Monthly Archives: March 2017

Between the Eclipses 1

Continuing the backward gaze at my pre-Internet writing, here a notes and quotes from the 1980s. The period runs from the lunar eclipse of 1982 to the lunar eclipse of 1989.

*

Nothing is real but the present moment, some say. The past? The future? They don’t exist; you can’t touch any part of them.

That may be, but fast-forward a week or a decade and today’s sharp edges will have blurred. Then a new present will be called the only reality, and our memory of today will be foggy, our judgment uncertain.

As when the full moon is eclipsed by the earth, the present casts a shadow over the past. Yet the past was once the present, bright and shining. Though faded, it still exerts a tidal influence on today. It falls to those of us who were there to remember as clearly as we can, before the memory fades to black.

The object is not to bring back what has passed, but to acknowledge that what was done is just as important to the whole story as this present moment, which too is quickly passing.

I am speaking of the writing life, the literary community that I became a part of, in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1980s. It was a time very much like the present, with important differences, which will become greater as it retreats further into the shadows. Here is one view of that time and place, seen through the rather narrow lens of my experience. Something was beginning then that we can see evidence of all around us; something was ending that is no longer much noticed but remains part of the story.

November 1981. Our first week in Ottawa, we lived in a bare house while our furniture made its way from Vancouver. My wife Mary Lee was at work in her new government job; our son Jeff was at school in first grade. I was left at home with little more than a sleeping mat and the manuscript of the novel I had been producing at the rate of 20 pages a week for our last few months in Vancouver. Our 1975 Toyota Corolla was also en route, being driven from Vancouver for a fee by students who, when they arrived, left it smelling of marijuana and needing a valve job. During my week stuck in the Riverside Park house, I received a phone call from ACCESS Alberta, offering to pay me residuals for continued use of the script for a video on Alberta artists I had begun two years earlier when I lived in Edmonton and completed after our January 1980 move to Vancouver. Of course I welcomed the bit of income.

IntransitDuring less than two years in Vancouver, the house we had bought there had earned more money than I had. But I had managed to finish my first book of poetry, In Transit, which was about to be released by Saskatchewan’s Thistledown Press. A second phone call, from the press, advised me to book a flight to Saskatoon right away, so I could be there for the launch of the new book. It was a great launch, my book  coming out with Monty Reid’s and Tom Wayman’s, because the Saskatchewan arts board had finally agreed to help fund books written by poets from outside the province. It may not have anticipated, though, that between acceptance and publication this particular poet would have moved from Alberta to B.C. to Ontario.

While in Vancouver, I had made a few contacts in the literary community, mainly through the walk-in Literary Storefront, run by Mona Fertig with support from Cathy Ford, Maxine Gadd and others. Jan Conn was among the volunteers who hosted open readings on Sunday nights, and soon I was another. I was included in the Storefront’s New Works/New Voices festival in the summer of 1981, and it was about that time that Mona and Cathy returned from a cross-Canada reading tour. When I mentioned that I would be moving to Ottawa, they exclaimed that the literary scene here was remarkable for all the Chilean writers living here. Otherwise, I knew only of the university poets Seymour Mayne and Christopher Levenson, and from little magazines, Cyril Dabydeen. I found it a bit intimating to arrive in yet another new city claiming to be a writer, but this time I had a new book to prove my bona fides, and I brought it to a reading in the Tree series. Then in its first incarnation, Tree was being run by founders David Freedman and Marty Flomen – who would soon break away to start his own Orion reading series – along with Marcus Jokinen, the “resident Friend” who lived in a small apartment adjoining the Friends’ Meeting House on Fourth Avenue. Tree readings were held at the Meeting House, in the “fireplace room.” This was a comfortable square room large enough for the audience of twenty or thirty who regularly gathered on Tuesday nights for poetry and prose readings, usually with a musical interlude provided by singer songwriters such as Wayne Rostad and Michell Kaplan.

A red brick fireplace with mantel dominated the west wall, and a large paper ornamental lantern hung from the ceiling. I often showed up to read in the open set and show off my new book, In Transit. On one early occasion I introduced some of the concrete and sound poems I had been creating for a few years. I asked listeners to imagine that the white globe of the paper lantern was the moon, and on it to imagine the well-known yin-yang symbol, half black, half white, with the word “lune” printed in white on the black background, the word “loon” in black on the white background. I had never successfully turned this image into a sound poem, but using that paper prop seemed to create a poetic background for my reading, one that was memorable for poet Susan McMaster, who later invited me to join the performance group First Draft. Susan and I would end up performing together regularly for five years and collaborating on a range of creative projects over the next quarter-century.

