Wednesday, February 08, 2006

a brief note on the poetry of Max Middle

Historically, so much of the poetry that has come out of the City of Ottawa has moved through the mode of the confessional lyric, in a city where modernism overstayed its welcome; moved to the point of nearly falling flat. Throughout the one hundred and fifty year history of English-language poetry in Ottawa, there have always been two predominant threads of any creative writing pursuit ― the official thread, and the nebulous other. Given the large amount of government and university employment in the city, the official thread is nearly a given, with more formally conservative forms and subject matter being almost the norm after the time of the Confederation Poets, writing another poem about the Chaudiére Rapids or Falls, with echoes of Archibald Lampman; while the other, holding to more formally experimental and/or radical poetries and poetics ― with our lack of factory space and other lower-class structures, making an entire social class nearly non-existent ― has never been large enough to group, let alone (much of the time) get further known. Think of William Hawkins in the 1960s and into the '70s, or Michael Dennis and Dennis Tourbin, and later on, Rob Manery and Louis Cabri. Think currently of jwcurry, called the best concrete and visual poet in the country, who moved here from Toronto in 1996. Not one of the official anthologies of Ottawa poetry published over the past four decades has included any of their works. Can you even name a single other member of their groups (it doesn't help, that for all they accomplished in Ottawa and beyond, both Manery and Cabri have so far only produced a single trade collection each)? It's quite a difference from Christopher Levenson's Ottawa Poetry Group, which recently put out an anthology of their thirty years in 2005, with Ottawa's Buschek Books; Levenson was one of the three founders of Arc magazine in 1978. The only alternate from that same 80s-90s period could be Colin Morton, who moved here from Alberta earlier on in the decade, who grouped himself around the poets in his Capital Poets (Ottawa ON: Oroborus, 1989), as well as the smaller group that made up the poetry performance group, First Draft, in the 1980s and beyond, starting as "radical" and moving slowly more lyric mainstream (while still working in concrete and sound); perhaps one of the few Ottawa writers that overlapped that invisible line.

Influenced by the language-centred and formally-experimental writings and performances by various members of Vancouver's Kootenay School of Writing, the late Toronto poet bpNichol and poet and Nichol bibliographer jwcurry, Ottawa poet Max Middle is one of the exceptions that makes the current rule. Born in 1970, Middle kept quiet for years, but since he started writing and performing a few years ago in Edmonton (at the Olive Reading Series), just before he returned to Ottawa, he has slowly been making himself one of the most interesting poets to come out of the city in some time. His musical and poetry performance experiment the Max Middle Sound Project, founded in 2004, has predominantly included readings and sound performances by Middle of his own works, but has also included collaborations with fiction writer Melanie Little, poet Wanda O'Connor, and poet and fiction writer Peter Norman, who performed with the group on a number of occasions, including numerous shows at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2004, and at the ottawa international writers festival in April 2005. It has been interesting to watch Middle evolve through his association with (for example) jwcurry over the past couple of years, from his own publishing and performances in sound through the Max Middle Sound Project (including a Max Middle Sound Project sound score published in an issue of Grant Wilkins' Murderous Signs; audio files are also available through the Max Middle Sound Project website at, or his own print work, from his chapbooks A Creation Song (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004; out of print, reprinted in the first issue of ottawater) and smthg (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), part of the latter being reprinted in the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), as well as other publications such as jwcurry's 1cent, Wanda O'Connor's Impress, and as various above/ground press productions such as four broadsides, the chapbook anthology two-by-two on that oversized lifeboat, A Peter F. Yacht Club special (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), and various issues of the ongoing Peter F. Yacht Club (various editors/publishers).

b being still

beauty can be found
b being still
stood outside the gate
ages did was too shandy
meant much from the high place
wants mountain makes tea
mould can be lurching
ice ovr a little told
tells skimming in a float plane
slicks picked unsanguineous
safe to raise that arm again
the one with the pen in it
a tattooist decrees left to right
countermand stuff of crime
graphemes extracted simmering
man while manshie d d flew

faced me the reflection floats
in here this side of mirror
said i heard stood what was stolen
poondle basha full trash na go
alright i said fistula
genria janria chip kelta
stiff off the surface stick
stooshing mouth off walk
smooth schnorkel pipe smoker
strokes the shimmering water
a face stoking through the gate
pillows a sail on a rise futuring (smthg)

In his solo performances, the piece "run scrummee" has almost become a signature piece, making whole groups of us want to put "run scrummee" on t-shirts or banners, merging through this poem a sense both visual and vocal. One of the strengths of Middle throughout the City of Ottawa is that he not only manages to bring people to poetry readings that don't normally go to readings at all, but manages to make admirers out of them, and of reading regulars as well. There is something about hearing Max Middle, in his supreme awkwardness, that somehow completely works through a performance.

run scrummee

j U swh s y b Y
jj U so see holey
j uscrew seem only
U uscr seem Oh Y Y
U R su scu e em me
R U sum scuem meanie
run scrummee tell tell (smthg)

