Thursday, June 21, 2012

Going on the journey

I know some of the other people involved - and more involved than me - have already written about last weekend's epic telling of The Odyssey: Marie Bilodeau and Tom Lips, in particular. I was there, as usual for storytelling events, as a cheerleader and booster (and, for my sins, offerer of handmade cross stitched Dalek T-shirts in exchange for donations to the Indiegogo fundraiser . . . I now have a dozen Daleks to stitch . . .)

They have nothing to do with The Odyssey, no. Except in that the Doctor is a lot like Odysseus in many ways. Traveling from one adventure to the next, defeating monsters, putting everyone traveling with him in mortal danger, and having very clever plans which he makes up as he goes along. Poseidon's kinda like the Black Guardian, come to think of it. . . and the rest of the gods could be the High Council of the Time Lords, exiling him, then randomly deciding to send him home. . .  someone stop me.
But to be totally honest, I think we all had our doubts. Would people really want to come to the NAC at 10:00 in the morning and commit themselves to a story until 10:00 at night? Is The Odyssey that timeless? Are people that curious?

As it turned out, they did, and it is, and they were.

My niece came up for the weekend from Montréal to see the show, intrigued by the idea. We got ourselves up and caffeinated in time to run some supplies over to the green room before the show at 8:30 a.m. - fruits, veggies, bread, dips, coffee, tea, chips, brownies, etc. - and I set them up while she went out and staked out a table. I'd been to a long telling before, a couple of years ago, when a group of storytellers took three days to tell the whole Norse myth cycle. This was different, though. This was more public, in a way. It was at the NAC, not under a tent in Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cayley's front lawn. It was more formal.

But the magic still happened - and people did come. At 10:00 the room was comfortably full of people who grabbed a coffee, found their seats, settled in, and got ready to go the distance with Odysseus, and we started out with the gods deciding what to do with him, as he was trapped on Calypso's island.

The time flew. There's no way I could reflect on every storyteller's performance (there were eighteen of them) but there were moments that stood out, and pairings that made perfect sense to me. Gail Anglin does the conversations of gods so well. Jacques Falquet's Calypso was, to be honest, dead sexy. Daniel Kletke's Cyclops was a wonderful juxtaposition of careful herdsman and vicious brute. Kim Kilpatrick's voice and humor were perfect for the scene with Nausicaa by the stream. Top Lips, in the protracted, viciously funny scene in the hall before Odysseus shows himself, was wonderful. When Marie Bilodeau's set was over, my niece leaned over to me and said that she guessed Marie got that bit so she could tell the part where Telemachus kicks Peisistratus awake at three in the morning because he's so impatient to get back to Ithaca, and I believe it: she made the two of them, in a couple of lines of dialogue, seem like college roommates, which is essentially what they are. Marta Singh made the scene where Odysseus first speaks with Penelope, and she thinks he's just a beggar, seem like a seduction, and when the nurse discovers who he is, she made me feel the vital importance of keeping her from spilling the secret. Katherine Grier's ending to her story, and the set, with Odysseus and Telemachus, finally revealed, armed, and side by side in the hall facing the suitors, "resplendent in bronze," rang for a few shocked seconds before the applause began. Jan Andrews' reflective style perfectly matched the final scenes, where Penelope and Odysseus are finally back together. . . and have no idea what to say to each other.

It's also a story about people, with so much humanity in it. There were things I'd never known about the story, like the way you get to watch Telemachus grow up, the way you get a sense of why those who stay loyal to Odysseus love him so much, the way Penelope is revealed to be far more complex than you'd think. And the way the ocean, and all those small rocky islands with their harbours and their seafaring people, are so prominently a part of the story.

There's something about committing to hearing a story the long way, sound by sound and word by word, that connects you to it. It takes time for things to happen. It takes nearly twenty minutes for Odysseus' great bow, which Penelope brings into the hall, to finally make it way inevitably into Odysseus' hands. Telemachus sails off, and a party of suitors follow to ambush and kill him on his way home, and hours and hours later you finally find out what happened. And I don't think I could have listened to a reading that was that long: but when it's storytellers, it's a different experience entirely.

I was also happy to see that although there were half-day tickets, starting at 4:30 (just after Odysseus lands in Ithaca, I believe) most people opted to come for the whole day, and take the whole journey. And very few, once they'd come in and started to listen, could bring themselves to leave. At the lunch and supper breaks, we wandered out into the bright daylight and found patios to sit on with other people from the audience, talked, ate, drank, and then headed back quickly, not wanting to miss a word.

