Last night was a feast of poetry, opening with David McGimpsey’s Sitcom (Coach House Books) and ending with the poetry cabaret featuring Stephen Brockwell, John Pass and Rob Winger who read from their books The Real Made Up (ECW Press), Stumbling in the Bloom (Oolichan) and Muybridge’s Horse (Nightwood Editions).
McGimpsey, to me, is a creative genius, gifted at blending completely unlike things for zany effect. In his book Sitcom, he translates the concept of pain by listing the plots of 14 Episodes of Joey Lawrence. He reads an invented voice over for the Tony Danza Show; it is funny, witty and sung to the Beach Boys Wouldn’t It Be Nice. There’s a power and a gentleness to McGimpsey’s work. It’s the second time I’ve heard him read and I look forward to hearing him again on October 27 when he reads at Plan 99 along with Jessica Westhead, Cara Hedley, and Sarah Lang. (at the Manx at 5pm)
He’s responsible for my most favourite quote about poetry: “Why is it nobody ever demands there be a people’s trigonometry?” side / lines: a New Canadian Poetics (Insomniac Press, 2002), which, by the way, is one of the most interesting and informed collections of poetic thought I’ve read. Neil Wilson quoted a bit of this in his introduction to David.
I’m going to quote more because it’s an apt lead in to the ensuing debate that took place in the poetry cabaret featuring Brockwell, Pass and Winger. McGimpsey says “...isn’t the idea of a people’s poetry a sad Marxist will-o-the-wisp? An externalizing shame about poetry’s sensitive complexity and lack of commercial value? Why is it nobody ever demands there be a people’s trigonometry? There’s thousands of wonderful, immediately accessible, uncomplicated, straight-to-the-heart, plain-speaking poems, and these poems are just as ignored by the people as the complicated poems that refer to Antigone and Creon.
Poetry itself is an indulgence and the indulgence of obscurity is, for me, one of its sweetest peaches. The allowance to say complex things, without any apology to dumb-down demands of conventional media and commercial fiction is a rare gift in today’s world, perhaps available only in the literary margins. And poetry need not be embarrassed for those who found the subject too onerous and too poorly taught in High School. Those citizens, attractive and kissable as they can be, have little to no interest in reading poetry and they probably never will. So what? Poetry can’t make you popular, so you couldn’t ask for a better vantage to contemplate the popular.”
It was with this in mind that I listened to the poets at the cabaret. David O’Meara gave each of them elegant introductions that all three would like to use on the blurbs of their book jackets.
Stephen Brockwell’s book The Real Made Up felt like quite a departure from his last book Fruitfly Geographic (ECW Press, 2004) It includes monologues in other voices, made up characters and poetry taken from the translation of words by voice and hand writing recognition systems. I loved the experimental nature of the stuff he read, the delightful humour, his ability to pull ordinary speech and mannerisms into a poem, his exquisite word play and lyricism.
Rob Winger’s reading of Muybridge’s Horse was excellent. I spent a few months going over the book this summer for an upcoming review in Ottawater.com, so to hear his interpretation of the work was fantastic. Muybridge’s Horse is such an ambitious undertaking. Not only did Winger successfully translate the compelling plot of nineteenth century photographer Edweard Muybridge’s life into poetic moments, but he also was able to mesmerize with stunning and sustained imagery, and he also he provides various voices real and fabricated to give us perspectives on Muybridge. I think the book is a tour de force that should with the Governor General Awards for which it has been nominated this year.
Last to read was John Pass, with the fourth book in a series, Stumbling in the Bloom. He comes from BC, has 14 books and chapbooks, all kinds of awards including a Governor General’s Award last year for the latest book. In his eloquent introduction David O’Meara told us that Pass’s book is about his garden but it’s no pastoral idyll of trees, flowers and sun-dappled meadows; it includes the encroaching world of cell phones, terrorism and parallel parking. It is an acknowledgement of clumsiness as well as an argument for poise.
