Last night’s Writers Festival program started with Stuart Ross, touque on, emptying a green garbage bag full of stuffed monkeys onto the stage, and ended with a fairly theoretical discussion by three writers: Mark Frutkin, Paul Glennon and Daphne Marlatt, on form and function, with Rhonda Douglas. This is an example of the variety to be sampled at the wonderful festival this year, and every year.
Hunkamooga’s Return: Coffee Stained Notes From The Underground was a delightfully expanded reading from the usual fifteen minutes allotted to festival authors. After entertaining us with his audience participation notes to Ape Play, a "broadway production", Ross read us a few lines from his first novel, “Father, the Cowboys are Ready to Come Down from the Attic,” written for Pulp Press’s 3-day novel contest in 1978, when Stuart was just 19 years-old. Anyone who is willing to let the audience hear something he's written when he was 19 and also to laugh at his own writing is someone who can win an audience over easily, as Stuart did.
We were also treated to one of Ross’s essays from Confessions of A Small Press Racketeer, new poems and old poems, an excerpt from his novel in progress, The Snowball.
One of my favourite moments from the reading was listening to Ross’s poem “Submission” about sending in poems to the “Unhappy Potato Quarterly” and having them accept the poem, showing up in his bedroom to let him know just how much they loved it. It’s a goofy poem, full of humour, but also a great comment on the ego, something I think Ross often satirizes and plays with in his writing.
Aside from the humour and imagination, there is much precision of language in Ross’s poems. In a poem called “the Church has a Church Beside It for instance,” I caught the line “the fierce bronze puddle of Olaf.”
I enjoyed the fact that Ross writes poems about writing. One poem “A Novel Punched Another Novel in the Head” was about working on several projects at once. In the poem the older novel the author has been working on is usurped by a skinny new novel with an attitude. It was funny but also gave the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to be a working writer.
Stephen Brockwell did a great job of hosting, as usual, offering a flattering and informative introduction to Ross and his work. I like it when a host really knows a writer’s work when he introduces him. I learned something about Ross from that intro and the ensuing Q&A with Brockwell at the end of the reading.
During the question and answer period, Brockwell asked about Ross’s workshops, which he’s been offering for years in many forms. One of the types he’s been doing most recently is the Poetry Boot Camp in which students spend the day writing lots and lots of poems based on exercises such as translating from a language they don’t know, exchanging each other’s words and a host of other techniques meant to inspire creativity and a bunch of rough drafts to work with.
Another question focussed on the writing process. Brockwell asked Ross what blocks him and what gets him excited. Ross likened writer’s block to depression. In much the same was as when someone is depressed, he thinks he’ll always be that way, the writer who has a block, thinks he’ll never write another poem, but then does so and the cycle repeats.
During the interview, Brockwell asked about Ross’s poetic tastes, which include poetry by David McFadden, Gil Adamson, and Ron Padgett. Ross likes poems that offer humour while also dealing with serious things. Ron Padgett, in particular, has been an inspiration to Ross since he was a teenager. Padgett is the second generation of the New York school of poets, such as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and John Ashbery. Padgett believes that the role of poetry is to give pleasure in words and images, not necessarily to offer a meaning.
There were a few questions from the audience. rob mclennan wanted to discuss Ross’s founding of the Toronto Small Press Fair and the evolution of the small press scene. Ross talked about how the early days of the fair saw poets putting poems in cheese sandwiches or walnut shells and making chapbooks, whereas today he sees less of that. Ross mused that perhaps young, emerging poets are already publishing their first collections with publishers like Coach House, and are not involved so much in chapbook making, which he sees as a very instructive part of the process of writing poetry. mclennan likened this to today’s blogs, since many emerging poets are writing them.
Nicholas Lea asked Ross to comment on surrealism and the climate of surrealism in Canada. Ross admitted that when he was choosing a title for his anthology, “Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian poets under the influence,” many of the poets did not see themselves as surrealists per se. Surrealism has become a dirty word in contemporary writing circles, yet from it many other movements have sprung, such as magic realism, which is more popular today.
After a short break, involving wine and conversation, I moved to the foyer of the auditorium for the Tree Reading Series’ Form and Function reading, hosted by Rhonda Douglas. Mark Frutkin read from his latest novel Fabrizio's Return and also from a commedia dell ‘arte play. Paul Glennon read from his collection of twelve fiction pieces, The Dodecahedron. Daphne Marlatt read from her poetry collection, This Tremor Love Is and Seven Glass Bowls.
