text.

(Click here for an unmicronized version of the photo in its native web habitat.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

VERSeFest (Part 1: Wednesday night)

Did the people who had never been to a Voices of Venus show have any idea what they were in for? Did the people who had never been to a blUe mOnday show have any idea what they were in for?

If not, that's exactly what I had been hoping for VERSeFest: that I would look around and see someone in the audience being exposed to something entirely new. Although, I have to say that even I can't remember ever having been to a poetry show before where not one, but two of the performers removed clothing . . . but that's another story.

Wednesday night was sort of a girls night at VERSeFest - Voices of Venus, of course, is the city's only women-only open mike & series, and the University of Ottawa's blUe mOnday series, who hosted the second of the evening's events, featured Sandra Ridley and Christine McNair. Voices of Venus hosted an open mike (all erotica and all signed up in advance) and then a sexy set by Beth Anne Fischer, a new and very welcome addition to Ottawa's spoken word scene. She started out the set with a piece accompanied by a lovely flamenco guitar that made the whole poem seem somehow sun-dappled and sultry, encouraged the audience to get loud, did poems that were funny and funky and hot (check one of them out here), gave out chocolate, and wrapped up the set with a polished, fun, really well-choreographed... burlesque routine. Yup, she did a striptease, tassels and all, to Michael Buble's rendition of "Fever." There's a gorgeous picture, snapped by Charles Earl, here.

I've got to say the open mike was pretty stellar as well - the whole set damn near stolen by Luna Allison's theatrical, vulnerable, hypnotic piece, more dramatic monologue than straight up poetry performance. (See? Boundaries and borders getting shoved around all over the place!) But the other performances were also strong: Allison Armstrong's "All Woman" and Emily Kwissa's love poem to anger being standouts for me.

Going from the Voices of Venus show to the blUe mOnday was a brain-expander for me. The crossover that was going on between the different series was made obvious when the host, after their open mike, said something (possibly a bit too self-disparaging) like, "That was a really good open mike. I've seen a lot of those performers as features at other shows. Usually our open mikes are, well, they're kinda different. You know. And usually our open mikes aren't so . . . slam."

"Spoken word!" someone yelled from the audience, "there's no competition here!" (She meant that "slam" is a kind of poetry show which involves a competition, although it's frequently conflated with the style of poetry that most often makes it onto the stage at a slam. That terminology, and all the discussion that goes with it, and all of that stuff about poetry categorization, is getting clawed to the surface at VERSeFest, which is something else I'm happy about.)

"Well, you know what I mean," he said, kind of defensively. "Just - our open mike isn't exactly like that." Meaning, I assume, that their open mike has more people reading their work off pages, and probably more new poets. (I don't know, haven't been, should go.)

But what turned out to be the brain expander for me was listening to Christine McNair and Sandra Ridley, while being aware of the 'spoken word' people in the audience. Christine and Sandra are probably/would probably identify as (not that I want to run around slapping categories on people) 'page' poets. But as I listened to their readings, I started hearing how some of the wordplay is the same. Repetition to create a rhythm and to punctuate. Breaking or twisting a word in the middle to bring extra meaning out of it or to make it sing. 'Team pieces," even, since the two poets joined forces a couple of times to read certain sections of their poems in counterpoint. They both break syntax and juxtapose unlikely ideas and words, allow images and ideas to be suggested at rather than given, and put the listener in the place of building her own linkages and relationships to the poems, but (especially with the open mike bridging between their work and Beth Anne's spoken word) I couldn't help but feel a strong sense of continuity.

Both Christine and Sandra set a whole different rhythm to the night. Quieter, yes: from poems designed to get a round of applause at the end we had moved to a sense of sequence, a sense that it was okay not to clap (although people did, sometimes, for some poems.) It felt we were listening on a longer timeframe (and in fact, Sandra only read two long poems, both of which gave us - and her -  time to stretch out and relax into their flow: a meditative way to wrap up the night.