An Ottawa native, Middle did interact with a number of writers in town before heading to places further west, back in the mid-1990s, and was a regular at the readings Rob Manery and Louis Cabri hosted through their Experimental Writers Group (publishers of hole magazine and hole books), such as the Transparency Machine at Gallery 101, and later on, the N400 Series at the Manx Pub. In an interview published in the first issue of ottawater , Middle talked about the cultural life of Ottawa in the early 1990s, and where I ended up first encountering him, the quiet fellow that sat somewhere behind Manery and Cabri at the Manx Pub on Elgin Street:

"By ‘94, I was well into an extended period of travel, which brought me in and out of Ottawa and kept me distracted from matters relating to writing. I had attended their [Louis and Rob’s] readings starting in the spring of ‘91. At that time, the readings were being held in the old Gallery 101 space on Lisgar St near Bank St. They called them ‘The Transparency Machine’ because the poets would give an informal lecture using overheads on a transparency machine. That would form the first half of the event. The second half would be comprised of a conventional reading. One of the first ‘Transparency Machine’ talk/readings I saw at Gallery 101 was given by Jed Rasula. I seem to recall that not all of the readings incorporated a talk. I attended a two reader reading in June ‘91 given by Jeff Derksen and Deanna Ferguson. I’m not sure if they gave a talk before reading. By the autumn of ‘91 or winter of ‘92, Rob and Louis were holding readings at Arts Court in Ottawa. In that venue, there were readings given by Charles Bernstein and Erin Mouré amongst others. For the readings at Arts Court, there were critical and other texts employed. I recall a Steve McCaffery reading at Gallery 101 given under their auspices around that time again without the transparency machine.

The ‘Transparency Machine’ readings were an excellent opportunity to learn first hand from some very engaged writers about the writing process. The writers they were bringing in were generally of the sort that was attempting to innovate. They tended to have an association with language poetry. At that time, being a young feller, having to that point limited exposure to innovative poetics, I was fascinated. Here were poets expanding the parameters of what I understood as poetic form and talking about how they were approaching their work to boot!"

Over the past few performances, obviously developing his approach through conversations and performances with jwcurry, Middle has explored not only his intonation, qualifying the tones of his voice, but reading individual letters throughout a text as text themselves, such as in this poem, originally published as an above/ground press broadside. When performing it, it become as interesting to hear Middle over-pronounce the individual letters as it is to watch him physically mouth the words, in a style that almost seems related to poet Hugo Ball:

an MMSP C poem

the MMSP soundsters C
munchie pff dhaA C c
rye hymes what u wish U C
in a bag a gag C
all along aClang
C we laugh (smthg)

On Saturday, September 24th, 2005, Middle performed as part of a rare and important reading by Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry, the first in curry's Hit'N'Run Lecture Series, called "MESSAGIO GALORE take II." Framed as "a performance by jwcurry of sound & related textu(r)al materials with additional vocal aid by Max Middle," it was held in the then-vacated bookstore space underneath curry's Chinatown apartment on Somerset Street West. Practicing daily for a week before the event for individual stretches that lasted as long as eight to ten hours, it must have been something to go over and through the material with jwcurry, considered meticulous to the extreme, and called one of the best concrete and visual poets in the country, and perhaps one of the finest sound poets as well; it could easily have been the kind of vocal training that some performers would pay good currency for. curry and Middle later performed a couple of the pieces from the reading as one-offs, in the late night hospitality suite of the fall 2005 edition of the ottawa international writers festival, including a performance of the Four Horseman piece "Hare Pronounced Hair" with the assistance of Carmel Purkis, seasonal staff of the festival bookstore, Nicholas Hoare, taking the place of the third voice from the original event, Jennifer Books. In the same interview from ottawater, Middle talked about curry's influence on his writing:

"I have learned a lot from curry: about sound poetries, visual poetries, Canadian literary history, small press in Canada, bpNichol, printing, small press publishing. Being able to see some of the works in his collection has been a real privilege. Talking to him and seeing some of the visual poetry in his collection has expanded my understanding of visual poetry. Viewing visual poetry by Shaunt Basmajian, David UU and bpNichol has given me a sense of the different ways in which visual poetry has been and can be approached. The visual sequences in curry’s book Objectionable Perspectives have been enlightening.

It was a rare and edifying experience to see/hear curry read with Maria Erskine last February [2004] as part of the Poetry 101 series. The reading strategies, like reading above the audience on a staircase, reading into water, wrapping himself up in a sheet, which I found theatrical but which curry denied having any theatrical import were highly inventive and brilliantly executed. It was the first time I heard curry read sound poetry. His method of reading visual poetry, taking a text superficially ‘unreadable’ and interpreting it in speech and sound is one that yields fascinating results. The essay that he read was highly informative. Dorothy Howard, editor of Raw Nervz, sent me a copy of the issue of Raw Nervz in which that essay was published."

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