July 1982. Our first summer in Ottawa, my family loved the warm, clear nights, in contrast to both the rain of Vancouver and the chill of Calgary, where we had spent most of our lives. We found it a great joy to walk out with no jacket or umbrella, enjoying the aromatic air of roses and lilacs in the gardens around our home near Mooney’s Bay. One night, during a visit from my wife Mary Lee’s mother, we stayed up late and roused our young son Jeffrey from his bed to observe a total eclipse of the moon. Within a few days I had written a poem about the eclipse, and Jeff’s down-to-earth response to the experience, which I took to my first meeting of the Ottawa Poetry Group, a monthly workshop organized by Christopher Levenson. This was my introduction to many of the Ottawa poets who would make up my social circle for the rest of the Eighties and beyond. Here is the poem as it was later published, first as a poster in Patrick White’s Anthos poster series, and later in the book How to Be Born Again  from Quarry Press:

Eclipse

for Jeffrey

 

Way past midnight

I wake you, brushing fingers

across your gleaming forehead,

slide you into slippers

and steer you outside

 

Night roses, pale red echoes

of the moon’s blue,

blown lilac scent,

deep sigh of a city asleep

 

Grandmother, mother, father and son,

we bundle in blankets,

pace the backyard with hands in pockets,

as the moon, ripening, reddening,

enters earth shadow

 

Before the end it is grey as a cloud

but, straight from dreams, you’re not easily impressed

Your grandmother’s smiling eyes

excite you more than the smoked‑glass

ghost of a moon up there

 

and down here in the grass!

Gleefully you cup your hands

round a fading light

 

and later, when you crayon a picture of the eclipse

you call it, The night I saw the glowworms.

 

 

For the next part of “Between the Eclipses” go here.

 

 

Advertisements

Kurt Schwitters at Zero Gravity

In another flashback, here’s an article I wrote for Musicworks magazine about writing The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems:

Kurt Schwitters at Zero Gravity

It was in 1974, reading Hans Richter’s book Dada: Art and Anti-Art, that I first learned about Kurt Schwitters, his provocative statement “The basis of poetry is not the word but the letter,” and the uproar he caused by whispering, whistling, whimpering, wailing the letter W. What really stuck in my memory, though, was the image of Schwitters walking down the street — any street, any time of day — picking up discarded bits of paper, lace, machine parts, can lids, whatever, for future use in a collage. His total devotion to the life of art and his appetite for every form of experience as material impressed me because I had already begun trying in many ways to push my writing beyond the boundaries of “literature” toward sound, performance and visual art.

A few months before, I had attended a performance at the University of Ottawa by Québécois sound poet Raoul Duguay. Very excited by the possibilities, I got hold of books by Duguay and bpNichol, some anthologies of concrete poetry, John Cage’s Silence, bill bissett’s book of chants, Medicine My Mouth’s on Fire, with its enclosed flimsy vinyl recording, Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, and his magazine Alcheringa, which also enclosed a flimsy record of, among others, Jackson Mac Low’s “Stanzas for Iris Lezak.”

All these helped to fill the gaps in my education left by years of university study of “literature.” I realized that poetry originates in ritual and chant, but I only gradually found ways of bringing my own work back to that wellspring of energy. My first visual poem, “l’arrivée,” was a response to meeting a newborn in early ’74, and gradually, after reading about Schwitters, I noticed it was possible to “read,” that is, to chant that poem. So “l’arrivée” became my first sound poem too, and I performed it for the first time in Banff that August.

Several other attempts followed, but I was still working primarily in a publishing, not a performance, milieu. Though Richter’s book introduced me to Schwitters, I was more directly influenced to do new work at that time by Hans Arp’s and Max Ernst’s collaborations with the laws of chance and with the inherent formal principles in natural forces. I conceived of a series of new-genre explorations called “A Century of Inventions,” whose first four “decades” were Signs, Sounds, Chances, and Changes. But the visual pieces (“Signs”) were the only ones that readily got published; the decade of “Sounds” was ill-defined and poorly executed.

Unaccountably, although bpNichol later told me Kurt Schwitters was an early influence on him, my acquaintance with contemporary sound poetry didn’t, in the 70s, lead me back to Schwitters or any of the other pioneers of the genre. Only when I began working with the intermedia group First Draft in the 80s did I understand the importance of that early work by Schwitters. In his 1920 essay “Merz” and elsewhere, Schwitters set forth a program for gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts, that sounds uncannily like the marriage of poetry, music, movement and visual art that First Draft was striving for and, a few times, seemed to achieve. I now think this an impractical goal but, as a goal, it has brought about interesting work from many quarters.

Not a sound-poetry group, First Draft created, among other works, what we called “wordmusic” through the collaboration of poet Susan McMaster and/or myself with composer Andrew McClure. Our compositions included musical parts for soprano, flute ’cello, chimes, even glass harmonica. At times, they incorporated visual art, costumes, movement, and stage lighting. But in their purest form they were musical works for speakers and spoken-voice choruses. Ultimately, calling our more elaborately staged performances “wordmusic theatre,” we employed professional actors under theatrical direction.

