Notes from Poetry Cabaret #1 of the Ottawa International Writers Festival
George Murray used to be an actor but gave it up because he realized he didn’t like speaking other people’s words. His previous poetry collection, The Hunter(McClelland and Stewart, 2003) was inspired/influenced by his having experienced 9/11 up close and personal in New York City. He moved from Manhattan to Guelph to St. John’s, Newfoundland where he lives now. [His photo taken by Charles yesterday is here.]
I had the pleasure of speaking to Murray for the “Building a Better Blog” event that preceded the Poetry Cabaret and found out all about Bookninja.com, the literary-and-so- much-more site you must visit right now and daily.
After our conversation, Murray took off his bookninja outfit and donned his I’ve-just-released- a-new-collection-of-poetry attire. Both costumes suit him admirably.
“the rush to here” (Nightwood Editions, 2007) [not the rush to hear, which is what I thought it was, for some reason] is a collection of sonnets with idea rhymes instead of sound rhymes. The idea rhymes reflect traditional sonnet rhyming schemes and when you figure it out you feel quite pleased with yourself. A rhyme for night could be dark or day, its antonym, or its homonym knight or the prefix mid.
Murray uses his constraint to inspire creative interpretation rather than letting it limit him. The fact that Murray is a cryptic crossword enthusiast should come as no surprise to you when you read his work.
“the rush to here” is dedicated to Murray’s mentor and good friend Richard Outram, a poet who died “knowingly and willingly” on January 20, 2005, after the death of his wife, artist Barbara Howard. Murray explained that the couple were so close and so much in love that he modeled his own marriage after theirs. Murray misses his friend very much.
What I liked about Murray’s poems was the mixture of formal with informal, metaphysical with day to day. Made for a kind of magic, such as in the opening of “Rearview Mirror,”one of the poems he read:
The wind comes in and startles hair and scarves,
blowing them shitcrazy before letting them lead
with the controlled attention of snapping flags.
or the poem “Half-a-Wit”:
“but in the heart of the yolk is red moment/that turns my stomach inside out.”
Later in the Q&A session, brilliantly hosted by Stephen Brockwell, Murray responded to a question about the role of place in his poetry by saying that he felt his place was on earth, in the mind and in the body. His influences have been primarily foreign: Russia, Poland and England for instance. This made sense to me. His writing evoked some of the Eastern European poetry I’ve read such as Vasko Popa in the way he brought the abstract into the world and dealt with the big picture metaphysical issues.
At the same time there’s such strong emotion in Murray’s poems. I can already see that this collection is one that I will return to over again many times, dog-earing the pages much to the chagrin of next reader rob mclennan, who cannot stand the fact that I dog-ear book pages. (!)
rob mclennan read from his freshest collection, The Ottawa City Project (Chaudière Books, 2007). The poems all had to do with the city where rob was born and has spent so much of his life. What always strikes me about mclennan’s poetry is its cadence, the mesmerizing rhythm of his lines, their spare beauty and his wit. He’s told me that he doesn’t practice reading his poems aloud and that when he reads them in public it is often the first time he has read them aloud. Given how much sound and rhythm is a part of these poems, this is an incredible thing, the rhythms so internalized and then articulated on paper.
All three poets at the reading imparted small bits of world view/observation/wisdom through their words. in ottawa poems (blue notes) #3, this bit stood out for me: “personalities are charted/by naming” or in #4 “ottawa,/an insult meaning politic.”
mclennan’s poems are paintings with original vision and the physical is very much apparent in his poems, all leading to something very personal that you can feel. for instance #8 “glassy stare of hull,/ the gatineau hills//my own hand/goes trembling into” feels shimmery somehow and i can see it and understand it, even though and maybe because it works only on a figurative level.
mclennan read from other sections in the book, including the address book (erasure) about places which had been torn down after his mother moved out, or places where he can no longer go (“the less said about that, the better”). The poems are titled with the addresses of these places, so he suggested it would be an interesting exercise to map them. Sounds like a treasure hunt plan to me. I suggest we combine it with a pub-crawl.
He also read a series of quick ghazals from the book.
For Brockwell’s question about the role of place in his poetry, mclennan mentioned identity as being his motivation for delving into place in his work. He feels this is something he may now move away from.
It is understandable that mclennan writes quite a bit about place. In response to Brockwell’s question about tradition, mclennan explained that he came to poetry by reading the Canadian poetry collections in both the Ottawa Public Library and the University of Ottawa library. One of the biggest influences on mclennan’s work has been the poetry of next reader, George Bowering.
I had never heard or laid eyes on Bowering before, had only heard of him through reputation and hadn’t read much of his writing. He was what I expected and more: bombastic, controversial, intelligent yet completely approachable.
The poems he read ranged from the joyfully silly Opening Day and Heap o’ Trouble to the still playful yet deep Q&A. He read from Vermeer’s Light (Talonbooks, 2006). Note that the books for sale were the soft cover books because the hard cover had sold out.
Most of all, I enjoyed hearing Bowering’s stories and his insights into poetics. In answer to the question on place in his poetry, he talked about how he and fellow TISH members wrote Vancouver at a time when Canadian poets weren’t writing about their own geography. He played with the concept of Charles Olson’s objectivism, referring to it as objectism, the concept of treating oneself as an object, of the act of placing. He said that “place” is a verb.
Later in the discussion of tradition, he poo pooed the notion of a writer being in a tradition based on his heritage. He quoted the great Canadian writer Sheila Watson who referred to tradition as trade. He said that you make your own tradition by reading, that if you read Japanese, African and Russian poetry, that is your tradition. I wanted to punctuate much of what he said with Hallelujah and Amen, brother.
The audience also made some interesting comments. Discussing the idea that Canadians had no tradition of our own, a gentleman in the front of the room quoted something Bowering wrote in the 70s about Canadian poets lamenting the empty hand. Bowering said that without the empty hand, there would be no desire.
I walked out into the rain with a desire to read more of all three writers’ words, to continue the wonderful conversation and to go home and write.