To conclude my view of poetic life in pre-Internet Ottawa begun in the three chapters below:
Despite being based in the government town of Ottawa, all this creative work did not go entirely unnoticed in the rest of Canada. Both The Scream and The Merzbook made it onto the curriculum of a few university literature courses. Open Letter, the Toronto magazine, featured Andrew McClure’s essay on the notation system he had developed for spoken voice performance. Excerpts from The Merzbook won a CBC literary award and were read on the network on Robert Weaver’s Anthology program. The network’s popular morning show host Peter Gzowski interviewed Susan McMaster about First Draft’s performance poetry and aired a few pieces from the WordMusic cassette the group recorded in 1985.
Thanks to the nation-wide reach of that CBC program, wordmusic was heard by a young animated filmmaker in Teeswater, Ontario, Ed Ackerman, who found the play of voices visually exciting. Ed wrote to Susan at the address she had given at the end of her CBC interview, and after an interval while the letter lay on the floor under her desk, she passed it on to me. Ed’s letter proposed a collaboration involving First Draft’s voices and his own “typewriter-animation” technique – in effect, another version of the kind of performing book we had attempted to create with The Scream. In my reply I admitted that I knew little or nothing about filmmaking, but that the notion of a film created entirely on a typewriter appealed to me. My concrete poems were, in fact, a kind of typewriter art, and it seemed a natural thing to set them in motion. I described the collaboration that followed in a brief article I later wrote for a special issue of Descant magazine.
The Making of the Making of a Primiti Too Taa
(This article first appeared in Descant 64/5, 1989..)
Watching Life Classes, I was one of those who thought the story was too corny: after twenty years of painting by numbers the young woman’s first student charcoal sketches become a one-woman show. Life isn’t like that, I said to myself; Art isn’t.
But life is more like that than I can sometimes believe. It happened to me. My first sketch of a film, conceived from start to finish in twenty-four hours, and realized in six weeks by animator Ed Ackerman, has been shown in festivals on four continents. Awards have come from across North America: Rimouski, New York City, Ann Arbor, San Francisco. When Ed and I brought Primiti Too Taa to the Rivoli on Queen Street in Toronto in 1988, the film already had a cult following: people who liked to play it forward, then backward, same speed, sound on, then forward again. Why only once?
A morning phone call from Ed Ackerman in October 1986 began the making of Primiti Too Taa. (We had never met, but had corresponded about making an animated film on a typewriter after Ed had heard some of First Draft’s poetry on CBC’s Morningside.) Ed was ready to do a test film, he told me on the long-distance line. He was in Toronto en route to Ottawa and wanted directions for driving to my house.
He was there in time for supper, and while it steamed he showed me on VHS some of the tests he had done so far. He also had a scrapbook crammed with typewriter drawings — grain elevators, meadowlark on the fence post, railway tracks to the horizon, all meticulously ‘coloured in’ and textured with lines of type.
He had never heard of concrete poetry, and it was with the shock of recognition that he leafed through the anthologies I showed him, along with my own chapbooks and postcards. Over a few hours of like discoveries, we settled on Primiti Too Taa as the film we were about to make.
I thought it a natural choice. It is a scherzo movement from the long sound poem Ursonate, sonata in primitive sounds, by German artist Kurt Schwitters, which I had been including in readings from my series of poems called The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems.
Primiti Too Taa is a highly charged bit of linguistic energy. Making a film of it was a tribute to Schwitters for the centennial of his birth in 1987, as Ackerman’s animation was a homage to Norman MacLaren, made a few months before MacLaren died.
In the hour of decision, though, we chose to make a film of that particular poem because it met certain real-world needs of independent filmmaking. First, Primiti Too Taa was the right length. The beautiful miniatures I had been performing with my collaborators in First Draft (Andrew McClure and Susan McMaster) each took under a minute to unfold; others of my pieces were five or six minutes in length and would likely demand elaborate animation. But the company in Toronto that developed film for Ed charged for a minimum of one hundred feet. That’s about two and a half minutes of film. Coincidentally, my improvisation based on the Ursonate lasted a little over two minutes.
What’s more, the sound poem was conceptually easy to ‘type.’ It demanded no shading of grain elevators with x’s and o’s. A single letter can become a character in this drama. When I say FFF, a file of F’s snakes across the screen. A few choruses of rakete rinzekete rakete rinzekete rakete rinzekete fill the screen with off-kilter letters until BEEEEEEE spirals out from the centre, obscuring the rinzekete’s and BO! scatters all the letters at once, clearing the field for the next verse of the poem. There is rudeness and growling in Primiti Too Taa, but in greater measure there is laughter and dancing.