The applause was resounding and long at the end, and then there was even more applause, and then Top Lips led everyone in a resounding chorus of "What Do You Do With A Drunken Suitor" ("Hey, hey, rosy fingers, earlie in the morning....") and there was more applause, and then people began, tired and with what my niece and I called "story-brain," to trickle away. But slowly: some of them not quite wanting to part company just yet. Not after having been on such a long journey together.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Talking to Bernie

This week on Literary Landscape I got to talk to Bernie Finkelstein - a life-long insider in the Canadian music scene and the founder of True North Records. He was Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan's manager; he produced records by Rough Trade, Kensington Market and Dan Hill. Basically, his life has followed the track of the Canadian music business from "Business? What business?" through the 60s Yorkville boom and the slow but sure building of the profile of Canadian artists. He's been influential in the creation of a lot of the support systems that have allowed new Canadian musicians to flourish, like FACTOR, MuchFACT, and a bunch of other initiatives that help new Canadian artists hold their own against the tidal wave of the American industry. I loved what he had to say about how being Canadian doesn't necessarily make you 'indie' in any trendy, hipster way, but it does in that it makes you think, a lot of the time, about the giant you're lying cheek by jowl with.

I read the book in a matter of about two days - partly because it was sent to me on Tuesday, and I had to interview Bernie on Thursday. But it wasn't a trial to read it in that time. It felt like a chat, in part because of his writing style, which was very conversational, but also because all he was doing with the book was talking about what happened to him. And without laying it on thick about the points he was making, he let incidents illustrate the point. Like the moment with the CNE, when he ran into a director who refused to have Murray McLauchlan perform, saying he wouldn't put "that kind of stuff" on the stage at a family show.

Murray McLauchlan. This guy:

Apparently the problem was the director didn't know the difference between Murray McLauchlan and Maclean and Maclean. These guys.

Clearly, people didn't know anything about their own music scene, the incident seemed to say. Clearly, Canadian talent had a long fight ahead of it to be recognized by its own national institutions... Anyway, I read the book and felt like I had an idea of the guy I was going to be talking to, but I was still a little nervous talking to someone who's talked to everyone else. What am I going to be able to say that's remotely intelligent about the music industry? I thought.

Turned out, as it usually does, that I didn't have to. Bernie was a great interview: of course, he's had decades of experience. But he also managed to lead me nicely from one of the questions I'd meant to ask to the next.  The whole thing went smoothly: I had time to get to the major points I wanted to nudge him into talking about, like the uneasy relationship with the American industry, his reasons for staying in Canada, not moving to New York like everyone else did in the early 60s, and talking about the 'bleep' that sold Rough Trade's single 'High School Confidential.' What I didn't get to, and wish I had, was his take on the disappearance of the 'single.' Wish I knew what he had to say about that. Maybe I'll ask him if I can make it to his reading at the Elmdale on Sunday (7:00: check it out at

The interview is posted here! Click to listen: about 30 minutes.

Some songs we talked about during the interview, for your infotainment:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Don't send this sentence to an editor

I'm in the middle of sifting through community announcements for the Centretown Buzz. You would not believe - or perhaps you would - how fast my eyeballs went skidding off this opening sentence:

The Sunday afternoon concert, CARMINA BURANA by Carl Orff, under the energetic direction of Music Director Kurt Ala-Kantti with participation of happy choristers of three choirs: Harmonia Choir of Ottawa, Ottawa Brahms Choir, and Cross Town Youth Choir and guests drawn from Nepean Choir and Tone Cluster , and with the tremendous support from most accomplished, professional fine musicians and soloists from the Ottawa scene, was a great success.

That subject is so far from the verb it needs a calling card to avoid roaming charges. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stuart Ross and Bruce Kaufmann on open mikes

There's a lot to think about in this recent post on Bloggamooga. Stuart Ross, firmly on the 'open mikes are painful necessary evils' camp, respectfully and engagingly disagreeing with Bruce Kaufmann, open-mike organizer at the Artel in Kingston.

I think I pretty firmly stand in Bruce's camp on this one: but I like the question Stuart poses, which is, "How does one create a supportive testing ground for new writers and at the same time also encourage quality work?"

