Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sunday Night's Poetry Cabaret

CBC Radio’s Alan Neal hosted the poetry cabaret in Rm 156 of the National Library, making this gathering more intimate than usual. The three poets were all quite different from one another. Ronnie R. Brown told mini stories of dreams in Night Echoes, Afua Cooper recreated the pathos of the history of slaves in Canada in Copper Woman, and Jon Paul Fiorentino gave the underdog his five minutes of…perhaps not fame, maybe acknowledgement? in Theory of the Loser Class.

Ronnie’s poems about dreams continued a theme that she’s been writing about in many of her collections. She mentioned that writers write until they get something out of their system. It turns out that the title of her latest book comes from a poem in States of Matter called Summer Haze, which includes the words “night echoes.”

Ronnie’s reading was serious at times but also quite playful with poems like “Going Down,” based on a song by Aerosmith. Turns out Ronnie is a big Aerosmith fan.

The cover of Night Echoes has a picture of a motel sign with no vacancy in front perhaps to suggest the final poem of the book, the Epilogue, a long poem which documents the dreams of various guests at the Holiday Inn. Ronnie’s poems make you feel like you are seeing inside the minds of all kinds of different people. Her characters are the people we all run in to in daily life. She says she tries to use colloquial expressions that we can all relate to. She does this, but she also is skilled at sound play and metaphor. In the poem Summer Haze (States of Matter) there’s a “soft slurp of suction” that is onomatopoeic for summer. The poem Predator (Night Echoes) clearly shows the big cast iron pan called a spider by the grandmother, the one used to beat the boy in the poem. These are the images of dreams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up in my own dreams tonight.

The next reader, Afua Cooper, had already given a talk earlier today on Slavery in Canada, and was worried her voice might give out; however her voice was strong and powerful, even allowing her to sing some of the words, turning them into refrains and the poems into hymns. There were times when I wished I had the hymn book, so I could join in. Her words were full of power and movement. In the poem “Dub for Lisa,” she describes Lisa Carter as a “woman whose words blazed a hundred fires/beneath a blue black sky” (Copper Woman). Bird of Paradise gives us a strong woman: “I have peopled the world with the numerous men/ and women that my body has birthed…./Now it’s time for me to birth other things” In the poem Richard Pierpont, Revolutionary Soldier, Cooper presents three voices at the same time: the internal monologue of Pierpont, the formal voice of the letter writer who is petitioning to return home to Africa after fighting in the War of 1812, and the poet “who knows everything.” The poem that stayed with me the most was one called “Negro Cemeteries,” in which Cooper evokes dead slaves whose graves have been discovered in Ontario, in various towns, such as Priceville. It’s an amazing poem full of word play and accumulation of all these graves being discovered. Here’s a short excerpt:

Like Osiris ancestors burst from the earth
in green resurrection
African skeletons shaking the dust from their bones
skulls with rattling teeth
reciting litanies of ancient woes
(Negro Cemeteries, Copper Woman)

Jon Paul Fiorentino or beta male, as he referred to himself, read from his book, Theory of the Loser Class, a work inspired by The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Star Wars and other more mundane contemporary bits and pieces, such as Photoshop. I enjoyed the playfulness of his language, and as always, had a hard time keeping a straight face as he talked about things like The Republican Party of Canadian Poetry, a group who likes poems to be read in a British accent with a formal and conservative style. Fiorentino is witty and skilled at word play and thought play. The sarcasm is sometimes so thick you can cut it with a plastic knife, for instance in “Right In The Spine”: “Crooning Gertrude Stein songs/but sounding shallow, somehow.” If he’d brought them, he could have shaken the maracas as good as bill bisset ever could in poems like STET with its few words but three syllable chachacha rhythm. I was sad to miss his sonnet of R2D2. He did read some of his Winnipeg Angst poems, otherwise referred to as “Wangst.” There’s so much wit in JPF’s poems and so much kinship as we recognize a bit of all of us in these poems.

I think that was the thing that linked all of these poets together, that feeling of relating to the experiences and personalities in their poems: the connection we all had, sitting in that small room and escaping into the worlds of three very different, yet somehow the same, poets.

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