In the summer of 1945, in Holland awaiting repatriation, my father wrote and distributed a tabloid magazine for the members of his Royal Regiment group. Of course it included an interview with his chaplain and personal friend, Rev. Curry, who gave him some packages from home that could not be delivered, to help out. Thus my father “sold dead men’s cigarettes on the streets of Utrecht to pay the printer.” Here’s a poem I wrote much later:
The day peace was declared
he stood ankle deep in the flooded Rhine.
While squadrons of air command passed overhead
he walked out into a pitted field
and said to himself, What now?
I’m out of a job.
That summer he kept busy
writing, designing, collecting stories
for his regiment’s tabloid.
Sold dead men’s cigarettes on the streets of Utrecht
to pay the printer.
At home he worked behind a desk
accounting for products he had no hand in.
He ran an office here or there,
moved cities, joined clubs, had a hobby or two.
And on cool spring nights
he sometimes went walking
out beyond the streetlights where
he’d stop and stare up
at the starless sky.
- Colin Morton
With the albums of snapshots
pretty as a postcard
go the half-spent rolls of wrapping paper,
old Time and People magazines,
half jars of relish,
the dried pens she meant to buy refills for,
and my mother’s button jar
I used to sort – coloured and clear ones,
navy buttons with anchor insignia –
beach pebbles picked up on travels,
seashells in which you can hear the tide,
all the memories that once clung to these things
like coral to stone.
since our own weigh heavy already
and we want to travel light when we go.
The snaps we once made fun of, these we keep,
if only to bury in closets of our own:
Mom in front of a mountain or cathedral
smiling with friends none of us knew
or knew she knew, on field trips we
were no part of, with X and Y,
without Z, who must have been behind the lens.
Furniture went first, to family or friends in town,
the Sally Ann, or just as far as the curb;
hazardous lamps with hanging heads and scruffy cords;
the toaster that either scorched or left the bread limp;
unreadable diskettes with copies of letters
we discarded soon after they arrived at our doors.
The walker and oxygen tanks go back to the clinic
where someone is breathlessly waiting.
Garbage bags of unsorted debris pile up at the door,
and someone has to rummage
for the coffee maker discarded in haste,
for now her apartment is bare
we can’t just lock the door and go
the way she did, too suddenly.
So we stand, door open,
for last goodbyes, one more story.
We have been too hasty,
impatient to finish the unwanted job.
The coffee is stale, she long ago lost the taste for it.
But we linger at the kitchen counter,
nowhere left to sit,
and wonder which of us will be next
to impose this burden on the others.
A story that always made us laugh
has a hollow echo now.
We look into one another’s eyes
a bit longer than usual, uncertain
who should take her keys and lock the door.
I ask myself, how often will my writing be included in an anthology with Louise Gluck, W.S. Merwin, C.D. Wright and the rest, and my answer is, this bears repeating. Here is my poem from Poem in Your Pocket. You can download a free copy of the anthology from the Academy of American Poets or from the League of Canadian Poets.
Ottawa publisher rob mclennan celbrates 25 years of above/ground press. Here’s my tribute, one of many
Around 1993, the books editor of the Citizenphoned me to ask, for an article, who were to most promising Ottawa poets under 25. I waffled a minute, saying that 25 is young to be judging a poet, it takes years to develop, then named the most active young poet I knew, rob mclennan. “But isn’t he mainly an impresario?” replied the editor, who had been talking to others before me. I admitted that may be true, but rob got his own back a few years later, winning a national award as most promising under 30. He has not slowed down since, showing what I’ve always said: that persistence, stubbornness, is half of what it takes to be any kind of artist.
I don’t remember at what Ottawa reading or literary event I first met rob, but first he wasn’t there, and then he was everywhere, organizing readings, handing out poems on single sheets of folded coloured paper, publishing magazines and chapbooks, often of his own lines and verses, but including everyone from the established and the iconic (George Bowering) to the newly arrived (Stephanie Bolster) and the aspiring student at Canterbury high school.
On the tenth anniversary of above/ground press, rob organized a reading and asked those of us reading to write a poem for an instant anthology. My poem was called “Ten Reasons for Staying Above Ground” and included, among the ten, “to see what rob gets up to next.” He hasn’t disappointed. There’s always something new, and the Internet has only amplified the range of his hyperactivity.
Mainly an impresario? It’s hard to maintain that about a writer with such a bibliography, but even if so, isn’t that great for the many he has helped? I’m still curious about what he’ll do next.