I think the answer is, you create a supportive testing ground for new writers. And you don't expect that everyone will bring quality work. How I see the e- and self-publishing world evolving is very similar to how I've seen open mikes work: eventually, over time, you see a natural filtering, a survival of the fittest, taking place. People learn where to go for the sort of thing they like. The challenge for the people running open mikes, or any other test-flight area of the arts, is to remember that change, evolution, and selection are out of their immediate control in these cases. So is 'quality.' If your open mike becomes known as the sort of place where a particular kind of poetry is appreciated, then it will trend toward that kind of poetry, in much the same way as a poetry slam, where you see rankings and winners among the poets, will often trend toward a style of poetry that holds popularity at the moment. But these things might change. It's a very fluid process. And also - not everything that one audience thinks is good will go over so well with another.

Stuart says: "What I see happen at open mics is that everyone gets wild applause. In fact, sometimes the most inexperienced writer gets the most applause. Is it possible that open mics reward bad writing much of the time?"

I think I disagree that applause necessarily encourages bad poetry. I think most of the encouraging or discouraging that happens in an open mike happens in the conversations afterward. Also, where one open mike might be a safer ground for new writers - applauding wildly for the person who's had the guts to get up and read their work - not all are, in my experience. It's up to the individual poet whether they want to go to another open mike, with the same poem, and maybe get a lukewarm reception because of the kind of audience that's there. And, if that happens, it's up to that poet to decide whether they give a flying crap what the audience at Poetry Series Y thinks, and whether they want to go back and keep reading for Poetry Series X, or want to examine their poetry and see if maybe Poetry Series Y's audience has a point. At that point, ability to grow and a thick skin come in handy.

But... it's still not the responsibility of the people running the open mike to decide. It's up to that poet, who either says, "sure, I'll go find out what Poetry Series Y has to teach me and see if I want to incorporate it into my practice" or says, "Hell with Series Y, they love my stuff at Series X and I'm okay with that, that's all I really want."

Nor is it the responsibility of the audience at any of the series, really, to encourage or discourage the poet. The audience's job is to listen with respect, have an opinion, and react however they would like to. Again, if they don't like the poem they don't have to clap: if they don't like a majority of the stuff at a series they don't have to keep going. If they're willing to listen to a lot of possibly rough or raw poetry, because of the potential in it, they'll stay and clap for the brave poet who gets on stage shaking. If they're not, they'll go to another series and encourage the poets whose work they respect and look up to.

You can't dictate the quality of the work or the ear of the audience. All you can do is provide the space. Maybe, by inviting people whose work you like to read in the open mike, and as featured readers, you can demonstrate what sort of stuff you think is interesting and valuable in poetry. But you can't dictate what your audience will take away from it. All you can do is provide the microphone. Things will shape up as they may, and in accordance with your personality and hosting style, with the people you draw in to listen and the people you draw in to perform.

The main thing is, without the audience who listens to the first time poets, and the raw, and the rough poets, where will the audience and the poets in all the other, higher 'quality' series come from? This is a self-taught art, in which you have to find your own way, meet your own mentors, and teach yourself all the new tricks, and everyone has to start somewhere. Everyone, at some point, has got up and shared a bad poem. And if they had not done that, they would not keep doing it, and there would be far, far, fewer poets in the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Change comes: Jan Andrews' "Who Wants the Dress?"

Coming up: Jan Andrews at Voices of Venus, March 14th at 7:30 pm. Venus Envy: 320 Lisgar

Astrid Lindgren, who most people know as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, also wrote a book that I enjoyed as a child even as it creeped me out. It was called The Brothers Lionheart. A quick run through the plot: Karl is the narrator, a young boy who is sick with some kind of fatal illness. His older brother Jonatan, who is just about perfect, tells him about a place that you go when you die, called Nangiyala, where "all the stories are still happening." He promises that he will follow Karl there, and that even if it's a very long time before he dies, it won't seem that long to Karl. But, as it turns out, Jonatan dies first, saving Karl from a fire. When Karl dies not long after, they're reunited in Nangiyala, where Karl is no longer afflicted by his illness and is finally as strong and healthy as his brother. They settle down there in an idyllic, boys'-adventure life, but have only been there a short time when they get embroiled in a struggle between good and evil (evil in the form of a nasty warlord from the next valley over.) In the course of the battle, Jonatan is mortally wounded. But, he tells Karl, it's okay, because when you die in Nangiyala, you go to another place called Nangilima, which is even better, because there's no evil there. So Karl picks his brother up, carries him to the edge of a cliff, and jumps off. End of book.

