Continuing the chronicle of pre-Internet times in the literary community of Canada’s capital:
In 1982, when the Tree collective began organizing a two-day poetry festival called Wordfest, they asked me to edit an anthology of work by the featured poets. I had some experience in editing and pasting up books and magazines, from the student magazine Gaillardia at the University of Calgary in the late-60s and early-70s, to the Harbinger anthology in 1973 and my volunteer work at Edmonton’s NeWest Review in the late-70s and Vancouver’s Literary Storefront Newsletter in the early-80s. With the design help of Carol English, I put out a very respectable souvenir volume including the work of Cyril Dabydeen, Mark Frutkin, Alice Groves, Blaine Marchand, George Miller, Riley Tench, Lorna Uher (Crozier), and Patrick White.
Wordfest, two solid days of readings by these and other writers held at SAW Gallery, then upstairs in the Byward Market building, was an inspiring event, for me. On my return home after the Saturday readings, I sat up most of the night writing “Poem without Shame,” a cascade of images that I decided ought to be published without the frustrating delays of submission, rejection, acceptance and eventual inclusion in a little magazine.
Damn it, I thought, I can publish this myself, as a broadsheet, and within a couple of months I had done it. The design – 8 ½ by 14 in cardstock with two folds – left room for fanciful line-drawn cover art by Carol English. To give the project a bit of respectability, I decided that I would start my own press and call it Ouroboros. Soon to follow were similar broadsheets by Susan McMaster, John Bell and Chris Wind, chapbooks by Margaret Dyment and Nancy Corson Carter, a series of postcards with visual poems by myself, Penn Kemp, LeRoy Gorman and Noah Zacharin, as well as perfect bound books by Robert Eady, Susan McMaster, and the performance group First Draft.
“Poem Without Shame” took its name from a poem read at Wordfest by Lorna Crozier and drew most of its details from images in poems I had heard or from things I had seen or heard about happening in the Byward Market area during the festival. It was later published between the glossy covers in my second book, This Won’t Last Forever, from Edmonton’s Longspoon Press:
Poem without shame
This poem has no shame.
It has a punk bagpiper on the Saturday morning sidewalk
who has set out a basket to collect quarters or dollar bills,
it has one silver er dollar (American) and one sand dollar (Atlantic),
the Pacific and Arctic oceans fit neatly into its corners
leaving room for the Great Lakes, a gravestone, a stamp album, a teddy bears’ picnic and more,
this poem is large enough to encompass the orbit of Jupiter without straining,
it has black holes into which readers have been known to disappear and never return,
this poem has a melodious doorbell and five spacious rooms,
it has picture windows, broadloom and air-conditioning,
but it has no shame, it has no soul.
This poem has sole fried in butter with lemon and a sprig of parsley,
it has phallic symbols, womb symbols, symbols of death and resurrection which never correspond because they don’t affix proper postage,
this poem has bold headlines behind which burn real bodies which don’t symbolize anything,
it has cities reduced to rubble and cities restored in plaster, it has cabinet ministers preserved in alcohol,
but it has no shame.
It has no shame because the stars are rusty,
because the phallic symbols look like wombs and vice versa,
because the dead think this is living and the living, postage paid, have never returned,
because its readers have short attention spans and are already getting annoyed at this,
because some have already given it up, and for the rest of us every second counts,
although not one in a hundred knows CPR and heart disease is one of our biggest killers,
through no fault of its own yet irreversibly, this poem has no heart.
This poem is not alone,
although in nights so silent even the streets are mute and every light has gone out in the facing apartment tower it tells itself there is no other poem like it in the world,
and it aches with an inarticulate loneliness because it knows that is not so,
that every poem is like it but it can phone up none of them, not even long distance.
It has no heart because if another poem did phone it up in the night it would curse and hang up,
because it is empty, yet doesn’t hold water, nor serve as a sieve by separating coarse from fine,
because it is finest when it is coarsest and vice versa,
because it sings the blues without being blue and celebrates without joy, and when it is blue does not sing at all,
because it is wise without wisdom and foolish without folly,
because it salts its words without savour,
because it never speaks on the elevator,
because it has walked in space but never in cowshit,
because it has acted out its sex fantasies but not its death wish,
because it prefers fantasy and so will be taken unawares by death,
because it drives fast through the city late at night in search of other poems and ramming them,
because it is a poem with dented fenders rusting out,
a fatty poem carrying in it traces of pesticides food additives battery acids,
a poem with nine cups of coffee two ashtrays and a heap of sweaty clothing,
a poem with bagpipes, kilt of purple leather and a one-stringed electric hockey stick,
but no soul.
