Monday, April 24, 2006

Writers Fest-Final Poetry Cabaret: Three Men Walk Into A Library

and blow the audience away. AJ Levin, George Elliot Clarke and Paul Muldoon, not to mention Stephen Brockwell, the host, had the audience in their spell.

Brockwell set the celebratory tone of the evening with his eloquent and enthusiastic introductions. One of the things I enjoy about the festival is that those who host are usually well-known local writers and we get the chance to see them in a role other than authors reading their own work.

AJ Levin was the first to read. The former Torontonian, now a Winnipegger, has just had his first book, Monk’s Fruit, published by Nightwood Editions. It was fortunate, and likely not accidental, that he came first. It wouldn’t be easy to follow the powerhouse of George Elliot Clarke or the charm of Paul Muldoon.

He began by reading some of his recent and unpublished poetry, explaining that after the book had been out for about twelve days, he was already sick of it. His poems were full of humour, something that seems to have been very common to the male poets reading at the festival this time around. In addition there were many classical allusions and unusual juxtapositions: in a poem called the World’s Largest Cabbage Patch Collection about bullies for example, he read of “fairy tale white snow” being packed down a child’s underpants.

Between poems, Levin shared small biographical notes, but didn’t go on too long in his introductions. If a poet’s intro to a poem takes longer than the poem itself to read, I’m bored. This happens more often than you would think. I enjoyed Levin’s humour, found his poetry to be very masculine in that there were lots of allusions to males and masculine imagery and past times throughout: Vikings, Shakespeare, Orwell, shrimp trawlers. There was very little mention of women in the poems he chose to read: one poem feminised a potato, another spoke humourously about female curlers.

Levin is obviously a very well-read poet and his work was strong, but somehow I didn’t feel involved in it. I haven’t read enough of it to know whether this would change. The danger of poetry readings is this temptation to evaluate based on encountering someone’s work only once, especially when faced with so much poetry at once, as one is at a writers’ festival as this one. The reviews of his work are excellent. Ken Babstock says that “Monk’s Fruit revels in language, syntax, and allusion."

Next on the stage was the man many people in the audience, including me, had been waiting for: George Elliot Clarke. People actually screamed when he came on stage. I think he is the closest thing to a Canadian poetry superstar we have. In the audience that night was his young daughter, Orillia, about whom he boasted had just been chosen to be the poet of her grade 2 class.

Clarke read bits from his play Quebecité about interracial couples, announcing that it will be produced for the Ottawa Fringe Festival by Jessica Ruano. Clarke’s reading including word play extraordinaire and rapid puns, delivered in an energetic manner that enlivened the normally quiet Ottawa poetry audience. A few years’ ago, Clarke came to the Tree Reading Series and did the same thing.

He also read from his latest poetry collection, “Black,” explaining that he loved this word because of its strength, referring tongue in cheek to “he had black designs,” and “black mail not black male.” One of the strengths of a Clarke performance is his sense of fun. You feel like an accomplice to his wit, and his playful criticism of politicians. You are on his side. That’s not an easy feat for a performer to achieve, but Clarke does so with ease and experience. It was a lesson for poets wishing to conquer a stage.

I loved his sound play: “slinked off whistling to drink drink drink” and the poignancy of his imagery: “snow cleansed everything but memory;” the muscular language “the surge of sun, lemony, cantankerous, warm.” It is always interesting to hear a poet read work about one’s own city. In his poems “La Vérité à Ottawa I and II,” he offers a portrait of our city. Clarke lived here for a number of years when he worked as an aid to an MP. Perhaps that’s why his political poems are so sharp and so strong. He read poems about former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau. I am hoping he writes one about Paul Martin some day, but what is there to say, really?

Next on stage was Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who did a reading on Beckett the day before and from what I understand, thrilled the audience. After the energetic Clarke, Muldoon’s pace took a bit of getting used to. His voice was soft and he had a bit of a lilt. When he read he turned to face different parts of the audience. It didn’t take long before we were all spellbound by his stories, his wit and his poetry, which was observational and full of insightful detail and pathos.