I was disturbed by the book as a kid - and not really because the main characters die (twice.) All the usual reasons the book might be thought to disturb a child (suicide as the answer to being crippled, for example) didn't have as much effect on me as the way the book seemed to say that as soon as you think you've got the world figured out - as soon as you think you know what's going to happen, in this world or in the next - you'll discover that there's another layer beyond that, and another, and another. You solve the puzzle of this world (or it's resolved for you - in Karl's case, by death and being reborn in Nangiyala) and there will be more and different conflicts to survive, and yet another mystery of what comes after, waiting for you. Or, as the lady in Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time says: "You're very clever, young man, very clever ... But it's turtles all the way down!"

The Brothers Lionheart popped into my mind after I saw storyteller Jan Andrews performing her show "Who Wants the Dress?" It's a very powerful show, and in part, I think it's about finding out that once you figure out Nangiyala, sometimes you discover there's a Nangilima no one told you about.

Jan's show starts with a telling of a story by the English writer Sara Maitland. The story is a strange and mesmerizing one, about a young man who is compelled by tradition to dress as a woman in order to hunt his first seal. (According to Jan, Maitland claims this is a real folk tradition in some parts of the UK.) Killing the seal is the way to prove his manhood - but when he does dress as a woman he undergoes a transformation, and becomes the woman, and his/her shifting identity feels like a dreamlike discovery and a collapsing of his/her way of seeing the world all at once.

Jan's story picks up from the end of the first, and explores growing up in a time and place where the possibility that she might be a lesbian wasn't even considered. (Jan is nearly 70: it was a different time.) She tells the story of growing up, learning to fit in, learning the conventions (don't kick your leg over your bike, getting on "the boys' way"), wearing the dresses and the pretty clothes, playing the role that she and everyone around her assumed was hers to play. She tells about getting married, having children, all as things should progress. She thought she had life figured out. And then she met the woman that she would fall in love with, and everything changed. Of course things never change so drastically without turmoil, and without looking back at who you thought you were and rewriting it, like laying a layer of vellum over the past and retracing the lines. But eventually the storms cleared and the dust settled and she went forward into the rest of her life, with her partner, having made what most people would consider the greatest discovery and transformation of her life.

But then - at least this is what I felt, hearing the story - after years of settling into who she "really was," an encounter at a storytelling conference got her thinking that perhaps there was a Nangilima that she hadn't known about before, that there was another layer of vellum that could be laid down over the past and retraced on, that you don't ever know, even at 70, that you have everything figured out, that it's turtles all the way down.

What moved me about her story - aside from the obvious courage it has taken for her to put this show together and perform it - was that it rocks the ground under everyone's feet. Not just those who are confronting questions of gender identity and sexuality, as the world's views of those subjects shift and change around all of us, but everyone. The Brothers Lionheart gave me the creeps as a kid because it suggested that nothing is ever finally resolved. It's the disturbing truth at the centre of a lot of philosophies: you don't know that you don't know, and nothing you think you know can be relied on utterly. In the face of the world, you're best not to develop attachments to what you think is true. Change comes. It will shake you.

(If you want to see Jan perform this sit-still, barely-breathe, beautiful story, get yourself to Venus Envy this Wednesday at 7:30 for Voices of Venus.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unpacking fairytales in Perth

Whenever I go to a really good storytelling show, I'm surprised again at how moved and excited and hyped up I get. Friday night I went on a bit of a road trip to Perth with my friends Ruthanne and Talia to see "The Brothers Grimm: 200 Years and Counting" with storyteller Dale Jarvis and musician Delf Maria Hohmann. Absolutely glad I went.

The show was at Full Circle Theatre in Perth, which, I'm told, is a redesigned car wash. It's a really lovely little theatre, and has something of the flavour of an old auto shop about it, although I'm not sure exactly how. Maybe it's the big, garage-looking wooden panels at the sides of the stage, or the high ceilings.

Dale and Delf have put together a show that weaves together the life stories of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with some of the stories they collected and German folk music (Delf played the music, on guitar, banjo, whistle and dulcimer, and sang.) There were all sorts of things I hadn't known about the Grimm brothers, and a ton of fascinating facts woven into the story about who they were, why they started collecting stories, and the people they collected them from. There were stories about the brothers becoming celebrities, and unwitting political exiles, and a lovely bit played from the point of view of a self-important Hans Christian Andersen (who apparently once came to visit the brothers, and picked the wrong one to try and impress.)

