Friday, June 24, 2005

Sky Gilbert at the TREE Reading Series

On Tuesday, June 14th, Hamilton resident Sky Gilbert did a featured reading at the TREE Reading Series in Ottawa. Why can’t writers learn from theatre folk how to read? One of the most entertaining readings I’ve been to in a long time, it’s always the playwrights who really know how to perform anything, even if they’re just reading from a basement chair in a pub (I remember how good Jason Sherman was after he won the Governor General’s Award a number of years ago; the theatre folk always blew the others out of the water at those readings).

Reading from his fourth novel, An English Gentleman, published by Cormorant, he also read a number of poems, including this one that we requested, from his first poetry collection:

Why Kathie Lee Gifford Is Just
Like The United States Of America

She’s mean
She’s greedy
She’s very very pretty
And of course she’s a lying hypocrite
And of course she’s on TV every morning
And just like America, Kathie Lee Gifford is a drag queen
And what’s a drag queen?
Well, someone who just can’t stop drawing attention to
how pretty they are – I mean Kathie Lee, every time she
moves her legs or bats an eye or touches her hair, she
reminds you, in that subtle way she has, of how beautiful
she is and yes okay so she is beautiful but more than that
each gesture says I’m beautiful, so beautiful. And that I’m
barely, just barely, conscious of it. And on top of that I’m
intelligent (questionable) and vicious. I can be vicious. If
I have to, I can defend myself against anything and I’ll
still be beautiful: oooh I’m just stamping my little high
heels right now and removing a stray lock of hair with
my long long dangerous fingernails. Yes I can stand up
for what I believe and be glamourous too
And I believe in America (which means myself)
Kathie Lee Gifford
And I believe in fidelity and marriage and love (and all
the other lies)
And even when you find my husband’s fat hairy wrinkly
old dick up some forty-five-year-old Exercise Queen in a
hotel I can pull my life back together and lie
Like drag queens and the United States of America
I can lie
I can exploit Latina women in sweat shops and then I can
appear with President Clinton and I can lie
And you will love me, Kathie Lee Gifford
You will
But most of all, you will watch me on TV
Because that’s the way mornings are
Inescapable, the beginning of all that treachery and
drudgery and then there’s me, being more beautiful than
you’ll ever be
Look at me
I’m Kathie Lee
I’m some kind of an achievement

from Digressions of a Naked Party Girl (1998, ECW Press)

There is something quite brilliant about a Sky Gilbert poem; a dry, furious wit that tears through whatever he sets his eye on, from Kathie Lee Gifford to more recent poems about Winnipeg in his second collection.

All over theatre for a number of years, Gilbert helped found Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto, the first gay-only theatre company, and was artistic director for its first seventeen years. More recently, he’s not only published a number of plays, but four novels, and a couple of poetry collections.

Apparently there’s some review that appears in The Danforth Review about how Sky Gilbert isn’t a real poet because there isn’t any wordplay? Oh, get over yourself already.

Recently celebrating 25 years of operation, the TREE Reading Series is supposedly one of the oldest continuing reading series in Canada (with Harbourfront in Toronto & another in Montreal supposedly being older). The organizers, James Moran and Jennifer Mulligan, are currently putting together an anniversary anthology to be launched this fall to celebrate the series’ first quarter century.

The next TREE features Edmonton poet Andy "Mustang" Weaver launching his first solo collection, Were the Bees (NeWest Press), and Montreal fiction writer Nairne Holtz. One of my favourite humans, this will be Weaver’s first Ottawa reading in some time, and a long time after his first reading here, when he was mixed up with QWERTY magazine out of the University of New Brunswick and read at the National Archives in 1997 (a span-o event, even way back then). Apparently they have videotape of some of the activities at the time. Ask Andy or even Paul Dechene about that sometime.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Uncredited interview with William Hawkins (1978)

An uncredited interview with Ottawa poet William Hawkins from the long-defunct Ottawa literary magazine Sparks: Poetry Newsmagazine (January 1978, Volume 1, No. 11):

When you think of William Hawkins, you think of many things. Mordant wit. A presence in the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Ottawa. Some would add a certain madness.

The poet is tallish, solidly built, with a vague air of being ready for anything. (A fight? A revelation?). He wears a Fu-Manchu moustache and a Depression Era cap with a silver Maple Leaf stuck into it. Present occupation: Taxi driver. A man who works ten hours a day, and more.