While he had prepared poems to read, he also took his cues from what the other two had read. For example, he chose to read a poem about turkey buzzards because Levin had a poem about the vulture and the dredyl. The poem was also about his sister who had died after the poem was written. Muldoon used a lot of near rhyme and internal rhyme in his work. Some poems were historical: he read one about the Ottawa tribe, for instance, while others were amusing—a poem disparaging the cheeps and bleeps of modern technology, which turned out to be a grasshopper. He read a strangely poignant poem about his dog, Angus, who bayed at the sound of a train, filled with mustard gas or Saran. He also referenced a lot of male heroes, including Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island, Diogenes and Blondin, a Niagara Falls daredevil. He read an amazing poem called The Loaf, which is published in Moy Sand and Gravel. The poem was full of detail and word play. He reminded me somewhat of Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage who came to the festival last year. He had a similar story telling style and, like Armitage, his poetry was more formal, more inclined to rhyme and traditional word play than contemporary North American poetry I’ve read.

The question and answer period that followed was one of the most animated and participatory Q&A sessions I’ve experienced at the festival. Brockwell began with questions from the audience. rob mclennan, finally getting a break from his host duties, opened the questions, remarking that Clarke was one of the few who writes overtly political poetry and asking him to comment. Clarke feels that everyone has the right and the responsibility to comment on political goings on. Brockwell asked the others how they worked politics into their poetry. Muldoon said that it is inevitable for anyone who is vertical and trying to make sense of their world to include politics. Some of his latest work while he’s been living in the States has been overtly political, which surprises him. He gave a delightful etymology of two words mentioned by Clarke: “Tory” which he said meant “highway man, robber and hunted person,” and “shenanigan” the Irish word for a cunning fox.

Levin approached the question differently, stating that language is politics, a system of code created to keep others out of the loop, quoting a linguist/philospher whose name I didn’t catch. Levin feels it is the job of the poet not to exclude people, but to include them in new ways.

An audience member asked the writers to discuss the notion that poetry was meant to be learned by heart and the lack of memorisation of poetry today. Muldoon said that one has to allow poetry to extend culturally. Many people have memorised lyrics, such as the songs of Leonard Cohen. Muldoon admitted to having a bad memory for even his own poems and hoped that this didn’t have anything to do with their quality. He continued more seriously that in the past poems were beaten in to students and that it would be better if poetry were more a part of our daily lives. When he expressed the idea that newspaper should contain a poem a day, the audience cheered. Muldoon made the exquisite point that poetry should be part of our ordinary existence, not some strange thing.

Clarke continued along the same vein, pointing out that people do memorise non traditional media such as hip hop lyrics, love poems and religious scripture. He said that in order to be a half decent wooer, you have to be able to lay down a love poem. He then recited the twenty-third psalm in demonstration.

Oni, the Haitian Sensation, changed the subject completely when she asked all three writers “if you were a fruit, what kind would you be, and describe the flavour.”

Levin referenced his book’s title, Monk’s Fruit, which has no flavour.
Clarke replied that this was obviously an erotic question and said watermelon.
Muldoon quoted a poem by Tony Harrison, “A Cumquat for Keats,” saying that his fruit would be bittersweet and have a different impact from one occasion to another.

Revisiting the earlier question about poetry and politics, syntactic memorability, and Carleton University’s Penn Writer in Residence, Amatoristero Ede commented that he felt contemporary poetry was close to the syntax of prose. His current editorial on Sentinel Poetry gives further details on his opinion as I can’t do it justice here.

Muldoon chose to address the memorability portion of the question, saying rhyming verse is easier to remember and advertisers have figured that out. Clarke spoke of the blessings of having many resources for poetry. As a teen, he carried a boom box and listened to the music of Springsteen, Dylan and Joni Mitchell, even admitting to being a victim of disco. All of these influenced his poetry, including the imagery of the blues, “I want to grind your coffee.” He argued that some poetry is closer to prose, discussing the Language Poets, Pound’s “The Cantos.” He recommended that nothing be dismissed as being useful for poetry.

