Summer in review

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I’ve been quiet here, but a few things have been happening this summer. It’s the season for poetry in the park, and it began on Canada Day weekend, with readings at ArtFest in Kingston, Ontario, a fun gathering of artists, craftspeople and, in the big tent, poets. I was one of about 60 readers over the 3-day weekend, most of us included in a commemorative anthology edited by Kingston poetry impresario Bruce Kaufman. You can listen to the reading here.

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Home in Ottawa, small groups gathered to read poetry along the Poets’ Pathway, a 35-km trail through the green space around the city, the tramping ground of Canada’s “Confederation Poets” in the late 1800s. Here poets Mary Lee Bragg and Ronnie R. Brown confer under the trees on a summer Sunday afternoon.

On a sunny August evening, Ottawa poet Susan McMaster read with guitar accompaniment in an outdoor courtyard downtown.

Near the end of summer, on September 9, the Poet’s Pathway celebrated the completion of its mission by unveiling the last of 14 bronze plaques scattered along the length of the pathway, featuring poems by 19th century poets like Archibald Lampman and Pauline Johnson.

Our mayor and other officials turned out in tribute, and some stayed for a poetry reading by Canada’s poet laureate, George Elliot Clarke and Ottawa’s two (French and English) laureates, Andree Lacelles and Just Jamal the Poet.

20170909_163629And as fall begins, the literary life starts to get busy again. For a poet, however, being busy can look a lot like idling. It’s the quiet we seek, so we can hear our own inner voice and try to get down what it is telling us. Poet and blogger rob mclennan ask me to blog about my “typical writing day” and you can read about it here: https://mysmallpresswritingday.blogspot.ca/2017/09/colin-morton-my-small-press-writing-day.html

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The Ghost of Burwash Hall

What to get Dad for Father’s Day … something I never wondered while he was alive, since he had no patience for such things. Five years after his death, here’s what I have: a series of poems, including a couple of actual quotations from his unpublished memoir, acknowledging that the central event of his life took place before I was born yet overshadowed his life, and to a lesser extent, mine, ever after. I was able to show Dad a few of these poems before he died, and he seemed content that, although I was a writer, I wasn’t a complete loss. Most of this series made it into my book Winds and Strings.

 

The Ghost of Burwash Hall

  1. No. 1 Canadian Army Course, University of Toronto, 1943

The regimental portrait curls at the ends

from years in the closet rolled in a tube

but the eye still goes to one face in the centre.

Among a hundred and more in uniform

on the stairs of Hart House, the camera

lingers on one young recruit who,

as officer material, has grown a moustache.

All autumn he plotted trajectories –

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charges needed to bring down the vaulted

gothic university towers

mock gargoyles, latin inscriptions and all.

Humid nights in the college dorm

he lay sleepless till he could lie no more

then wandered the stairwells like the colonel

who in passing dubbed him Ghost of Burwash Hall.

 

A year on, he passes unnoticed

between the lines of a flooded battlefield.

No witness remains to sign for his medal.

Either his unit is lost or he is.

Only sleep is his reward,

a dry place and an hour’s sleep.

 

2. The Door

Sixty years later, showing holiday slides,

his breath quickens at the sudden image

of a wooden door in an old stone wall.

He spent an hour, he says, searching the village

he once helped free, at last found the dairy –

stone floor still showing the wear

of generations’ wooden shoes,

and the door that saved his life.

One morning, in search of his unit

after a night behind the lines,

he turned a corner nearly face to face

with  a squad of Germans retaking the village

street by street and house by house.

He backed away into shadow

while dairy workers kept skimming cream

and wrapping cheese as if they didn’t see him

for a look or word could bring down fire.

 Somehow, short of breath,

he pauses to light a cigarette, somehow

I shrank behind this door.

His breath comes heavy as if he’s still there

staring at scarred wooden planks while

a ghost of smoke drifts through the projector’s light.

How I got out of that village

or found my way back to my unit

is what I’ll never know.

 

3. Deep into the Lines

We wore no divisional or regimental badges or flashes.

We each had a rifle, a Sten gun, one of the new P-38 pistols,

camouflage jackets, black berets instead of the regular brown ones,

and I had the knife I made in Ghent from a bayonet.