Ed Ackerman’s first film, Sarah’s Dream, a Plasticine-animated story of Ukrainian immigration to Manitoba, has a sound-track recorded live, in real time, by a sound-effects crew of seven. At a presentation in the lecture theatre of the National Gallery, Ed showed two films side-by-side: Sarah’s Dream, the animation, and the voice and sound-effects crew recording the Sarah’s Dream soundtrack while watching the silent film on screen.
Primiti Too Taa was made in the opposite way. The sound-track was recorded first, the typewriter drawing laboriously synchronized to it later. The day after Ed drove to Ottawa to meet me, I was in Studio A of my friendly neighbourhood broadcaster, CKCU-FM at Carleton, recording the soundtrack for the film that was still barely a notion in our two heads. Then, with the soundtrack in the can ($18), Ed and I sat down to ‘do the storyboard’ — to outline the action of the film.
There must be some kind of story, after all. Not that anything needs to happen, but there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. I have always tried to use my visual imagination to the max in poetry, and never with as much freedom as in this collaboration, where Ed volunteered to do all the tedious typing. Together, we plotted the film verse by verse, word by ‘word,’ letter by letter.
Six weeks later we would meet in Toronto to line up the soundtrack with the finished film and catch any flaws. But Primiti Too Taa was effectively created during the hour or two after taping the soundtrack and before Ed climbed into his car, borrowing money for the oil and gas, to drive home to Teeswater, Ontario, where he typed the film. By the first week in December, Primiti Too Taa would be showing at the San Francisco Poetry Film Festival under a poster that said, You’ve seen the book, now read the movie!
Each foot of 16mm film has forty frames; a hundred feet has 4000 frames; 4000 sheets of paper for Ed to align and realign (how many times?) to make the giant flip-book that is a two and a half minute film. Ed Ackerman, who dreams in 70 mm, went on to remake the film in 35mm — the version that was shortlisted for a Gemini award — and finally built his own IMAX camera in order to see Primiti Too Taa full-scale.
Although I can call myself an award-winning filmmaker, I still know very little of the mystery that changes a concept, even a notion, into a big-screen daydream. But I’m sure this is not the way it’s done in Hollywood.
In the summer of 1986, Andrew McClure, the creative spark of First Draft, moved from Ottawa to Toronto. Although the group’s collaborations continued and even grew in scale over the next three years, the creative intensity of the mid-eighties gave way to a consolidation, a summing up of the work of the previous five years. Determined to take our performances from the concert setting that had been very successful to larger-scale theatrical productions, we welcomed as a new member Jennifer Boyes, a young theatrical director. Jennifer had recently arrived from British Columbia, and had an interest in experimental, lyrical theatre. The first major production she undertook was a workshop production of my Kurt Schwitters poems from The Merzbook. Acting as dramaturge, Jennifer helped me craft my collection of monologues into a stage play called The Cabbage of Paradise. She proposed to dispense with the biography of Schwitters, dividing the portrait of an artist into a drama involving three artists with diverse qualities – Hannah, a dada theorist; Max, a wild, instinctive creator; Kurt, the homme d’affaires that Schwitters himself sometimes seemed to his contemporaries. We put out a casting call, chose our cast of three from Ottawa’s acting community, booked the new theatre space in ArtsCourt, the converted courthouse on Nicholas Street, and began rehearsals. A distinctive feature of the production was a word-music “choir” of a dozen voices – actors, musicians and students – trained by Andrew McClure to provide vocal sound effects and performance-poetry interludes. Roberta Huebener provided a graffiti-like backdrop on poster paper. Although billed as a staged reading, the actors soon learned their parts, and the workshop production, which ran for two nights in the summer of 1988, looked and felt to me like a fully developed stage play.
The following year, Jennifer teamed with Susan McMaster and Andrew McClure to stage a workshop production of Susan’s poem sequence Dark Galaxies, in an elaborate setting that required at least a dozen actors to recite performance poetry while marching in choreographed patterns around the stage. After these two, for us, massive productions, First Draft had just about fulfilled its mission. Andrew and now David Parson had moved to Toronto, then Jennifer moved back to the west coast. First Draft continued for a year or two to give occasional performances, featuring Susan and myself, with Alrick Huebener and Peter Thomas. But, at least until the mid-90s when Susan and I again began collaborating with musicians, our creative collaborations took a breather.