There is a certain grimness there. Times are hard.

Hawkins was often in the public eye during the Sixties and early Seventies. Books of poetry. Rock and roll records. Sojourn with Ginsberg on the West Coast. Canada Council grant.

Surrealistic year in Mexico. Lately, he has not been heard from too often. Mention this to him and be the victim of a carefully-selected Hawkins grin (suggestions of the shark in Jaws and a character in a Dostoyevsky novel).

"I am retired."


"I am 37, but I have been retired since I was 33."



"Thirty-three, eh? The age of Christ . . ."

"I am anything if not a good Christian . . ."

Hawkins’ verbal thrust into Christian symbolism is not pressed further. He is not a mystic, but a flower child a dozen years older. Somewhat bitter. Almost never unfunny. The sardonic humor of the Irish is always a hovering presence. Hawkins will not deny the ethnic connection, one of the two sides of that divided, eloquent nation: the Protestant side. He is named after King Billy. (There is an English connection, too. Hawkins’ middle name is Alfred, for Alfred the Great, a fact revealed by Sparks, possibly for the first time. . .).

Hawkins is an Ontarian to the core, the dark, surprising other side of the province’s bland coin. His present literary project is to write a history of the Lebreton Flats, drawing from newspaper clippings, remembered tough guys, pool hall lore, etc. Part of his childhood and youth were spent in the area and he has an affinity for it, or at least its memory. But Hawkins’ reach as a writer and musician is at least federal. A long poem about Louis Riel is in his arsenal of poems-to-be. (Of course his reach is universal. How un-Canadian can you get than King Kong in Saudi Arabia?).

The presence in Ottawa of the man who went to Vancouver so long ago and then on to points south, may seem surprising.

Hawkins chuckles. "I told everybody that I went west, but I stayed right here." Recently, he has been acting definitely un-retired, having given readings in the Ottawa area that have convulsed audiences with laughter, often laughter with pain, a la Lenny Bruce.

Supporting himself in these non-boom times is a struggle and Hawkins does not skim lightly over it. But poetry is always easy. "I have never had to work at these things. When I wanted to write a song or a poem, it was just there."

So Hawkins stays, for now, at the center of Canadian federalism (or of folklore). He is not a weeping prophet. "I am not all that enthused by the state of the world," he admits. "Maybe I am a comic realist."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Wanda O'Connor's recent poems

If you’ve been paying attention at all, its been obvious that Ottawa poet Wanda O’Connor has been writing increasingly interesting poems over the past six to eight months. At the ottawa small press fair on June 18th, I picked up her most recent chapbook, So you’re thinking of reproducing (ImPress). A six page poem delivered in small fragments, it begins:

these are the slender points

sneaking in with dirty magazines, repeating
things we weren’t taught to say
fastened by teeth, it begins like this

you fled from

and it was close, too

you were a boat then
an angry thing, forming after your
rallying for salient kisses

O’Connor works through love and need at the same time she writes of resisting it, moving from "They say Jean Shrimpton ("the shrimp") dressed / like a bag lady. She invented the mini / skirt. It was scandalous." to a few lines later, writing "Don’t marry a rodeo superstar. / They will only break your heart." (n.p.). How to have all this want when you know it might not be good for you, as she writes of "an escape plan / enough music to drown in // my heart is an anchor" (n.p.).

A romantic at heart, she has been working a series of love / broken love lyrics for some time, slowly working out into the larger world. The small chapbook ends with this, the strongest fragment in the collection:

America we’ve been informed of your
exceptional talent.
America we are in love.

Your calcitrant hues of red and golden
the anticipation of opposites
is what we love.

America you have beautiful legs.

With her poetry increasingly informed by the work of Robert Creeley, Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson, Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt and Barry McKinnon (see my brief piece on her contribution to the "sex at 31" phenomenon), you can see the shifts as they develop in her line breaks, over the course of the poems she’s been publishing intermittently on her blog. Some move as breath, and others, as variations on the breath. It has been interesting to watch her move.