Never went anywhere without it.

We stripped our weapons down to bare essentials.

Slings removed from rifles,

stocks and slings removed from Stens.

Knives securely strapped to the leg,

and we wore balaclavas instead of helmets.

Occasionally if we were on a perimeter check,

and the night was cold and crisp

we would remove our boots and stash them on the trail.

This would cut down any noise our hob-nailed boots would make.

We did not however go deep into the lines without our boots.

 

So you slog through the blood and shit of a European war. You stare through the fog at the ghostly cliffs of Dieppe and swear at the universe. Ride in tin-can troop carriers being bombed by the Luftwaffe and RAF. Scrub your mess tin out with sand and learn to live with diarrhoea. Learn to kill for a living with gun, grenade or bayonet; no commission.

 I heard a sound behind me, and thinking it might be Jack or Harry,

I rolled over and found a Hitler Youth looking down at me

with his Schmeisser pointed at my chest.

 I tried to bring my Sten to bear,

but I had rolled onto it, and it was partly beneath me.

 The German pulled his trigger, but the Schmeisser jammed,

I lunged and my Belgian bayonet knife

came up below his rib cage and into his heart

without a noise being made.

 I think I shook for about two days after that

and was given that much time off.

 

 One day you are pinned down by sniper fire, hit once. Your buddies on either side of you die before your eyes. You go into shock and wake up on a stretcher. Through a night of pain your only comfort is the darkness. A tin can drags you through the ruts and ditches of Normandy to a field hospital under canvas. Drinking water. Sleep

 

4. With Distinction

A qualified dispatch rider

he rebuilt an Indian found in a ditchart45

and gave it to his captain.

Offered a post on the sniper team

he chose instead to be a scout

so he’d depend on no one

and no one would have to depend on him.

Thanks to As in high school

he was sent with a band of Free French

to rescue their captured leader from a church

– carried her broken frame in his arms

all the way to safety.

His sister being deaf he knew sign language

and so was chosen for one last mission:

thrown from a low-flying plane before dawn

– parachute on a short string –

with orders to creep close to the prison wire

and tell POWs not to revolt

but sit tight and wait for rescue by noon.

Seems now I was always on my own

seldom knew where my unit was.

Tomorrow, yesterday, nothing mattered

I guess it’s a kind of freedom.

 

5.The Hand Grenade

It sat on a shelf by the telephone

with bowling trophies and souvenir seashells

Pineapple shaped to spray blunt steel

when the pin’s spring-loaded

rod strikes the cap that lights the fuse

Pull the pin, release and throw

before the deadly count of seven

U.S. Army issue accepted in trade

when orders came down banning enemy gear

taken home as souvenirs

The disarmed grenade sat on a shelf

a fossil from explosive times

in the gloom of black-and-white TV movies

I lay awake in bed rehearsing

the  release   the lob   the count of seven

 

6. Battle Fatigue

Years afterward he slept till five

on a Sunday afternoon

Sleepwalked through two divorces

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with little more than a wounded grunt

 

A widower now

 

he dozes through the game of the week

Between innings switches to the history channel

 

to revisit the foxholes of his youth

 

Though he lives alone he still goes outside

to smoke beneath the stars

 

 

7. The Royals attacked at 0200 hours (it was always 0200 hours)

 

At two in the morning my father

trying to get some sleep

is ambushed again by a moment’s memory.

A path through snowy fields, a towering fir

– beneath it huddled round a coffee pot

men in Yankee uniforms.

Were these the ones he was sent to find?

he wonders decades later

trying as always to get to sleep.

Who sent him, with what message

he cannot recall, so much

is foggy from those days.

Patrolling alone toward dawn

he remembers only a snowy field

a tall tree, a circle of uniformed men.

 

 

 

Between the Eclipses 4

To conclude my view of poetic life in pre-Internet Ottawa begun in the three chapters below:

MerzbookDespite 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.

primitiPrimiti 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.


Capital Poets backAugust 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 paspoets-89sage 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.

