Tuesday, August 30, 2005

“ottawa” by Judith Fitzgerald


he descended the fire escape
with the coffee in my hand
and a guitar in his
was running down
my white wrist

you are sleeping
in ottawa
it’s another hot night
after the fashion
of steam and tendrils

the humidity and stains
hamper the delight
you take in your fingers
the audience has claims
on these hands

paul chartier
was on the steps
of the commons
while i was thirteen
in a gallery chair

his face was red
it was april and the washroom
was the high note
in his history
for that split second

stains and humidity
hang in this air
resembling war wreaths
the dried blood
angles its journey

down the porcelain wall
the body was changed
by its explosion
he jacked off with a bomb
the prime minister went white

the arm was holding
the back of the head splinter style
in perfect vertical symmetry
you are sleeping in ottawa
were sweating in fine hair

it gets god-awful hot
sometimes in those bars
and directly above
the spick and span urinals
paul chartier’s body comes violently to rest

I’ve always liked the kind of poetry that shoves itself into you and tears your heart out, and for that, Judith Fitzgerald is easily one of the best poets of the bunch, Canadian or otherwise. Writing a highly literate, emotional and musical lyric for years, she has been influenced heavily by both poetry and song, and by authors such as George Bowering and Leonard Cohen. The author of over a dozen collections of poetry, including The River (ECW Press, 1995), which was up for the Trillium Award, and the more recent collections Adagios: Iphigenia’s Song (Oberon Press, 2003) and Adagios: Orestes’ Lament (Oberon Press, 2004), the poem “ottawa” is from my favourite of her collections, lacerating heartwood (Coach House Press, 1977).

It was through this piece that I first heard the story of Paul Chartier, called “the mad bomber of Parliament,” and the focus of a brand new book on the subject, The Mad Bomber of Parliament, by Ottawa author James Fontana (Borealis Books, 2005). There are suggestions that had the story of Paul Chartier been American, there would have been five books and a movie out by now, instead of the first book on the event appearing only a few short months ago. Canada’s Guy Fawkes, but without the whole “burning in effigy” thing. The story is simple: he went in to the Parliament Buildings to blow up the House of Commons as it was sitting, and, as he went into the women’s washroom to fiddle with it, he succeeded only in blowing himself up. Why do they never discuss these things on the tours? Why is it these are the stories that almost never get told?

Editor Frank Davey wrote about the poem in the introduction to her Given Names: New and Selected Poems 1972-1985 (Black Moss Press, 1985):

Hidden subversively in the lyric collection Lacerating Heartwood is the poem “Ottawa,” which re-tells Paul Chartier’s self-destruction in his attempt to bomb the House of Commons. Fitzgerald depicts Chartier as a guitarist, the lyric performer, who takes “delight” in his “fingers,” and as the Narcissus who, oblivious to women, destroys himself with self-love.
[. . . ]
For Fitzgerald this story seems to inscribe the death of the lyric poem, the focussed song of unhappy male delight. In her work after this book, “poetry,” a discrete product of phallocentric male creativity, yields to “writing,” a process that transcends genre in the writer’s attempt to constitute or fictionalize her self (“First Persona Regular,” “First Persona the Second”) in words.

Always glossed over for being the Capital City, in the poem “ottawa,” Fitzgerald writes the things that Ottawa has always had but has never been known for, including bohemian tendencies and immutable heat, writing the “steam & tendrils” of any part of July or August, with her own personal mix of sex and violence. From her first book, Victory (Coach House Press, 1975), a long poem on a stripper in the Victory strip club, to her Edith Piaf in Beneath the Skin of Paradise (1984) and her more recent versions of Iphigenia and Orestes, Judith Fitzgerald has written through a deep sense of loss, and those that have been lost, from that dark underbelly of the heart. Through her poem from the capital, she works around and through that, from a place not known widely for its dark side; Fitzgerald’s “ottawa” encapsulates a real, and human, part of the city in quick succession, writing a brief moment that includes the whole world of the heart.

Friday, August 26, 2005

John Barton reads at Collected Works, September 8

Victoria poet John Barton will give a reading from his work at Ottawa’s Collected Works bookstore, on Wellington street at Holland, on Thursday, September 8, at 7:30 pm. The evening’s readings will pair Barton, former editor of Arc magazine, with poet Anita Lahey, who has edited Arc since Barton’s departure from Ottawa nearly two years ago.

Born and raised in Alberta, John studied with Robin Skelton at the University of Victoria and recently returned to the West Coast as editor of The Malahat Review. Employment with some of the top national museums kept him in Ottawa for two decades, though, and in that time he contributed enormously to the capital’s literary culture: helping to organize Tree readings and the Wilde about Sappho festival; co-editing Arc with Rita Donovan: keeping alive the Archibald Lampman Award for the best book each year by an Ottawa poet.

Residence in Ottawa was also a time of personal growth for Barton, who arrived in the city shortly after publication of his first book (The Poor Photographer, Sono Nis, 1981), followed by his his celebrated poetic portrait of Emily Carr, West of Darkness (Penumbra, 1985). In Ottawa, his writing tackled the issues of sexual identity ambiguously hinted at in his 1984 chapbook Hidden Structure (Ekstasis Editions). With Great Men (Quarry, 1990) Barton emerged as a writer who celebrates gay sexuality while delving with ever greater maturity into the emotions of love, loss, abandonment and anger, universal feelings, whether one is male or female, straight or gay. In the poem "Patriarchy" (Designs from the Interior, Anansi, 1994), for example, the poet finds in his own capacity for violence and cruelty "the patriarchy that I thought/ in loving men, I would escape."