Through recently creating the chapbook / ephemera press ImPress, O’Connor been publishing odd little pieces by not only by herself, but by other local scribes, including Jesse Ferguson, Max Middle, Seymour Mayne and Sarah Ruffolo. Her own single poem sheet, "Proof in canon," is a long block of scattered lyric that echoes versions of the locus, another in her series of love / broken love lyrics that begins:

one day i’d like to. a long
economic. live in stretches
and skin. breaks of flocking,
the pancake of love. beast as
birds, as appearing to, in the
locality of sleep, in the
moment stalled of air.

Apparently off to Montreal this fall, O’Connor will be participating in the Creative Writing Program there. It will be interesting to see how she develops, amid the likes of Jon Paul Fiorentino, David McGimpsey and Stephanie Bolster. One can only hope that after ten years of living in the capital, she might eventually come back to us someday. At least for now, you can still get a hold of her through her Ottawa address, c/o 89 Spadina Avenue (upstairs), Ottawa Ontario K1Y 2B9 or by emailing her at

Sunday, June 19, 2005

REVIEW: Words for Trees, by Barbara Folkart, Ottawa Poet

Words for Trees by Barbara Folkart
Reviewed by Jesse Ferguson.
Beach Holme Publishing. Trade paper 120 pp ISBN 0-88878-436-8 $13.95 CDN $9.95 US.

Folkart’s first book of poetry consists of many finely crafted and sensuous poems; the collection as a whole attests to the sensitivity and uncompromising linguistic control of a seasoned poet.

The book is comprised almost exclusively of free-verse, yet the poems are carefully controlled. Folkart’s diction is sophisticated, yet accessible, and unlike many poets who seem to judge a piece’s worth by its abstruseness, she espouses a more natural aesthetic, letting each poem dictate its own linguistic elevation. In “Flight into Egypt,” she writes of “the angry roil of mountains in the dusk, / the sea glaciered / into a heat death all its own.” In contrast with this lofty diction are such lines as “a nice warm fuck in a nice warm bed” (from “View from the Void”). Folkart is willing, when the situation demands it, to use everyday speech in all its bluntness.

The rare instances in which Folkart’s language fails occur in such poems as “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” when her alliteration draws too much attention to itself. Lines like “bondaged / to bare blue bark” are slightly distracting. Aside from two or three such instances, Folkart delivers poem after poem filled with well-turned phrases that often lead the reader to repeat lines in admiration.

For the most part, Folkart’s images are precise and simple. Except on rare occasions she resists the urge to belabor an image with superfluous adjectives or other types of lofty, imprecise language. Thus, in “A Sudden Cold,” the effect of an early frost is described precisely in the lines
… Soon
they’ll be lunging to their knees,
the sunflowers, like the vertical
corpses in Sicilian catacombs
crumbling inside their Sunday-best.
Rarely does Folkart deliver a metaphor that does not bear scrutiny. One such rarity occurs in the poem “Sunday Morning in Fallowfield,” which closes on the lines “all morning the air boisters / through the big maples…. And underneath it all, eternity sieves grain by grain through the branches” (my emphasis). The poet, for the most part, avoids such terms as “eternity” and “infinity,” which are widely used by other poets, yet are difficult to employ in any fresh way.

Thematically, Folkart draws heavily upon the realms of visual art and music, with a special affinity for the French traditions. “Deux Déjeuners sur l’Herbe” plays on two paintings by French impressionist artists, employing the same softness of tone used by that school of art. Thankfully, however, Folkart’s poems are seldom as fuzzy and imprecise as the works of many impressionists. Thus, in the same poem, the female subject is described in precise terms as having “a plain and competent body— / stable, large-footed, with the big toe sticking out.” Folkart’s poetry reveals her deep love and understanding of many types of art; many of her best poems borrow from the languages of painting, music and even photography.

Above all, Words for Trees seeks to articulate the intense longings of the average human, longings that can be brought to the surface by even the most commonplace of occurrences. In “Clarinet Flesh,” the narrator remembers of a fellow musician, “it was Andy’s reedy grace / I wanted, his astringent / Slavic cheekbones, his pectorals.” In the poem “Id,” the speaker laments a disconnect with sexuality, saying,
for some, desire is the way back in:
… [but] my longing stands outside me, angel
of fire posted at the gates of me
to keep me out.
Often, Folkart projects the yearning of her personae onto trees, flowers or other elements of nature, but does so subtly, leaving the reader to put the pieces together.