Between the Eclipses 3

Another look back at Ottawa arts in the Eighties, now venturing into multimedia and intermedia works:

In the fall of 1982, Susan McMaster invited me to join First Draft, which met at a local restaurant to share and discuss current work by a diverse group of artists, musicians and writers interested in creating collaborative works. Key members were Susan’s brother Andrew McClure, a composer and the group’s creative catalyst, artist Claude Dupuis, Peter Thomas, a writer then involved with the amateur theatre group SRO, singer Paula Quick, and pianist Michael Assad. Soon to join the group were flutist David Parsons, artist Roberta Huebener and her musician husband Alrick, my artist friend Carol English and her writer partner Andrew Coward (by then one of the organizers of the Tree reading series). When I joined, First Draft was planning its “second annual group show,” an inter-media performance at a local theatre, and in short order I was invited to take part. I was given the tenor part, between Susan and Andrew, in the performance-poetry trios they had recently published as Pass This Way Again with the Coach House off-shoot Underwhich Editions. And I rehearsed an action-packed recitation of “Poem Without Shame,” which had just appeared as the first broadsheet from my Ouroboros imprint. A second broadsheet, “Seven Poems” by Susan McMaster, with art by Claude Dupuis, came out in time to be sold at the First Draft show. The performance enjoyed a sold-out two-night run that February at Theatre 2000 in the Byward Market area – the last show at that closing theatre – and the energy it generated carried over through the winter and spring, as a quartet of us – Andrew, Susan, David Parsons and I – gave a series of performances in Toronto, Saskatoon and the Banff Centre. Again, what I wrote in the 1980s brings back some of the creative ferment that arose from First Draft’s weekly meetings and frequent rehearsals and performances. What follows is a sketch of what we were doing in 1983.

*

Looking Backward: At the Still Point of the Turning World

(from The Scream: First Draft, The third annual group show, Ouroboros, 1984)

For its Second Annual Group Show, First Draft enlisted the aid of some of its friends – classical and jazz musicians and a voice chorus — to create an evening of music, poetry, and theatre. This “variety show” was successful, but left both audiences and participants uncertain about just what First Draft is. Over the next few months a core group of members concentrated on building a small, cohesive group of creator-performers who, combining their work in various media, would have its own identity. All wanted to bridge the arbitrary boundaries between the art forms, and were convinced that there was much to learn and a special kind of energy generated from collaboration with artists in other media. Of course, to write a piece of music is a very complex thing, but to collaborate

is more complex still. And just as there are many ways to write a poem, there are many ways to collaborate. What follows is a vastly oversimplified summary of one of them.

June 1983: Wednesday night at the RR tavern, First Draft calling for seconds. The spring shows all post-mortemed, the group looks forward again. Cast: Andrew McClure, Susan McMaster, Colin Morton, David Parsons, Peter Thomas.

– I feel as though we’re poised on the verge of something, but it’s hard to know which way it will go.

– That’s it! That’s what our next piece should be about, should be like… Think of it this way. When you throw a ball up in the air, there’s a point in its arc when it isn’t moving. The force of the throw is balanced by gravity and just for a second it is still, poised on the verge.

– All its kinetic energy is turned to potential energy.

– What you’re talking about, isn’t it, is the moment of decision, the moment before decision, that holds in it all possible futures.

– The point of greatest tension, just before it’s released and channelled into action.

– The second before orgasm.

– All right, but words like that can be too explicit. Saying it directly releases the tension, and it’s the tension itself we want to capture. We should work from that idea, as we each understand it, and translate the concept into music, poetry or whatever.

– Okay. Let’s think about it and see what develops in the next week or two.

A week or two later:

-You’ve written a poem? Let’s see it.

– It’s only words, really. I’m not sure it leads anywhere.

Quaking, lightening, storming

the world hangs by the thread of a nerve

it spins in a water drop

arcing through light (etc. etc.)

– This is a good, chant-like beginning. What I’d like you to do, thoug – Music needs plenty of time and repetition, so could you write another stanza or two distilling these ideas in a kind of refrain?

– I can try. That’d be a departure, wouldn’t it? The poets writing to fit the musical ideas, rather than the composers taking ready-made poems — like librettos — and setting them.

– It’s more like real collaboration — building the piece together, from first draft up.