A soleless shoe of a poem written on folds and folds of print-out paper wadded to keep the rain out,
a poem with only a horseshoe for good luck
a poem that says it is prepared for the worst but imagines decay is mere bad luck and forgetting but an interval in memory (not vice versa),
a poem that regardless has walked in space,
that still has room for another bagpipe, for a chair wrapped in magnetic tape, for all the planets plus the entire metric system;
into its black hole fall the half-moon of a fingernail, the moon itself which is full tonight, and all the moons of Jupiter;
a poem with room for more still,
because it is a horseshoe
with ends pointed up
to catch the falling angels.
The Wordfest event at SAW Gallery also marked the beginning of my friendship with Blaine Marchand, then working on a government contract for CIDA, developing video and film projects in the international development field. When I told him that I had written TV scripts for ACCESS Alberta, he said that we should meet to discuss what I might be able to do for CIDA. Nothing came of that idea, but very soon I would find myself working as an editor for the Department of Labour, whose offices were in the same massive federal complex as CIDA, Place du Portage in Hull, across the river from Parliament Hill.
I phoned Blaine from my new desk at Labour Canada, and we met in the food court for lunch, a break from the workday that we would repeat every week or so for the next decade. While we paced the alphavillean corridors of Place du Portage, the streets of la ville d’Hull, and the adjoining paths along the Ottawa River, our conversation was almost always about books, writing, our own poetry.
Also at Wordfest I met Sheila Chapman, a young writer who had been impressed with some poems of mine published in Descant magazine, who was writing short stories full of poetry and promise. Since I was then still trying to write a historical novel, which I called “Cage of Bone,” Sheila and I began meeting to discuss our fiction. By that fall we had found an informal fiction-writing workshop that included Mark Hopkins, who later became Sheila’s husband, and Armand Garnet Ruffo, then a student at Carleton University, now Governor-General’s award-winning writer and professor at Queen’s.
At a Tree open set before the reading by Christopher Levenson. I observed that Levenson’s first collection had the same title as my book, In Transit and I supposed that this was not the only thing we had in common. Soon after, Chris invited me to join the monthly poetry workshop that he organized, mainly for former students from his creative writing class. This group included several of poets who would become friends whose work I would later publish in Ouroboros editions – John Bell, Robert Eady, Darien Watson, Holly Kritsch, Susan McMaster, Blaine Marchand and, of course, Chris Levenson. Over the next few years, the group would expand with the addition of other poets newly arrived in Ottawa – John Barton, Nadine McInnis, Sandra Nicholls and others who have since published many books. Our monthly workshops were held in members’ homes and involved, along with close reading and technical critiques of new poems, a table of food and drinks and friendly conversation.
When all this was still fresh in memory, I wrote a brief essay about poetry readings and literary activity in Ottawa. It sounds slightly dated now, not only because Ottawa’s population has grown but also because there has since been a “rush to the margins” in literature – with both spoken word and language-based poetry gaining market-share. In the hope that what I wrote back then captures some of the energy and engagement that brought heat and light to the literary life, I quote it in full below.
POETRY IN ACTION: OTTAWA 1982-3
(from Arc 10, Fall 1983)
In the first half of this century it was a rare occasion for a poet to read his or her work in public. In that self-consciously “modern” age, when close-study-of-the-text-alone was building into a major industry in the universities, most poets espoused the dictum of T.S. Eliot that a poem must be “difficult”. Consequently, reading poetry was the work of a cultivated elite, and demanded an intensely private experience of discovery between the reader and the printed page. A poem may have musical rhythms, but it was generally agreed that the ear is an inadequate instrument to take in at a single hearing all the nuances of symbol and allusion that make up poetic meaning. In fact (some would have said), reading aloud can actually diminish a poem by fixing a particular interpretation on it. Yeats insisted, “If a poet interprets a poem of his own he limits its suggestibility.”
Coincidentally, it was while ambiguity and difficulty were considered prime poetic virtues that poetry lost its popular audience to less demanding media such as film, radio, TV, and paperback novels. Everyone agreed that poetry was difficult; the mass audience went further, and declared it stuffy and boring as well.