And then there were the fairytales themselves, which were the original stories. Decidedly not the Disney versions. Some parts of these stories were actually pretty disturbing, especially told with the obvious relish for the gruesome bits that Dale showed. (His description of a father unwittingly eating a stew made of his youngest child was curdling. So was the story of the evil bishop plagued by an army of rats. That one actually made me squirm.)

These are weird, weird stories at times, too. As the evening went on you got a feel for them, for the place and culture behind them, and I started wondering, with some of the odder parts of the stories, what older myths they might be fossils of. Bits of The Juniper Tree in particular: which, if you know it, is one seriously strange story.

There were a couple of themes that kept coming back: magic trees growing out of graves, stepmothers eating their children, birds that sing the truth. And having even the familiar stories told in the old versions, and in the style that Dale told them, made me look at them new. I could actually listen to the story of Cinderella - oh, sorry, I mean Aschenputl - with new ears. For one thing, he told the German version. The one with no fairy godmother, but a magic tree and a pair of magic doves. The one where the sisters chop off bits of their feet to get them into the shoes, and the doves call them on it, and eventually pick their eyes out at the wedding. (The other version, which most of us are more familiar with, is actually a French version.) It made it new, and that meant, for me, that a vague sense of the people and the place - a little kingdom in the middle of what would eventually be Germany in the 1800s - started to build, as though I hadn't really imagined them before.

It was partly the style in which Dale told the stories, and partly the German songs that linked them together, and partly the stories that he chose, but I was suddenly thinking of the stories in Joseph Campbell terms. The stories unpacked themselves and I started glimpsing huge swaths of meaning behind them.

Dale ended with the story that the Grimm brothers always ended their collections with - the Golden Key. It's a strange little story that sounds just a little bit like a koan or a parable. A boy finds a small golden key in the forest, in the winter. He figures, where there's a key, there must be a lock, and looks around in the snow. He finds a small iron box, and fits the key in the lock. He turns it once. And we will only know when he finishes turning the key what is inside the box.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Catching up on the last two weekends...

It's been a crazy couple of weekends - particularly VERSeFest-wise. . .

The two pre-Festival events were both very cool in their own different ways. Poetry For the End of the World was jam-packed with poets, open mikes, and music: I couldn't catch everything because I was running back and forth, but what I did catch was fun. I got to hear a couple of Call Me Katie tunes that I hadn't heard before, including their last number, which was lovely and surprisingly science-fictiony. (Any folk tune that includes lines about how "the ships are gonna burn... burn up on reentry" wins points with me.) I watched the finalists for the Poetry for the End of the World contest read, but missed the featured readers because I was busy running around to the loading dock at Arts Court to get photos of the weather balloon waiting for launch:

At about 10:00, we all headed out to the side of the building (well, not all: a few people didn't feel like heading out in the cold, but some brave souls crunched out to watch.) And the winning poem (Ian Ferrier's "Letters from the Ice Age") was launched to the end of the world. I had my iPhone with me and got video of the whole thing, then had a little fun at home with video editing.

Then we went back inside to see Puggy Hammer, who were a whole lot of fun, although by that time, admittedly, the audience was a bit diminished and a little tired.

Friday I made it out for Once Upon a Slam, although I didn't have a story prepared (I know what story I wanted to tell, I just didn't have time to get it ready.) It was a small crowd and a small slam - the weather was brutal, which probably accounts for that - but with four storytellers signed up there was enough to have one. Anne Nagy claimed the win with a squick-inducing story about trying to be a 'domestic goddess' as a young wife, and a batch of rose hip jelly gone horribly, wrigglingly wrong.

The feature was Luna Allison with a set of stories called "Girl Fail" - which I was really looking forward to, since, well, I've been known to girlfail on occasion myself. Luna was sick, which sucked some of her energy, but in particular she lit up for the excerpts she did from her upcoming Undercurrents show "Falling Open." And her stories were lovely - from a story about a motherless girl struggling at being a 'girl' and then being saved by the riot grrl movement, to a monologue in the voice of a cross-dressing man, to a story of a failed Brownie Hallowe'en party - how was Luna supposed to know that showing up as a dead person stabbed in the back would freak out all the princess-costume-clad Brownies? - to a poignant story about a trans man living a culture that celebrates the birth of boys more than girls - and didn't know that he was a boy.