Although in this telling it may seem that First Draft was a singular oddity on the Ottawa scene, the group’s work was only a part of a movement toward performance in literary and artistic practice. Around the time First Draft was performing with flute, cello, and glass harmonica, Ronnie R. Brown staged a dramatized version of her sequence of poems about circus freak-show characters, first with Michael Dennis and later, at the NAC Atelier theatre on King Edward Avenue, featuring the performance artist Richard Schacter. Performance art was a parallel movement, becoming active in artist-run spaces, notably SAW Gallery and Gallery 101, where I attended shows by Schacter, Paul Couillard, and Dennis Tourbin, who had recently moved from Peterborough. Tourbin had already published visual poetry and begun creating his word-based paintings, and memorably performed his October 1970/FLQ piece at Gallery 101 from behind a plywood frame shaped like a television screen.
Before the advent of the public Internet, radio played a large role in keeping the local community informed about writers and writing in Ottawa. In the 80s, Ronnie R. Brown hosted an early-morning Sunday radio program on CHEZ, called Sparks 2, after the short-lived 1970s little magazine Sparks, edited by Blaine Marchand. Sparks 2 was a fifteen-minute interview with a local or visiting writer, listened to by a small, dedicated group who probably drifted off to sleep soon afterward. Within a few years CHEZ withdrew even this time-slot, but replaced it with a more ambitious Sunday evening arts talk show hosted by Ken Rockburn. Across town, the Carleton University radio station CKUA offered a half-hour literary show on Tuesday evenings, hosted in the mid-80s by Louis Fagan, who sometimes conducted interviews and on-air readings while drunk. It was in the studio of CKUA that I recorded the soundtrack of Primiti Too Taa, during my lunch-break from work at Labour Canada, the day that Ed Ackerman visited me to make the animated film. And in the same studio, a year or two later, the First Draft trio recorded half-hour versions of our stage shows The Cabbage of Paradise and Dark Galaxies.
The National Library of Canada became an important reading venue for local writers from the late 80s under the direction of Randall Ware. The Ottawa Valley Book Festival held most of its events there, including the annual awards ceremonies, where I received the first Archibald Lampman Award, a prize for a new book by a Capital Region poet initiated through the efforts of one person, Blaine Marchand. I recall one morning when, walking from my car to my office at Place du Portage, I happened to meet Blaine on the way to his office, and he excitedly told me that my book This Won’t Last Forever had been chosen the winner. At the award presentation later, at the National Library, I met one of the judges, Jacques Flamand, poet and publisher of Editions Vermillion, with whom I would later work on the board of the Ottawa Valley Book Festival.
August 1989. A group of Ottawa writers gathered at the home of Blaine Marchand for a potluck dinner to celebrate the anthology Capital Poets, published by Ouroboros, the upstart little press my wife Mary Lee Bragg and I had started a few year earlier. As we worked our way towards the cake Blaine had prepared, the conversation turned to that evening’s lunar eclipse, and so the party moved from his second-floor apartment into his backyard, where we had an unimpeded view as earth’s shadow slowly darkened the full moon. Here we are in the picture, looking happy and fresh-faced: Blaine on the blanket beside the cake; Sandra Nicholls, Margaret (Slavin) Dyment, and Susan McMaster kneeling beside him; and in the chairs behind them myself, Nadine McInnis, John Barton, Mary Lee Bragg, and Holly Kritsch. Since that night, everyone in the picture has published books of poetry, many of us several times; five have won the Archibald Lampman Award; all except Holly, Susan and John have published books of fiction as well; and, although John and Margaret have left the city, the potluck dinner and the cake have had many successors. Yet in retrospect, that night of the eclipse seems to have closed a chapter in Ottawa’s literary history. The eighties were coming to an end. Having turned seriously to writing fiction, I would close down the little press called Ouroboros and retire from the editorial board of Arc magazine. Soon, John and Nadine too would end their terms as editors of Arc, which they had dubbed “Canada’s national poetry magazine.” First Draft, the inter-media performance poetry group Susan and I had been heavily involved with, was also winding down. And, foremost in our minds that evening, we were awaiting the inevitable news, which came a week or two later, that our friend the Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace had lost her struggle with cancer. Earlier on the evening of the eclipse, Susan had read us a draft of the poem she had been working on, linking the eclipse, and the passage of the Voyager spacecraft out of the solar system, with Bronwen’s tragic death. Blaine, too, would eventually write an elegaic poem for Bronwen.
Seven years earlier, shortly after Mary Lee and I moved to Ottawa from Vancouver, we had spent another summer night viewing a lunar eclipse, a night I wrote a poem about, a night that, in some ways, marked the beginning of my eighties decade in Ottawa. Our party and memorial beneath the eclipse in Blaine’s backyard seems now like the end of a chapter.
Already the space was shifting. At home, our teenage son was online, operating his own BBS bulletin board on the family computer. Within a few years, in 1992, the National Capital Freenet would bring the public Internet to Ottawa. Usenet, listserves, the World Wide Web followed, and the way we form literary communities (and communities of all kinds) changed radically. That story, I guess, is more familiar.