In the past generation all that has changed. First, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beats threatened to blow the academy’s house in with their “barbaric” poems that depend on reading aloud to achieve their cumulative, incantatory effects. Then in the 1960s the universities were invaded by millions of young people demanding “relevance” (and creating teaching jobs for more poets than ever before). About the same time, the Canada Council, perhaps more for political reasons than for aesthetic ones, began what has become a tradition of sponsoring a perpetually moveable feast of poetry readings that reaches into nearly every city and town in the land. Now, in response to popular demand (from the writers, not their audience), public readings are staged, with or without official funding, nearly every day of the year. Locations vary from church basements to classrooms to taverns to theatres to community centres. Styles of writing, and of reading, are equally diverse. No one has gone so far as seriously to suggest that a public reading can take the place of that private experience with the printed page; but at present in Ottawa, a city of half a million which has only one English language poetry magazine, there are frequently two or three readings a week.
Over the past winter, for instance, Jack Hodgins of the University of Ottawa brought in, among others, Michael Ondaatje, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Josef Skvorecky, W.P. Kinsella and Elizabeth Smart. Each of these writers probably drew a larger audience than any theatre in Ottawa that night, outside the National Arts Centre; and boxes of books were sold. Carleton University, for its part, sponsored the appearance of such institutions as Irving Layton and Earle Birney.
Meanwhile, for the second year, the poetry magazine affiliated with Carleton—Arc—organized its own twice-monthly reading series. In doing so, Arc departed from the universities’ model in two important ways. First, series organizer Christopher Levenson moved the readings off campus into the heart of the city, a tavern in the basement of the Lord Elgin Hotel. Audiences there tend to be smaller—stripped of the captive audience of uncommitted students—and less predictable. Even Ottawa, although more homogeneous than other large Canadian cities, is a cultural grab-bag of avid readers and aspiring writers—displaced Westerners and Maritimers, astrologers, immigrants, poets of punk, retired civil servants, mental hospital graduates and others. Inevitably, there are risks and surprises involved in exposing visiting writers to the questions and requests for aid that often come from such an unregimented group. But the move off campus is an expression of faith, on Arc’s part, that there is a literary audience to be found, and that the opportunity to see writers in person will stimulate an interest in their books, even when degrees and university credit are not offered as bait.
The Arc reading series distinguished itself in a second way last winter by reaching beyond the Toronto-centric orbit to bring in a welcome succession of western, especially prairie, poets, and a major figure of Quebecois literature, Michel Tremblay. Toronto writers were not wholly neglected, of course, but those sponsored by Arc tended to be writers near the beginning of promising careers, or who have not been the benefactors of the media-star system that operates even in the small world of CanLit.
By stepping out into the community and seeking quality work rather than big reputations, Arc has helped to fill the huge gap between the universities and the community-based reading series such as Tree and Orion. These non-academic groups also bring to Ottawa established writers and talented newcomers from across the country, but the mainstay of their repertoire, and their support, comes from Ottawa writers and aspirants, from the city’s “cultural grab-bag.”
Tree, which has met on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month for the past three-and-a-half years at the Friends’ Meeting House in the Glebe, has been the most consistent in promoting the view that local and beginning writers, too, need and deserve an opportunity to read for an audience. The result is often appalling, sometimes surprising and even exciting, as when one discovers “unknown” local writers of the calibre of Clive Doucet and Margaret Dyment. Visiting writers like Patrick Lane and Joe Rosenblatt may resent having to wait through the offerings of a dozen open-readers and a local musician; but it is not many years since they themselves bulled their way into public notice in the same kind of setting, whatever romantic aura may cling to them now. There is plenty of room for improvement in these programs. For example, a separate evening might be set as an open reading at which constructive comment and discussion are encouraged. Tree’s organizers stick religiously to their original format, however, reasoning (and who can say they are wrong?) that exposure to the example of accomplished visiting writers will do more to improve the craftmanship of novices than any amount of comment from their peers.
Implicit in this reasoning, of course, is the recognition that without the opportunity to stand up and read their own work, many members of the audience simply would not be there. (This the organizers of Arc, which tolerates no open readings, can sadly confirm.) The depressing fact is that, after decades of open hostility between “difficult” poets and “common” readers, the effort of building an audience for serious writing in Canada (and not only in Canada) is frustrating, unrewarding and possibly hopeless. Yet without an audience, the work of today’s literary “stars” is as doomed as the therapeutic verse that receives polite or embarassed applause at open readings.
Good writing comes not out of a cultural vacuum, but out of a community of avid and discerning readers who are awake to the literary achievements of the past, to the best contemporary writing wherever in the world it originates, and to the literary culture of their own country.