Strangely enough, I just found a video that Robin LeWilliam-North made of the story he told in the slam: he's just an oddly creative, surreal dude.

Taming the Tides of the Earth from Robin Le William-North on Vimeo.

Then there was last Saturday - the Women's Slam Championships. I knew it was going to be crowded, but I guess I wasn't expecting the massive sell-out that we actually had: there were people sitting outside in the studio to listen over the speakers. In fact, in a moment of chaos as the last seats were selling, we wound up selling more tickets than there were seats in the theatre (there were some people sitting on the floor who shouldn't have been, for one thing: for another thing there was a miscommunication about how many seats there actually are) and I had a fairly wrenching few minutes where I had to tell some people who I had let in at the last minute that I was going to have to give them their money back. The show had already started, and I was starting to freak out about what we would do.

But, then, all twelve of the poets, sitting in the front row, spontaneously got up - as one, to a woman, without even conferring among themselves that I could see - and offered their seats, and went to watch the show from backstage, where they could hear but not see. I got a little emotional. It was a beautiful moment. Afterwards, the ones I talked to said things like, "Well, of course we did, we couldn't make people leave that wanted to see the show," and "It was actually more fun back there because we could cheer each other on more."

I'm not kidding, by the way: that's how mutually supportive, generous-spirited and group-huggy slam people are in this town. It's like the Care Bear Stare. It's enough to make a cynic run screaming.

I listened from outside, where I was watching the merch table, but caught enough of the show to know that there was no way to guess the winner. The scores were amazingly consistent, and right up till the end, it could have been anyone's game to win. All of the poets were solid. Rage lost points when nerves chopped up her poem in the first round, but she came roaring back in the second. I was glad to have a chance to see more of CauseMo and Scotch, both from the Youth Slam Team, and get a sense of their work. Scotch in particular blew the audience away with her second-round poem.

At the end of the night the scores had all been so close I had no idea who would be named. And then Rusty and Ruthanne had to confer with the poets - there was a tie. So they asked if the poets wanted to have co-champions, or a slam-off. Of course they said co-champions. So Ruthanne went back to the audience and told them we had a tie for first - between Sepideh and D-Lightfull. When the cheers died down, she said that we also had a tie for third - between Festrell and Elle P.

That's how close it was.

Like I said, I was listening from outside for most of the show, but Pearl Pirie got some great photos and posted them on Flickr. Some of my favorites:
Sepideh (Co-Champion)

D-Lightfull (Co-Champion)
Elle P (Co-runner-up)
Festrell (co-runner-up)

Judges, raise your scores!
Rusty (in the front) and me (in the back) talking to journalists at the break.
The twelve poets take a bow: host Ruthanne in the front.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Poetry mashups with Pearl

I have really not had enough time lately to work on writing my own stuff, but over the last couple of weeks I've felt those little twinges again: lines I want to write down, stories nudging to be told, and that sense that somewhere, at some point, my "new" poems are waiting for me to open the right door for them.

Between that nagging urge to write stuff, and the fact that I've been working at home, and so for the last three days I've not really seen anyone else, I decided I had to pick myself up and go to the workshop at the Tree Reading Series tonight. So I did.

The workshop was being run by Pearl Pirie, who's coordinated the Tree Seeds workshops for a while now. I've been to other workshops with her, and one thing I really like about how she does them is that she gets you to play. It's sometimes hard to get a group of poets (particularly older poets, or poets who are firmly rooted in older traditions and styles) to play: this workshop had a couple of people who were initially pretty uncomfortable with taking apart and reassembling their poems. As though they'd break the original poems by messing around with them. But she's so easygoing about it that most of them ended up giving it a good solid try, and being surprised, I think, with the results.

What she had us do was take two of our poems and break them down the middle, by splitting each line into two grammatical parts, more or less at will. Then we spliced the first half of each line on poem #1 with the second half of each line of poem #2, ignoring whether it made sense or not. Then we took the strange Frankenstein's monster we'd just made and looked it over for interesting images, startling juxtapositions, things that worked when spliced together in a way that our conscious mind wouldn't have come up with. It's not that what we were making was in any way a finished product: it was a new starting place, or places, from two old poems.