– Actually, our earliest collective pieces weren’t true collaborations in this sense. The first pieces we did, or that Andrew and Sue did — the performance poetry — came about because Andrew wanted to use spoken voice, and instead of taking a poem by Shakespeare or Eliot he looked over Sue’s poetry.

– And the ones I chose were her older poems. They were simpler, for one thing, and they expressed a coherent whole, whereas her new work is still moving toward something that hasn’t been fully defined yet.

– When Colin joined the group, too, it was one of his older poems, published in book, that Andrew chose to set to music first. So although it’s their collective work, they        didn’t work out the idea together.

– The mandala piece — Pass this Way Again — was more of a true collaboration. Sue and Andrew had worked together enough by then, and intensely enough, that they were able to develop the poem together — Sue was able to exploit the musical potential of layering voices, and to use a sound-grammar, rather than the ordinary syntax of linear poems.

– And of course Claude was involved in that, creating those large mandala pieces that we moved around the stage in the Second Annual Show.

– But there again, the mandalas — the original paintings — are earlier works of      Claude’s. He developed the theatrical idea with Sue and Andrew — making the image change over time, as music and poetry move through time —

– But it still follows the pattern. An artist or writer gets involved with First Draft because there is something in his or her previous work that clicks with what the group is doing.

– Colin’s visual and sound poems, for instance, and David’s musical pieces based on literary texts.

– By now, though, we should understand each other well enough — and our ways of working — to develop something from the concept.

– This new piece will be the test of that.

– Let’s get busy, then, and prove it can be done.

 

While the poets respond to the concept directly, intuitively, the musicians devote their attention to the structure of the work as a whole. They define it as a ten-to-twelve minute piece which follows the classic a, b, al form of development, beginning with a theme which, through development, is transformed into something beyond itself.

More time is devoted to ways of achieving the desired sounds. The musicians play flute and cello, but the poets, the other creator-performers, will be required to make musical sounds too. That means building instruments that they, with their limited musical training, can play. At first, a water gong is considered — a gong that is struck then immersed in water, causing the pitch to drop and creating an eerie sound. The group is excited, too, about the visual impact of stage lights shining through the water. But common sense prevails. The water gong would be a large, cumbersome piece of equipment capable of only a limited range of sound. Instead, chimes are made of copper plumbing pipe. National Research Centre scientists advise on the relationship of pipe length to pitch. Andrew, the instrument-maker, finds that if hung by threads in pre-established rows, the chimes can be set in motion and will continue to make patterned sounds for minutes at a time.

 

July by now:

– More words? You poets are fast.

The knife before it falls – Blade of light

                        The stone before it breaks – Earth calm

                        The brass before the stroke – Grave light

                        The pool before the wind – Leaf or palm

                        The glass before it shatters – Ring of shell (etc.)

– Of course these are only lines. There’s no sense of form or development in them. We’re counting on you musicians for that.

– Fair enough. Of course your lines are very different from the other ones we had, but that’s all right, we’ll want to move forward by contrast.

– And the vocabulary is not all that different either. Here’s what I’ve written of the refrainyou asked for.

Silence rings

                        rings of sound 

                        surround the horizon  

                        rising, singing 

                        drops of sound

                        burst on the surface of time (etc.)

– That was written with the water gong in mind, of course –

– That’s all right. It goes just as well with the glass harmonica I’ve decided to build.

-What the hell is a glass harmonica?

-Well, you know how you can make a humming sound by running a wet finger around the rim of a wineglass?

– Oh, you’re joking.

– No, listen. The pitch you get from the glass varies with the depth of the wine, or the water, in the glass. Also the thickness of the glass, its shape and so on, but chiefly the depth of the water. I’ve been trying them out in stores. So if we get, say, twelve wineglasses and fix them to a sounding board, then we can make a twelve-tone row.

– Sure, and use coloured water with stage lights and –

-And of course, we don’t have to stick to the regular notes of the piano scale. We coulduse, for example, all whole tones, or any exotic scale we choose.

– I’d really have to hear it –

– Sure, but imagine, this eerie sound builds up, builds up –

– Then we really go punk and smash all the glasses!

– Don’t you dare! The cheapest ones I can get are five dollars each.