To get ready for some renovations in the basement, I am shedding books. Shelves have to go, and so do most of their denizens.
Trimming the bookshelves has become a pastime in recent years, as I have moved to smaller digs and must make room for the books I continue to buy every week or so. This time, the trimming is radical. I have four messy piles: books and printed matter to recycle; books to trade in at the used bookstore; books to give to charity; books I’ll keep, at least until next time.
Trashing or recycling books seems reckless, but these ones have yellowed over the decades, or been read to tatters, and may have already been passed over by the bookstores. Along with them go dozens of the literary magazines I read and aspired to publish in back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (and later). I’ll keep the ones that do have my writing in them, for now. It’s interesting to look at the tables of contents and see not only friends but other writers I know now but didn’t know when our poems and stories and reviews were published together.
The signed and inscribed books, especially, are not for discarding. I don’t want my friends finding a copy of their own book on a discount shelf somewhere, their warm greetings to me on view to the curious. Even after my death, I’d prefer that they stay together, these three or four hundred personal invitations to art. I doubt, however, that there are enough libraries or poets’ centres or archives to make room for all these collection of preserved moments – for certainly hundreds of my fellow poets have similar book collections on their shelves.
Unfortunately, I know what will happen to a lot of these collections. After the death of the person who owned and cherished them, the books will be discarded by the harried inheritors – sold by the box at estate sales, broken up to disparate collectors, pulped, discarded, turned into cardboard boxes. This is the way of all things: they decay, they annoy, they take up space, they are taken care of to make space, they are gone, forgotten. There is a long history of lost books, and the digital age will not bring it to an end.
Against mortality, however, I’ve decided to look again through all these book signed to me personally, to remember the poet I shared a moment or an evening with, or many evenings over a lifetime, to appreciate that, yes, though I seemed most of the time to be waiting, striving, failing, I was also living the life of a writer, sharing that life with other writersThe bookstores are picky about what they will take in trade. For some, they already have enough copies; for others (especially the contemporary poetry books I’ve collected in the hundreds) there is no demand, and sometimes even disparaging remarks. The rejects can go to charity.
The keepers, of course, include books I’ve written myself and haven’t yet sold (if you want to have one, five dollars includes shipping); also books I still intend to read and ones I know I will reread – the books I love. Then there are the many books that have been inscribed to me by the author when I purchased them at a reading or festival. These will find a place on my shelves somehow. Still, in the midst of those messy piles, I take to time to look at them again, to read a few pages, and to enjoy the inscriptions written on the title page by the proud authors.
To linger over these shelves is to look back on what has been a long career in the ranks of aspiring writers. It’s a way of reconnecting with writers I’ve befriended over the years. And it’s a reminder that I’m one of them, regarded with respect by people I admire. Of course, there are many formulaic greetings among them: “best wishes,” “with respect” and so on. Some, often from first-time authors, are kind of humorous: “thanks for buying this book.”
Then there are the ones that remind me of strong bonds of friendship and the places those bonds were formed. Many years ago, I moved from Western to Eastern Canada, and the move is commemorated in some of the signed books on my shelf: “We miss you out west!” writes a Governor-General’s Award winner. Another, on a visit east, writes “in friendship, like poetry, that shows itself from time to time, and yet is always there.” Yet another prize-winner recalls, in his inscriptions, the first time we met: “with admiration and thanks for a fifteen year connection” he wrote in 2004, and in 2013, “thanks and admiration after 25 years.” Some writers will quote a line from the book they are signing, or will refer to the title of a book of mine. Others thank me, and I take a moment to recall what I might have done for them, and perhaps to regret that we have not kept in closer contact over the years.
Then there are the poets I will never be able to reconnect with because they have died. Only now do I wonder what became of the books I signed for them. (No, I’m afraid I already know.)
It’s a great privilege to have these books as a record of my life as a poet. Yet every shelf of books we choose to keep is a testament to a life as a reader. It isn’t easy to let go. It would be a tiny home indeed that had only one bookshelf in it. I am not at that extreme yet, and I don’t want to contemplate which books I would have to dispose of if I were. Time is eroding my mental space now, and in the end it will devour all. In the meantime, I’m taking a moment to look at each item as it leaves the shelves and is sorted into one of the piles. It’s a bit discouraging – so much effort gone to trash – but also very rewarding to have these reminders. I’m sure I will go down this well-worn path again someday.
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.
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.
And 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
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
- 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 –
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 ditch
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
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.
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.
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.
rings of sound
surround the horizon
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
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.”
The “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.