In conclusion, Folkart’s poems bear the mark of an astute editor, of an uncompromising artist. One may wonder whether the poems are at times too crafted, too controlled, and that they might be more exciting if they contained more linguistic ‘wiggle room.’ The poems, however, are generally engaging both intellectually and emotionally. This collection is the perfect companion to a good bottle of French wine and one of Debussy’s préludes on a lazy summer evening.

If you would like to have something of yours reviewed by Jesse Ferguson, then email him at

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ottawa Literary Awards Winners Announced: Stephen Brockwell wins Archibald Lampman

Not only has Ottawa a rich literary history, but also an active writing community. Just ask local Ottawa literary archivist Steve Artelle, who recently told me a little about the lit history of the city, “Ottawa's literary environment arguably goes back to aboriginal oral traditions, though it was Samuel de Champlain's 17th-century journal entries that kick off a local Euro-Canadian literary tradition. In terms of poetry, the contemporary scene usually traces its roots back to the arrival of Archibald Lampman in the city in 1883.” Steve also provides historical literary walking tours in Ottawa’s downtown, and can be reached at

Given this history, it’s no surprise that the city honours area writers through an annual literary appreciation ceremony. Ottawa arts representative Faith Seltzer told me that the Ottawa Book Awards, one award portion of the literary ceremony, was introduced in 1986 through the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton Government Council. The awards origins were formed from the “Ottawa Literary Awards Ceremony, originally a culminating event of the Ottawa Valley Book Festival, a 10 day literary festival”. Each year an annual $2,500 prize is awarded in 4 categories: English fiction, English non-fiction, French fiction and French non-fiction. Two of this year’s winners were Poached Egg on Toast by Frances Itani and From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne by Valerie Knowles. The ceremony also acknowledged the best of show among the evening’s 10 different categories, such as the Canadian Authors Association National Capital Writing Award, this year presented to Betty Warrington-Kearsley, the Duncan Campbell Scott Non-Fiction Prose Contest, given to local musician and writer Alex Mortimer for his entry The Unsweet Science: Secrets of Semi-Pro Weight Guessing (a tale of how to make it as a carnival weight guesser), and the Ottawa Public Library Short Story Contest, awarded to John Blackmore, who reminded us to renew our library cards and to regard any unpleasant hike in the yearly tax assessment as our contribution to reading and supporting the library network. An articulate grade 8 student, Bushra Sultana Khan, wowed the crowd with her acceptance speech, winning in the young adult short story category for The Black Veil. Adult short story winner Gertrud Baer’s piece, written after immigrating from Germany, lingered for years in a drawer before she translated it to English, polished it up and submitted.

The literary awards also recognize the best book of poetry published in the capital each year, named after Archibald Lampman, former Ottawa first-rate metaphysical poet, and was bestowed upon local poet Stephen Brockwell for his collection Fruitfly Geographic. Accepted by Ronnie Brown, Stephen made special note of Ottawa being a very center of writing, and thanked the Ottawa International Writers festival and other local poets for making it so. Stephen tells me he received the news that he'd won by e-mail. I asked him if the award changed the way he views his writing or affects his placement or statement as a poet. He answers, "No...but there is a Vegas aspect [to] any such award: three jurors are not likely to pick your book because few books please everbody. Anyone who wins is fortunate... their work pleased the judges at that moment in time. I think it's important to be genuinely honoured--because the other work is also excellent." Brockwell also expanded on the difficulty of the judge's process and of those Ottawa poets that have been unfairly looked over, "In past years I've been personally astonished that so-and-so has not been on the short list, or that so-and-so didn't win. The judges have a tough job. And the editors of Arc have a tough job too. I'd personally like to see more awards for iconoclastic poets who step on toes and push boundaries. But that's my personal taste and if I'm ever on a jury and a book comes along that's strong and satisfies that aspect of my aesthetics, maybe I'll give it my vote. As far as my place... maybe it will result in Fruitfly having a readership of two hundred people!"

Of the awards winners, some of the winning entries will appear in the public library’s Preview, the Ottawa Citizen, and local publication Gristmill. For further information on the award categories, or the 2005 nominated authors, visit the City of Ottawa Web site at

Congratulations Stephen!

Wanda O'Connor