“Be careful not to scratch and make too much noise with that,” said Brian, motioning to the pen and paper I’d removed from my bag. “I might be trying to commune or something!” Maybe it was due to the fact that I’d only met him minutes earlier in line to attend Ottawa Independent Writers’ latest discussion but gauging whether Brian was kidding or not proved difficult. In either case, writers young, old, experienced and curious alike had convened to soak up the wisdom of two of Ottawa’s foremost poets, robmclennan and Pearl Pirie – scratching away with my pen felt as natural a reaction as listening in.
It takes a poet-publisher of considerable expertise to tackle a topic as broad and massive as Contemporary Poetry but, as luck would have it, this evening delivered two. Calling upon proven skills and noteworthy anecdotes from careers waist-deep in the literary arts, mclennan and Pirie discussed some of the many poetic forms (examples being haiku, tanka) that stream and intersect contemporary verse. Those in attendance were encouraged to ask questions or even interrupt the flow of conversation, the latter option proving popular when the introduction of visual poetry came under fire. Make no mistake, the OIW isn’t a group of starry-eyed pacifists; for some members, the art of arranging letters in a way that deepens the author’s intent sparked a vocal debate on the merits of certain poetic styles. A surprising change of pace for the event, perhaps, but these stubborn viewpoints and insightful defenses provided even the quiet attendees with some food for thought.
At the very least, no one could refute the effectiveness of visual poetry any longer with so many convictions flying about! One writer stood and passionately recited his criteria for good poetry, to which everyone applauded. Another scoffed at the example of several contemporary forms but took detailed notes on each. Even my new colleague Brian, who had worried about the sound of my pen on paper, stood arms-crossed away from the table, peppering the guest speakers with questions. Now this was unfiltered discussion! And as one of those demure individuals taking it all in, I found the heated yet respectful exchange life-affirming to any poetry-lover’s ears.
The immeasurable size of the topic at hand allowed mclennan and Pirie freedom to dive into certain facets or styles upon the whim of the audience. Some inquiries had concrete solutions, such as Pearl Pirie’s insightful breakdown of approaches that distinguish and shape a writer – a classification that caused the group to pause and consider their work’s intention. Concentrated dialogues also arose on the subject of prose poems – and by extension, knowing when to keep poetry and prose apart – plus ways of promoting one’s work in a changing industry.
Other questions were impossibly pointed; when asked to define poetry in two or three words, rob mclennan enunciated as though counting each word: “I don’t know”. It was one of many refreshing exchanges during an evening dedicated to uncovering the joy of poetry’s borderless playground. Riffing off of each other’s leads and shedding light on how the expectations on contemporary poetry have changed from an editor’s perspective, mclennan and Pirie defied expectations with an engaging talk that refused to pull punches.
As a non-member, I witnessed many potential perks to enrolling with the OIW, including notice on inclusive submissions, writer’s retreats and a whole lot of local support. Get more information here: www.oiw.ca