 

Over the next two months, a triple set of chimes is built. Two sets of wineglasses tuned with water are cemented to boards in patterns so they can be rubbed by thumb and middle finger, up to four at a time by each player. Eerie interstellar sounds result that complement and amplify the atonal harmonies of flute and cello. Rehearsals go forward page by page as the score is written, argued out and rewritten. Amid doubt, confusion and a desire to revise yet again, the tension rises. One hour before the first performance, the group walks through the piece, emphasizing tone and dynamics.

– It starts with a crash of the chimes. Frantic voices. Shout your words out, the order doesn’t matter. Gradually fade to whispers as you reach your instruments and the flute begins its long crescendo. As the cello joins in, the poem begins, strong, deliberate.

Quaking, lightening, storming…         

– Then, when the instruments hold on the top note, the voices turn lyrical, expressive.

Dancing inside the inside…

– Be sure to make your whispers audible.

– Next comes the heavily accented part. Give it lots of energy.

In-the fluid-kick-of-cell-in the hook-of-claw

– As flute and cello die away, the voices turn lyrical, whispering. Now the glass bells begin, ringing gently. All five voices end in a whisper.

The wings before they lift

                        hold

                        four roaring tons of atmosphere.

– Chimes. Let them almost die away. Then the light, breathless chant.

Silence rings, rings of sound.

– Go quickly now, to contrast with the following section. Then chimes again, glasses struck with wooden mallets, imitating the chimes.

To the point of—

                        the edge of—

This slow section is creating suspense, anticipation.

– Now crash of chimes! All five voices together, very fast and loud, but still lyrical.

At the height of, at the height of,

                        is this, here now, at the height of.

– Don’t miss the dynamics, from pianissimo on here now to double forte on the point of.

– From here on everything slows, and yet builds up, becomes more intense. The flute and cello duet. Don’t worry if it’s not in your score, you won’t need it. Wait for the solo spoken voice. Now the glass harmonicas hum, whine, alternating with glass bells.

For an instant, no shatter, no death.

– Cello solo builds tension further, along with the regular pattern of bells. Something’s got to happen, the audience can feel it. The glasses hum and whine, stretching out this high-pitched moment.

– Now that single line from the Eliot poem: at the still point of the turning world… Hold the A-glass till the flute takes over the note. Now, joy! Explosion, acceleration!

Water falls upwards, bursts into crystal,

                        birds, light, wing into blue!

– Bells, flute, crash in over.

“Pretentious” – Jacob Siskind, Ottawa Citizen

 

End of October, SAW Gallery, Ottawa:

At the final crash the chimes fall off their stand, but it doesn’t matter. The performers look at each other and grin. The air is still vibrating. There is no silence before the applause. In spite of everything, because of everything, the piece actually works.

A week later, after another performance at Carleton University, First Draft receives two typed pages of comments from an Ottawa composer. “I think you are nibbling at the edges of something, not just more edges… You are ‘at the point of, on the edge of, at the beginning of’ something new.”

*

Scream pageThe “something new” that First Draft produced in the follow year was a book; more precisely, it was a “performing book” billed as the group’s “third annual group show” – The Scream. The book, published through my little press Ouroboros, was in large part the brainchild of Claude Dupuis, who designed each page, filling even the margin with notes, drawings, flip-books and collages. I typeset galleys onto a nine-inch floppy disk on an AES typesetting computer in the National Press Building. The First Draft poets and composers contributed work, permitting Claude to present them in the context of his own art and that of Carol English. The group also collaborated on a performance piece “How to Scream” that featured yogic “tension positions” like Not Breathing, The Hang-up and The Mad Dash. And the whole thing was printed, under Claude’s watchful eye, by Glen Cheriton’s Commoner’s Press on Rideau Street. The artist’s book that resulted was an intense collaborative act that generated a lot of animated discussion at First Draft’s weekly meetings. Through it all, stage performances of music and poetry continued, mainly through the scaled-down group of Andrew McClure, Susan McMaster, David Parsons and myself. When the National Library published one of my sound poems in a CD collection of Canadian poetry, it was taken from a First Draft tape and attributed to First Draft.

For the fourth and last part of “Between the Eclipses” go here.

 

Between the Eclipses 2

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.

Poem without ShameDamn 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. Ouroboros 001Over 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.

 

Personal Epilogue

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.)