In mid-1984, exactly ten years after filing away the image of Kurt Schwitters howling his way down a street of undiscovered art treasures, I took down Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art again, for at least two reasons: 1) because I had often heard First Draft called a sound-poetry group, and I wanted to see what similarity, if any, there was between our work and that of Hugo Ball and his followers; and 2) I thought writing about Schwitters could give me a framework within which different kinds of writing and performance could co-exist. Sound poetry, visual work — art, poetry, performance — dramatic scenes, the kind of multi-voice pieces First Draft performed, even straight lyric and narrative poems: all could find a place in a book or a performance that spun on the axis of Kurt Schwitters.

We all create our own precursors. After performing wordmusic, what better precursor could I claim than the composer of the “Sonata for Primitive Sounds” (ur-sonate)? His life, after all, was mythic: it spanned the formative period of our world and touched the savage heart of twentieth-century history, the only myth everybody knows any more. Also, his life reflected those themes of exile and separation that, like it or not, are my themes, but with an absurdist humour and optimism. From the start, he was tearing apart newspapers, machines, language itself to make art. When history took his life and tore it apart, he made art with it. Right up to the end, he was beginning again. What novelist could resist that story? What sound poet would deprive himself of such a context for presenting his work?

While writing, I began to rehearse some of my pieces with First Draft. And of course, I read all I could find by and about Schwitters, especially John Elderfield’s book for New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Friedhelm Lach’s edition of the Literarische Werk, with its abundant appendixes in English, French and other languages. I also went to see the 1985 Schwitters retrospectives at MOMA and London’s Tate Gallery and to talk to people who knew him. While in England, I visited the sound poet Bob Cobbing, who happened to be rehearsing a performance of the Ursonate and played me the entire forty-minute recording of the work. That’s when I understood that you don’t need a narrative architecture to “contextualize” sound poetry. You can simply prolong the performance beyond novelty, beyond boredom and discomfort, beyond the ridiculous, until it lifts off and enters that zero-gravity state where words like up, down, this, that, you, me, myth, history, art, life lose their attraction for signifieds and float in a capsule of latency along with all potential. Afterward, you may or may not hand out parachutes. Whether you do or don’t is called your stance, but frankly, what do you propose to stand on?

About the same time, I received a letter from filmmaker Ed Ackerman who, having heard some of First Draft’s wordmusic on CBC radio, proposed that we collaborate on a film and explained that he made animated films entirely on an old Underwood typewriter. With my fondness for old typewriters, and a bit of Schwitters’s openness toward the new, I agreed, and before long we had made a brief excerpt of the Ursonate into the film Primiti Too Taa and sent it off to the 1986 San Francisco Poetry Film Festival. Primiti Too Taa has jitterbugged its way from film festival to film festival several times around the world since then and, reanimated on 70 mm, it may have found the ultimate context for performance/sound poetry — the IMAX theatre. Jüüüü Kaaaa?

.

Incidentally, I ought to clear up the misconception that I believe myself to be the reincarnation of Kurt Schwitters. I’ll say this only once: it isn’t true. It is ridiculous to suppose I think I am Kurt Schwitters. Nothing of the sort. For one thing, Schwitters died in 1948, while I, on the contrary, was born that year. Furthermore, Kurt Schwitters issued his first cry into this world in 1887, exactly a hundred years before I issued The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems. Only a German-speaker would think that calling them “Schwitters Poems” mean he wrote them. I wrote them. If they were his poems, of course I would call them “Schwitters’s Poems.”

Kurt Schwitters spent years as a middling art student in various colleges before discovering his style and naming it Merz. I, on the other hand, was a long-time literature student, neither distinguished nor undistinguished, and when I discovered my subject I didn’t have to name it because it already had a name — Schwitters.

Schwitters had one child, a son, who became a photographer. My own son looks like becoming a scientist; he owned a camera but took it apart and now it doesn’t work.

Schwitters, an artist, became famous for writing a book of poetry. A poet, I am best known for a film! Schwitters was tall, I am not. He was a performance artist, something I keep telling people I’m not. He made one of the first installations; I can’t even install a towel bar. He owned houses in Hanover, a provincial capital whose duke had long since departed to become King of England; I own a house in Ottawa, home in exile to the Dutch queen during the war. As Schwitters observed, the Dutch are born dadas; all Ottawa got was the tulips. Schwitters made a production number out of a sneeze; I just You see, there’s nothing to that story. I’m not Schwitters, not at all. I don’t even know the meaning of the word Merz.

– Colin Morton

(This article first appeared in Musicworks 44 in 1989.)