I enjoyed the cinematic writing style of Frutkin and the experimental play of Glennon, but here I will offer a few notes on what I retained from hearing Daphne Marlatt. I have been excited about Ms. Marlatt since I read a poem of hers on Wanda O’Connor’s blog last year sometime, I believe. I immediately got myself a copy of Readings from the Labyrinth, Marlatt's collection of essays. It was such an amazing thing to hear her read and for a change, just as I imagined it would be.
In This Tremor Love Is, Marlatt weaves the words of women writers throughout her poem. She read “crossing” which contained quotes from French poet Renée Vivien in French. The poem felt like a hymn with its beautiful chuchotements or whisperings throughout. In “crossings” Marlatt blends and weaves lyrical descriptions of nature and the body. The strong, repeated sound patterns and rhythm of the poem made it hypnotic and hushed and simply beautiful; here’s a dip into the poem:
“out of wind rush, transient, intransigent beating forward to reach
(you) bridge (that gap) your leaving left caressed skin baffled
Marlatt read from Seven Glass Bowls (Nomados Press, 2003) and said that she is interested in the way silence works as a kind of resonating membrane. To hear her translate these silences was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced at a reading. I didn’t see Seven Glass Bowls at the Nicholas Hoare Book table, but I plan on getting a hold of a copy very soon. It feels urgent to have it and read it while I can still hear her voice.
Marlatt referred to Seven Glass Bowls as a “fictmem:” part fiction, part memoir, part long poem in prose form. I captured a few lines from those floating in the air:
these small ceremonies ribbonned through the day we shape and shape
between sits of this and that
gap gape a word that is love and not love
Rhonda Douglas, Tree host, talked to all three writers about form and genre in their writing, and it was fascinating, which is a feat at nine pm.
Douglas asked when the writers knew what they were writing, whether it was a poem or piece of prose, a short story or novel. We learned that Marlatt often works in sequences. After two or three pieces, she notices a relationship and the shape becomes clearer and informs the piece about what it is. For Marlatt, poetry is a more intensive working of language, almost syllable by syllable.
Audience member Nadine McInnis asked about the rhythm patterns in Marlatt’s work. Marlatt explained that for her the rhythm drives the sentence and it comes from things like the seasons and the cycles of the day; she is not necessarily creating the rhythm consciously.
For Marlatt, when writing fiction, she is attempting to undermine the drive known as plot.
An audience member expressed a yearning for a return to poems that were easy to memorize. Marlatt said that there is a current movement toward a more formal, closed form of verse, easily memorizable with a definite metre and end rhyme, but said that contemporary poetry listens to the speaking voice and has rhythms which are more subtle.
Grant Wilkins asked about the role of the visual in each of the writers’ work. This is definitely part of Marlatt’s writing and she tries to translate it acoustically when she reads. For his book, the Dodecahedron, Glennon actually created a dodechahedron. Frutkin’s novels are very cinematic and visual.
Kevin Dooley asked about point of view and voice. Marlatt pointed out that lyric poems use first person while dramatic poems use third. Some contemporary writers try to make their writing neutral, taking language from other sources and having no particular speaker except language, allowing language to tell the reader about class and the power dynamic.
Marlatt finds the interchange between first and third very interesting, commenting that we are surrounded by third person voice yet we have our own internal first person voice. Glennon mentioned that the second person is also being used in fiction, referring to “If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller” by Italo Calvino.
We could have gone on easily for another hour, with such an interesting topic, but it was time to wrap up. I have to commend Tree for this well-constructed event and the writers they chose. It made a lot of sense to have writers who wrote in more than one genre or who addressed the issue of genre in their writing. As usual the Writers Festival opens up horizons of possibility and inspiration for those of us who are learning how to write.
Don’t forget to come to Bywords’ John Newlove Poetry Award presentation and reading tonight (October 4) at 7pm in the auditorium foyer of the National Library. It will be a moment to celebrate John Newlove’s poetry and the influence he continues to have on Canadian poetry, to toast the award winner and honourable mentions and to savour the music of Andrea Simms-Karp, who has the voice of an angel.