Ambiguity; complexity; fluent, even beautiful verses; that’s plenty to merit a visit to Collected Works for a poetry reading on September 8. There’s more. In recent years, Barton has extended the scope and scale of his work, as if adding to the verbal artistry he learned from American poets like Louise Glück some of the structural experimentalism associated with fellow Albertan Erin Mouré.

There’s also a trickster side to John Barton, evidenced in his adding the subtitle to Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine. It’s a parody of the Globe and Mail’s claim of being a national newspaper. The ironic humour tends to be lost on most readers, but then, there isn’t much anyone could do to make Canadians see Ottawa as a poetry capital rather than a depository for taxes and resentment. Under John Barton’s leadership, Arc reached its 25th year as an established magazine of reliable quality and attractive design, one of the few sites in print for serious reviewing of Canadian poetry.

After editing a special issue featuring Ottawa Poetry Now, perhaps he felt it was time to skip town. About the only promotion available to him, among Canadian literary magazines, was the editorship of The Malahat Review, which he assumed last year. The half-time job has allowed him to return to the West Coast, where he says he feels most at home, and leaves him time to write. Since returning to the West, he has continued his prolific record of publication and solidified his national reputation with the publication of two new books from Frog Hollow Press, In the House of the Present and The Strata.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

a boy's first poetry slam

“If it hadn’t been for the traffic lights, I would’ve taken a different route.” T.J. Whalebotham

went to my first slam & read in it too. it was strangely exhilarating. not believing that poetry is a competitive sport & knowing that what i do isnt 'spoken word' (despite the verisimilitude of me speaks to me utters), i took the stage in the Ottawa Fringe Festival tent & performed an abbreviated performance poetry piece. the slam was hosted by the most graceful of hosts, Oni the Haitian Sensation. i spoke some words & read some letters off a page. the others had their pieces memorized. the intented crowd seemed to appreciate my performance despite its difference to the other presentations. & i enjoyed the heedy word filled tent atmosphere that was Oni's slam. there was a lot energy contained in that tent the night of June 22nd, 2005.

it's that frenetic energy that the spoken word form restrains with its undeclared structures/strictures. what i've learnt from reading & talking to the involved is that many spoken word poets hope to return poetry to its long abandoned roots in orality. accordingly, the relatively recent corruption of poetry is the result of the printing press & its progeny, photocopiers & computers etc. i've also noticed in talking to well minded, literate humans that some perceive a division between the performance & the page. does one require a text to observe a reading‑performance? usually not: altho one might be curious to see the printed page, one wdnt walk away feeling as tho one had been deprived. with spoken word, the live performance is fundamental & resulting textual sediment is derivative. since, spoken word practitioners envisage such centrality for the spoken word, writing is insignificant. this artificial division between literature & its reading (or performance & its literature) has led to a rendering of the text & its composition as insufficient.

an attitude has emerged in which the literary text is viewed as incomplete if it is deemed a basis for performance. seems that it has seeped into consciousness that there is something essential in the performance of a literary work that cannot be represented on the page. this may be a truism? is the literary merit of a text abnegated if performance/reading takes ink on page as a point of departure? this is a very recent shift in thinking about poetic practice: that there is a poetry of the page & a poetry of performance.

returning poetry to its fundamentals strikes me as a futile exercise. rather than reforming poetry according to its essence, spoken word poetry has developed into a subgenre with its own conventions, codes and criteria for production/exposition. as a literary practice that claims preeminence for the spoken word, spoken word deepens an illusory division between the poetry of the page & the poetry of performance.

is there something irreconcilable between the orality of spoken word performance & printed literature? there doesnt seem to be anything intrinsically in conflict between the printed page & the spoken word poetry pieces that i've heard/seen performed. seems that many of the spoken word pieces i’ve heard, wd be well suited to presentation on the printed page; some works better suited to the page than others. it is possible to consider any text an invitation to oralization. a text neednt appear score‑like as a prerequisite for performance. a cooking recipe (score‑like in a sense) wd be ideal raw material for a performance reading. on the page, a text designed for spoken word performance wdnt necessarily distinguish itself as such.

most spoken word pieces that i've seen performed (at this slam & at readings) message a politic or moral that often has to do with a witnessed form of injustice by which the performer & by extension the listeners have been repelled. the spoken word form with its unwritten code of convention that relies on techniques such as rhyme, message, story & a regular meter bridles the energy incited by outrage. repulsion with the horror of late capitalist existence is channeled into a form that functions concomitantly as discharge & restraint. it seems that if the anger at injustice werent suppressed by the straightjacket of the form that the energy directed at those injustices might just be directed somewhere instead of being circulated around, acknowledged & ritually dismissed. everyone goes home relieved of a degree of discontentedness & nothing changes. this is to say that what you speak isnt of much consequence; it's what you do that matters. an art work that identifies an injustice & stands still, safe within its form is just that safe within its form. seems that's why the winner of the aforementioned poetry slam, a visitor from California, won. cuz he satirized the form by presenting a piece comprised of a series of self‑reflexive propositions each one starting with ‘this is MY spoken word piece...' the form, tho unofficial, is so well understood by its audience and practitioners that sarcastic, self-satirization yields highly entertaining results.

the spoken word art form, as an unofficially code bound form assimilates its resistances & naturally ossifies under the weight of its popular conventions. clearly, it is by countering formulaic approaches that innovation in consciousness, culture & art can be achieved. perhaps the popularity of the spoken word form is due to its quotation & imitation of more popular forms of culture? furthermore, rather than confronting the represented injustice, poetry slam competitions reinforce the ‘merit’ based hierarchies & competitive ethos of social life under late capitalism.