Saturday, April 22, 2006

Poetry Cabaret 2: Butterflies, Basho's Frogs and Axel Rose

The second of the Writers Festival's poetry cabarets featured three poets who couldn't be more different from one another. If I were to recommend to a poetry-curious soul (most of the people I know) to attend an evening of poetry, this is the one I would have recommended.

Gary Barwin from Hamilton, Ontario, writes poetry that is perhaps the most accessible to the general public. His work is full of humour while, at the same time, he uses tight and intelligent language. His performance style is friendly and entertaining. He opened with Canada Weeds, a riff on last week's CBC radio show Canada Reads in which he incorporated and punified book titles. At first I thought he just had one of those Elmer Fudd speech impediments, but as the poem progressed, it became clear that he was actually punning. The pun that produced the most groaning was "such a long gurney."

I enjoyed Barwin's performance style and his work. It was a bit like watching The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy and The Man With Two Brains at the same time. The most memorable of his reading for me were from Frogments from the Frag Pool, which he wrote with Albertan poet Derek Beaulieu. In this book, Basho's frog haiku inspire clever alternative versions and extrapolations and include word play, tongue twisters and the like. What is it about haiku that brings out the mischief in poets? This reminds me somewhat of Sherwin Tija's The World Is A Heartbreaker, which I also enjoyed very much. My favourite line from Frogments was from a Beaulieu haiku: "a jewish man/i've no foresight either."

Barwin's poem Uvula's Shadows about receiving mail and having to sign for it was a tour de force of absurdity that just kept piling up and piling up to ridiculous proportions. At the same time there were so many lines that resonated beautifully as images, such as the "vast black dental work of the sky." Barwin combines humour and philosophy exceptionally well. I've heard him read only once before at Toronto's Victory Café after the Toronto Small Press Book Fair. He's also a children's writer and I can see that. His style reminded me somewhat of Torontonian Robert Priest whose kids' poetry book The Secret Invasion of Bananas, is one of my favs.

Barwin was a relaxed performer. Chalk that up to one of the final poems he read for his set:

"Why do we worry/every word on earth/is in the perfect place."

Next up was native writer, artist, musician, playwright and renaissance man, John McDonald. His style was intimate and free as he switched between the mic at the podium and the wireless mic, moving with his poetry and at times crouching down over the his book, The Glass Lodge. He credits writing the book with helping him deal with the anger after a life as alcoholic, drug addict, gang member and street prostitute. He's definitely one of the most colourful characters I've experienced at the Festival.

While McDonald's autobiographical poems were reminiscent of confessional poetry, I enjoyed his humour, candour, intelligence and his lyrical hope in the face of the brutality of his past.

Next on the stage was Angela Rawlings who read from her first poetry book, Wide Slumber For Lepidopterists . It's inaccurate to say that Rawlings read--really she performed. The poems blend the sleep state with the lifecycle of a butterfly or moth. It was hard not to notice Rawling's moth like manner as she gesticulated in a beautiful green dress. I found her performance and the poetry spellbinding, so much so, that I didn't really take many notes. The most remarkable thing about Rawling's poetry to me was that it was filled with so much air, so much breath, the cadence of her words and the way she was able to reproduce through her language, the electricity of insect sounds. Rawlings has an intimate relationship with sound. I felt as if we were seeing language from a very close up point of view, right down to the level of the phoneme. I don't want to give Rawling's imagery short shrift by focusing too much on her ability with sound. She's an effective imagist. The pictures she painted stayed with me long after the reading ended. For more about Rawlings and her poetry, please consult rob mclennan's blog, the April 17 entry.

The question and answer segment of the reading was brief, but interesting.

Mclennan asked Rawlings whether her juxtaposition of the chaos of the sleep state with the order of a moth's natural state was deliberate. Surprisingly, while she has studied chaos theory and discusses it in poetry workshops, she didn't do this deliberately.

When speaking with Barwin, mclennan revealed that the poet had attended Sir Robert Borden High School, and wondered whether the school had influenced his writing. Barwin responded that he's definitely been influenced by the mindscape of mid-western Ottawa, down to the selection of vowels. It was obvious through their easy repartee that mclennan and Barwin have known one another for some time.

In a question to McDonald, mclennan referenced Dany Laferrière, the Haitian writer who had come to the festival previously. Laferriere said that he'd written his novel to save his life. mclennan wanted to know if it was the same for McDonald. McDonald explained that he has always carried around a pen and paper and used his writing for catharsis. He said he has thirteen to fourteen boxes full of stuff written on toilet paper, napkins and even a Metallica CD case.

On the subject of collaboration, all authors felt that writing was a collaborative process. Rawlings explained that for her book, the printer at Coach House Books added a blue tint to the text. She is currently collaborating with a jazz singer and a dancer to render her book as a multi-visual performance.

Mclennan noted that all three poets had a large performance factor in their work. McDonald explained that this was the only way he could avoid being bored shitless. He referenced the aboriginal elders of his childhood who performed and used hand gestures. He said that they taught him to take responsibility for the words he spoke and that he held the words with reverence. His style also comes from fronting many a rock band. Upon request he demonstrated his "Axel Rose swivel" much to the delight of the audience.

Barwin mentioned that some things work as performance pieces while others don't and he's conscious of that when he's deciding what to read before an audience. He said that rhythm, musicality and melody are always implicit in a piece, even if silent.

A member of the audience asked Rawlings about the erotic content of her work, something that wasn't mentioned in the introduction or in any other references to her work that he'd seen. She replied that lepidoptery and sleep both have sensual components, sensual as in taking into account the senses. On an autobiographical note, she's been thinking of the erotic from both the standpoints of pleasure and violence for the last five years or so.

The audience member found her work reminiscent of Christopher Dewdney's language of the natural world. In fact she'd studied with Dewdney in the past and referenced his work, the Natural History of Southern Ontario, as being influential.

Question period ended quietly and there was a brief autograph signing in the lobby. The final poetry cabaret takes place Sunday night with George Elliot Clarke, AJ Levin and Paul Muldoon.


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