An important function all readings serve is to bring together the writers who share this time and place, giving them the opportunity to build a community that will foster, recognize and encourage writers of genuine talent when they most need it—before they have given in to
despair and taken up one of the multitude of more rewarding professions. The Tree series made the most direct gestures toward the building of such a community in the past year, by introducing to English-speaking readers several francophone poets from the Outaouais region,
and on another evening, four of the Chilean exile writers associated with Ottawa’s Spanish-language publisher, Editions Cordillera. The cultural base, which is inevitably small in a city of only half a million, is further threatened in Ottawa by linguistic division. Communication between the cultural groups is especially important here, therefore; and it was encouraging this spring to see Ottawa writers in English, French and Spanish discussing their art at a reception for one of Arc’s readers from the prairies, Anne Szumigalski.
Public readings, then, have created a good deal of activity in literary circles. But apart from the devastatingly gloomy picture with which John Metcalf concludes his book Kicking Against the Pricks, there have been few attempts to assess the contribution made by all this activity to Canadian literary culture. What is the function of a poetry (or prose) reading? How does it advance the cause of serious writing? Does it exert an influence on what is written and published in Canada?
The anecdotal account above suggests a number of answers. A poetry reading may be an aesthetic experience in itself, a means of building the poetry audience and community, or a promotional event for the writer. It may, of course, be all three.
As promotional events, the University of Ottawa’s readings were by far the most successful, for the most part being well-coordinated with publishers as part of nation-wide bookselling tours. But any poetry reading at which a single book is sold must be counted a success by comparison with bookstores, where poetry books, if they are given shelf space at all, tend to linger untouched until marked down to fifty-nine cents.
One lesson to be learned from going to readings is that culture does not consist merely of books and pictures and buildings; it is the people who write and read the books, who create and look at the pictures, who design and live in the buildings. A reading is often a social event as much as an aesthetic one, and should be. There is not a one-way communication line between writer and audience. Writers and readers share a body of collective myths and images, which creates a context within which they can interpret both literature and experience. When a poet reads to an audience, he or she gains a new perspective on the work. Laughter, whether nervous or amused, restless shuffling or rapt silence—every response is part of a subtle dialogue that lets the writer know whether the work has achieved the intended impact. This dialogue, along with the informal exchange before and after the reading, helps the writer discover what she or he must write; and it gives the audience new entrances to the work—human, “non-literary” entrances, perhaps, but important ones nonetheless.
The formal question-and-answer period that follows many readings is rarely the best forum for such exchanges. Some writers, knowing very well the pitfalls of attempting off-the-cuff replies to the off-the-wall questions they are liable to be asked, politely and firmly refuse this part of the ritual. Others would be well-advised to do the same. Michael Ondaatje — a writer accustomed to media attention and questions—takes no risks in this situation, answering in two or three words that give nothing away, and don’t involve him in trying to defend half-baked arguments. Other writers—Chris Wiseman, for example—are more daring and provocative. But the teacher-student situation is rarely conducive to a serious argument or exchange. The audience is likely to find that even stimulating writers with challenging ideas can be as muddled and incoherent as anyone else when forced to think on their feet. There are exceptions, of course, for which we can be thankful. Michel Tremblay, for one, appearing in the Arc series, gave succinct and brilliant responses that provided valuable insights into his work and creative methods.
I have left the hardest questions for last, not altogether out of cowardice, but rather, to leave readers—many of whom must be writers themselves—with a challenge.
How, then, do readings measure up as aesthetic experiences? Usually about as well as a Friday afternoon traffic jam—both tend to be hot, uncomfortable, frustrating, seemingly endless, inescapable, and free. It seems that many writers still believe the modernist doctrine that poetry can be understood only with the book open and The Golden Bough and OED close at hand; and so disdain to pamper the audience by providing a performance. Doubtless some writers cynically regard a reading as merely a quick two hundred dollars. Others, I am convinced, simply have too much faith in the printed word, and neglect to give their voices those nuances of pitch and tone and timing that convey such a large part of the meaning of spoken language. Precisely these performance skills are required to make even a superb short story writer into a good story teller. It is true that any good poem (or story) has complexities that cannot be taken in by a listener or reader the first time through. The same is true, though, of plays, although people continue to go to the theatre. A public reading is a variety of theatre, with the writer playing the role of him/herself as well as any other parts the writing demands. The trouble is, readings are usually bad theatre; often very, very bad theatre. Moviegoers who, excited by seeing the film Poetry in Motion, seek out the next live poetry reading in their town are likely never to repeat their folly.