Brockwell asked a question about how each poet wrote and what instrument they used. Muldoon uses a PC because he finds it hard to write with a pen and his handwriting is poor. He used a typewriter when he was a teen, has always been concerned with how a poem looks on a printed page. Levin uses a pen, sometimes a typewriter and rarely a computer, claiming to be a sporadic thinker and finding the pen handier for clusters of thought. He doesn’t like to have to turn something on and wait for it. Clarke brought out a small Chinese diary, which he is currently using for his latest work, an opera about Trudeau. He writes with a fountain pen, but eventually everything ends up on his computer, a Mac that breaks down a lot. (I hope he backs stuff up!)

Jesse Ferguson asked whether the notion that the readership for poetry was getting smaller was a myth. Muldoon quoted Byron who, after selling 500 copies of a book overnight, suddenly found himself famous one morning. Muldoon said that popularity isn’t always reflected in book sales. One sure way of making it popular, he said, would be to make it illegal.

Mark Robertson, aka Max Middle, asked about the relationship of the poem to its reading. Levin likened it to a play and said that with the exception of visual poems, a poem is not a poem until it is read aloud. Clarke agreed and added that interpretation changes the reading of a poem, which must work on the page and in the air/ear. Muldoon said that the poem itself should teach us how it wants to be read.

An audience member asked how the writers cultivated their subjects and their imagery. Levin said that the way he sees the world is like a disease. He’s been called a Cubist and cannot stop connecting unlike things. Clarke said that he has the habit of reading a lot and paying attention to what people say. He stays interested in the world and uses weird stories for inspiration, such as the guys who robbed a lingerie store using a meat clever. He feels the poet has to be more open to experience, is called to be more alive and more awake to life. Once again the audience cheered. I think we all wanted to yell out “amen” and “hallelujah.” Muldoon said that everyone has this habit, this disease, right from childhood, but we are often educated out of it. He said that poets have the habit in a much more devastating way.

Amatoristero Ede sparked discussion when he talked of entertainment as pandering to the petit bourgeoisie, to which Clarke replied the petit bourgeoisie don’t read poetry and insisted that it is dangerous to impose a political meaning on form, form is apolitical. The sheer fact of using rhyme does not make a poem without politics. Muldoon mused about the need for poetry to be solemn and wondered what was wrong with fun.

Oni asked about the writers’ opinions of spoken word. Muldoon was the only one to answer for some reason. He said that it was wonderful and admired the genuine wit of hip hop. This inspired a folklorist in the audience to speak of the popularity of poetry even in the eighteenth century when balladeers sold their poems to people on the streets. The audience member spoke of poems that are memorised: children’s rhymes and ribald limericks. Poetry is part of every day life. Clarke ended the evening with a reading of the 1925 poem by Evelyn Hamilton, The Disintegrating Husband:

I got married the other day, I
took my husband up to a high
cliff an let him look over an' he
almost fell. If it hadn't been for
me, I grabbed him by the coat an'
saved him. But I was sorry
afterwards, because when it
came time for us to retire he took
out his false teeth, an' put them
in a bureau drawer. Then he took
out a false eye an' put it in the
bureau drawer. Then he took off
a false arm an' put it in the
bureau drawer. He took off a
false wig an' put it in the bureau
drawer. Finally, he took off a
false leg an' put it in the bureau
drawer. When it came time for
me to git in bed, I didn't know
what to do. I didn't know if to git
in bed or in the bureau drawer.

After that, what more is there to say? We all disintegrated and went our separate ways. Once more the festival was inspiring, eclectic and thought provoking. The aftershock will continue with readings with lots of readings this week and beyond: Tree features poets Jan Conn & Diana Hartog, and an inaugural reading at the new location of Richard Fitzpatrick Books when the Bookthugs of Toronto come to visit. For more events, refer to the Bywords calendar (how’s that for a shameless plug?)

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