The conversation section of the reading was highly engaging. David asked interesting questions concerning theme, the role of form in their work, Stephen mentioned that he is interesting to pursue new ideas in old forms, the voices in the narrative of Rob Winger’s book and how they were created. Rob noted that Muybridge has no poems in his own voice. John spoke of the helpful role of his editors in his work, casting light on the doubt he himself had had about his work. Stephen likes poems best that have a sense of vocal reality; his monologues are based on interviews he did with people and so the monologues are coming not from his own voice. He likes poems that have physical, gut dimensions. John likes the music and composes poems as he’s pacing, walking. He loves internal, half rhymes and musicality. He has recently found that reading his poems makes him get a bit choked up emotionally
This led to a discussion on the role of personal emotion. Stephen said that this takes a great deal of courage because in recent writing we avoid being authentic emotionally in ways that were explored by poets like Robert Lowell. It’s a delicate balance to do this and still get outsideof the poem enough to see it with some objectivity.
Anita Lahey asked Stephen if he was not working from emotion. Stephen brought up Eunoia by Bok and Erin Moure, claiming she lives in language not emotion per se. Stephen doesn’t think living in language is wrong because it’s important to be emotionally circumspect. The subject of painting is paint and the act of painting, Leotarde said, talking about the interplay between absolute discipline of art and authenticity.
What makes a piece authentic without emotion? Anita asked. Stephen talked about a poem he wrote about his daughter, finding it difficult and embarrassing. He’s not satisfied with it yet. He feels he is better at playing with words. A lot of great poems don’t have origins in the poets’ emotions. He talked about Baudelaire’s Albatross where the emotional centre is centred outside, empathy and feeling is translated into a symbol for all kinds of things, including human nature. He talked about the difference between authentic personal emotion and emotion that is grounded in something that is outside what the poet is writing about.
Rob said there is a crafting to the emotion; you have to present the fake real. People self aware of what they’re doing start to play with language in a cerebral process. John said this is part of the craft of living, to handle our emotional lives in a way that respects other people and at the same time fulfills us.
John worried that there is a danger that unless emotion is part of the mix and somewhat recognizable and part of the ground of writing, there’s a danger in losing audience. That’s what’s happened with a lot of contemporary poetry, which has moved off to language and intellect. He feels feeling is part of the dance and we tend to be cerebral and playful lot and should be taken to task for that. Stephen mentioned Shakespeare. What personal emotion is in any work of Shakespeare? It is art.
Anita asked where he thinks that emotion comes from? Did Shakespeare just pick it up off the ground? Stephen replied that what Shakespeare. thinks about anything is irrelevant to the play he produces.
John said can you imagine Shakespeare composing any of those soliloquies without walking around and speaking to himself feeling every emotional nuance and complexity of the characters? Sometimes wearing your heart on your sleeve is effective at other times it is a disaster, but to imagine personal emotion need not be an element in the composition of any kind of art is nonsense.
Rob mentioned the poems that bridge the two worlds are the most effective; poems like Phyllis Webb’s the Naked Poems, which are about writing a poem, but also intensely emotional or John Thompson’s poems which have a balance of intellect and emotion.
Stephen said that it is almost never about my emotions, but often an exploration of emotion. You have to be willing to be distant from your emotions.
John worried that by limiting access to events and moments that are pivotal and incidental, we risk losing touch with things that have direct meaning to people. He says he’s an unrepentant modernist. He believes people feel language is referential. When you talk about a chair, they have in mind a specific chair. They want to feel the poet also has something specific and concrete in mind, companionable to theirs. A lot of people don’t find that in contemporary poetry.
I’m going to end here. I enjoyed the talk, particularly John Pass’s comments because I really disagree with pretty much everything he said. I like poetry that goes against conventional thinking, that questions it, that surprises me. I have no interest in hearing my own ideas, beliefs or chairs repeated in the form of a poem. That’s what non fiction and personal memoirs are for. I'm not saying that the popular shouldn't be represented in poetry; David McGimpsey does an excellent job of that in his poetry. Please go back and read that McGimpsey quote or better yet, buy Side/Lines...and buy the poetry books, of course! It was a wonderfully provocative evening.
ps. see rob mclennan's blog for more thoughts and summary of last night. Gee, it's nice to have him back in town!