It is unreasonable to expect writers to turn themselves into actors for the sake of an occasional reading fee, but it bears asking what purpose is served, in terms of building an audience and selling books, by giving a lacklustre performance of even the best work. There is a temptation, of course, to dilute one’s material in order to hold an audience—to read only comic poems, or narrative poems that are easy to follow. No harm comes of this until the writer lets awareness of the audience inhibit her or his adventurous spirit, and begins to write with the limited attention span of the listening audience in mind. On the contrary, the writer should be trying to stretch the audience’s capacity for appreciation. Some—like the Toronto group Owen Sound who appeared at Tree this year, and the Ottawa group First Draft, who place poetry at the heart of their multimedia shows—combine the written word with elements of theatre, music and visual art, stressing above all other values the impact of the work as performance. Attempts to wed poetry with music and other arts take us beyond the realm of the public reading as such; but perhaps there has been an undue emphasis on the word “reading”, which has allowed ill-prepared, undramatic performances to frustrate the quest for a larger audience.
Readings don’t have to be dull, any more than poetry has to be stuffy or difficult. The most memorable reading of the year, for me, was in the Arc series, when well over a hundred people crowded into the basement of the Lord Elgin Hotel to hear Michel Tremblay read in English from one of his novels.
Tremblay is best known for his plays, of course; but on that night, with neither actors nor costumes nor lighting nor sets, he made his audience see his characters, and feel their humour and their rage. Fielding questions from the floor afterward he increased, rather than diminished, his audience’s esteem for him and understanding of is work. He even offered, for a second encore, to sing and dance. That would have been too much. The performance he gave had already convinced many that there is no need to make such compromises to popular taste in order to reach a wider audience through public readings.
A year and a half ago, when I was new to Ottawa and knew no one in the writing community, I stood up at one of Tree’s open readings and read from my recently published first book, In Transit. The featured reader that evening was Ottawa poet Christopher Levenson, and I made a point of mentioning that his first published collection, too, was called In Transit. On the basis of this affinity—surely not entirely coincidental—I became a member of the Arc poetry group, first by attending its writers’ workshop, then as a contributor and finally a distribution editor of the magazine.
Meanwhile, poetry readings had been serving their culture-building function. I had helped organize the first Ottawa Poetry Festival—a day and a half of readings—and edited the festival’s commemorative anthology, producing it with designer Carol English who would soon be designing the first publication under my own Ouroboros imprint. At further Tree and Arc readings, I got to know Ottawa poet Susan McMaster, and at her invitation attended some of the weekly meetings of First Draft—a discussion group of poets, new music composers and visual artists. At that time, First Draft was preparing its second annual collaborative group show. I was invited to read some of my poems in the show, and to be part of a “performance poetry” trio. The performance poetry—poems by Susan McMaster scored for human voice as a musical instrument by Andrew McClure—excited me as a genuine union of music and poetry, which treated as primary the aural qualities of words and rhythms, and the public performance of the work. In rehearsing these pieces with the group, I realized that my own poetry presented dramatic possibilities for a solo speaker which I had barely begun to explore in my conventional readings.
I memorized the poems I was to recite in the show, and endeavoured to bring the meanings of the words off the page, using tone, pitch and action as an actor might. As my voice coach, the show’s artistic director Sharon Burke, said, the audience would have only one opportunity to hear my words, to “get” my poem, so I must use all the resources at my command to bring it to life for them. She was right. No matter whether the audience is large or small, the removal of the text—too often a barrier—establishes an intimacy between poet and audience. Without the necessity (or luxury) of reading, I was able to make eye contact with my listeners, to speak directly to them, and to seize upon their positive responses, concentrating the “flow of energy” of which actors often speak. Poetry performed this way can be far more effective, in public, than if the poet’s eyes are leashed to the page. Far from betraying or watering down the poetry, such a performance enhances the work for both reader and audience. It requires the poet both to know his or her material very well, and to know the capacity of his/her voice and body to express that material.
When I go to a poetry reading, now, and see a talking head behind a podium “reading” rather than communicating, I am reminded that the fault is not in the stars if poetry readings fail to instill in the literate public the excitement and conviction, even the enlightenment, that has gone into the poet’s writing. Not all writers want to, or should, expend the creative energy required to transform their works from written into spoken art. Their time might well be better spent in a silent room, perfecting the craft and art in which they are uniquely gifted. But there are writers for whom the poem is its performance, the story is its telling, who can spellbind a small crowded room in the way Homer and the first poets long before Homer did their small audiences. For these rare artistic experiences (as well as to meet friends and sell books) I continue to go, hopefully, prepared for disappointment, sometimes with manuscript in hand, to poetry readings in Ottawa.
For the third part of “Between the Eclipses” go here.