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.