Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Writers Fest First Night and the beer is better

It’s the tenth anniversary of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Steamwhistle is no longer the only beer. Now there’s St. Ambroise, not my favourite raspberry wheat, but still, an improvement over Steamwhistle piss water.

Sean Wilson opened Poetry Cabaret 1 by mentioning that poetry was beginning to overtake fiction at the festival and that they had to actually throw out some novelists to make room for all the poets. Vive la poésie, vive la poésie libre!

Poetry Cabaret 1 was well attended for Easter Monday and for poetry. Not as wild and crazy as last year’s Armitage reading, but still decent for a Monday night in Ottawa, not traditionally a poetry night here. I’m not sure what people actually do on Monday nights when they aren’t going to readings.

rob mclennan, this year’s writer-in-residence, emceed the evening which featured Torontonian Kevin Connolly, Montréalaise Nicole Brossard and former Ottawa Valley boy Ken Babstock. Connolly and Babstock were just here last year and Brossard was here for the first festival ten years ago.

The highlight of the reading portion for me was Brossard and mclennan co-reading a transcreation of one of Brossard’s poems. The transcreation was written by Vancouver poet and one of Tish’s founding editors, Fred Wah. rob follows in the footsteps of others who’ve read transcreations of Brossard’s poetry, bill bissett at the Vancouver International Writers Festival in 1997, for example.

Connolly read from all three of his poetry collections and also read some new work. He’s experimenting with various form poems and read a rhyming poem.

Brossard read from an excerpt of the translation of her novel “Yesterday, At the Hotel Clarendon” about two women who meet in a bar in Quebec City to talk. She also read some poetry in French and English. I particularly enjoyed hearing Brossard read in French, her own language. The cadence felt more natural and the words more intimate in French to me.

Babstock read from his new collection Airstream Land Yacht and also a rhyming poem about Tarantella, which I think he actually read the last time he was here too. Of the three, it was Babstock’s poetry that held my attention (not an easy feat). I enjoyed his blend of philosophical musings on human consciousness with tactile and visual imagery. One poem about flying a kite was particularly resonant. There’s humour and friendship in his work, and as he says “other people.”

The Q&A sessions of the festival are always a treat. For some reason the poetry Q&As always seem better to me than the fiction Q&As. There are fewer questions like “why did you become a writer?” In this session mclennan asked sensible and not cliché questions. This is where individual differences between the writers came out. In response to a query about whether or not they wrote facts, Connolly said that he thought much Canadian poetry was non-fiction, containing the truth about ideas and personal experience, whereas when he uses “I” it is likely to be a fabrication. For him the poem is a story inspired by word play, which leads to plot. This makes his poetry either loved or loathed by many. I can’t say I loathe his poetry, but it never really resonates for me and perhaps this is the reason. There’s skill and humour in his work, but for me there’s an absence of feeling, of intimacy. The humour acts as a kind of deflection of what’s real, what’s personal.

Like Connolly, Brossard also mentioned that much of English poetry in Canada is narrative whereas French poetry is philosophical and metaphorical, using similes and metaphor. Her own poems focus on what she refers to as “extreme presence.” She finds it more difficult to have time to reflect and be in the moment and worries that she won’t be able to write as much about her personal experiences anymore. This made me want to give her a holiday just to read and think.

mclennan asked about Plunder Verse. An apt topic since Connolly had read a poem where he took Mark Twain’s aphorisms and rearranged them. Did Connolly see doing something like this as plagiarism, as fraudulent? This was a poet’s question. mclennan has been working with his own variations of other people’s poems lately. Connolly said that when it works it isn’t fraudulent. To reproduce the Dada cut up technique, he used writings of Nietzsche in a poem. While the words were rearranged, Nietzsche’s voice was still strong. mclennan quoted John Newlove who said that the arrangement is all.

There were a few questions from the audience. I was curious about whether Brossard had occasion to change the translation of her work and also whether she felt that the translation was still her own work or whether there was some kind of distance. She talked about the differences between the two languages, how French doesn’t use possessive adjectives to refer to body parts (“les mains”) while English does (his hands), the way in which the gender in French allows her room to play, to use strategies and can also cause challenges (le romancier, the novelist, is masculine).

Brossard says she has been very fortunate in that her translators are people who are familiar with and who enjoy her work. She has done some of her own translation on occasion or at times has tried to write directly in English when she knows only the translation will be published. Over the years, writing in English has become easier as she is more exposed to the English language than she used to be.

An audience member (Kate) commented that there isn’t much torment in contemporary Canadian poetry and asked the writers whether they thought suffering was passé.

Brossard mentioned that in French, poets are still writing from the wounds. There are writers of childhood and writers of adolescence, while when she attends readings of English poetry, the writers tell lots of jokes.

Babstock said there has been a kind of backpedaling since the confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century, of writers like Plath, Lowell and Berryman. Now poets are looking for some decorum and wish to avoid the trap of human suffering as a subject.

Connolly said that suicide ceased to be a good career move. Readers find it useful to know how poets get through.

The evening finished with socializing and book buying. This year the Nicholas Hoare bookshop is in the sunken lobby as are the author signings. This is an intelligent move of the organizers to actually get people to leave the venue and allow for the next session to begin on time. In this case, poetry closed the evening, as it will on Friday and Sunday night.

This year’s festival pays homage to Samuel Beckett on the 100th anniversary of his birth and also, perhaps since it follows so closely on the haunches of the Easter Bunny, has a largely spiritual content with writers on religion and ethics, such as Tom Harpur. There’s even a session on Friday about wine tasting, one of the most spiritual activities around. As usual the organizers have a little bit of something for everyone. It is pleasing to see that poetry is still an important part of the festival.

See you at the next poetry cabaret on Friday evening to hear Angela Rawlings, Gary Barwin and John McDonald (not our John W. Macdonald!) Perhaps you’ll buy me a St. Ambroise?


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