I found it kind of satisfying just copying out the broken halves of the lines. Meditative. Sometimes a line or two, next to each other, would sound good or give me an interesting image in itself, but I'd leave it to come back to and keep copying. It was like digging new ideas out. I drew a line down the middle of the page and copied the first halves, then the second halves, and reading just the first-half side I'd see patterns and juxtapositions:
dinosaur heads
of construction
and the day
into a finished puzzle box
my body
the passing bus
of the streetlights
and go
Then as I started filling in the spliced second half, the lines that were created started to surprise me. Even make me laugh. This chunk in particular stood out for me (I did have to switch a couple of pairs of lines for each other and change some subject-verb agreements, and drop out a couple of useless line-segments to get this - yeah, I know, I meant to just type in what I had on my scribbled-up page, but pesky little Ego won't let me do that without just a little teeny bit of polishing. Minimal, at best):
the rain started
ratcheting and broken
dust-dazzling the summer earth
and the orange pylons, wet underfoot
while I take
the gravel-crunch vinyl
for the loop track from stillness to downpour
& the burr of my chain at the change.
Glance back, past the bottles
in our throats
and tank treads. I told you the names
all huge-bulked, weighted; you said you weren't
my balance, the green thing
snaps itself with Canadian flora
my brakes and pedals like a poem,
the wheeling sun. You didn't mind
the blink and glow; it was warm, falling.

Sure. It doesn't make any sense, and it's not a poem yet, and I'm not entirely sure I have a clue what it's about or going to be about, but there are lines I like in it. And a feeling I like in it. And lord knows it's unlike anything else I've written lately. And that in itself is totally worth the trip downtown.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Apocalypse Tonight

Well, it's tonight: the Poetry for the End of the World party. Personally, I can't wait! Reports to follow, and fingers crossed that the weather cooperates (and that tons of folk show up!)

And, one poem gets to have this view of the world before the balloon blows and it's scattered into the stratosphere:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A love note

Greg Frankson posted this a couple of days ago, and I thought it was awesome. And sums up a lot of why I love the Ottawa poetry community too. I hope he doesn't mind if I re-post. 

Dear Ottawa Poetry Community,

I love you.

I adore how you have come together across all the false boundaries and dichotomies, annihilating the relevance of "page" and "stage" distinctions. I love your diversity of voice, your assortment of opportunities for writers, your binge-worthy buffet of choice for literary lovers in the National Capital Region. I love your bilingualism, your openness to voices in languages other than the two official ones, your embracing of the region's ethnocultural expressions.

I appreciate the way you don't allow those who were once resident in your city to feel anything but completely at home when they come back to visit. And I love the way you wrap the newest additions to the scene in instant acceptance in a bid to build a stronger community one poet at a time.

You are a shining example to the rest of the country and one of the best places to be a poet in the world. I am proud to have been part of this community for nearly a decade and, even though I now call Toronto home, will always consider myself first and foremost an Ottawa poet.

I wish all my fellow Ottawa writers an amazing, prosperous and prolific 2012. Keep setting the world on fire.

With love and respect,
Greg Frankson aka Ritallin

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Here it is January 1st of 2012, and in keeping with my vague, unstated and relatively nebulous New Year's resolutions, I've already blogged once this year (at about 1 A.M. last night, when I posted my year-end retrospective on my rock climbing blog, Rockbumbly.) The ambition (well, one of them) is simply to write more: to produce more text, on more subjects. To write each day, something at least a bit substantial.

What to write about? Well, conveniently, I can always plug VERSeFest's 'Poem for the End of the World' contest, which is due next week (the 7th) and which I can't enter, but I can encourage others to enter. The winner gets to see their poem literally sent to the end of the world, which is gonna be pretty spectacular.

And appropriately for all the apocalyptic buzz surrounding 2012, I've also just started following Ottawa SF writer Hayden Trenholm on Twitter, and the first thing he tells me is that Bundoran Press is looking for submissions for an anthology called Blood and Water - near future SF dealing with the resource wars that seem inevitable. I've always thought that some of the scenarios described by people like Gwynne Dyer were (almost excitingly) science-fictiony. This is an anthology tackling the subject. Deadline for submissions is in March: I know I won't have time to write anything in time for it (and it's probably a bit out of my league). But maybe I'll try anyway. Contests are one way to give yourself writing challenges, right?