Saturday, April 21, 2007

Troubadours, Shamans & Language Oracles

at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last night.

First there was Catherine Kidd, performance poet and novelist. She performed from "Bipolar Bear" (Conundrum Press, 2005) and read from her first novel, "Missing the Ark" (Conundrum Press, 2007). Here I’ll touch briefly on her spoken word performance.

Kidd is an actress and shape shifter, the nuances and changes in her voice making it easy to believe for an instant that she really is a blind, cave-dwelling Human Fish. To the background of music created for the piece, Kidd spouted rhythms and rhyme of a zoological bent. I’m not a big fan of spoken word with a few exceptions when I become a huge fan as is the case here for Catherine Kidd. She weaved magic with Plato, and creatively riffed on extinction. I was caught up in the joy of her performance. The audience felt likewise. I also really enjoyed her reading from her novel, a very intense and compelling scene about a little girl who rides in a taxi and makes up stories that aren’t fooling the driver, who has stories of his own. As Kidd said later on during the Q&A, when she is writing, the characters tell their own stories. It’s what makes her dialog so believable.

Later in the evening, after Sarah Dearing’s lively conversation with the entertaining and provocative Heather Mallick, former Globe and Mail columnist and “opinionator” as she calls herself, we returned to poetry with Poetry Cabaret 3. David O’Meara hosted the event, mixing serious tributes with humour in his introductions of Barbara Nickel, Dennis Lee and Simon Armitage.

Domain (House of Anansi Press, 2007) is the second collection in ten years for Nickel who likened creating a poem to the process of chipping away at stone and taking days to get to a tiny phrase. rob mclennan asked her during the Q&A about the structure of the book, whether the compact foundational poems throughout the book framed the rest of the poems. Nickel explained that the Crown of Sonnet poems scattered throughout the book and representing the various rooms of a house formed the structure and then poems about circles, cycles, the moon and cobwebs followed. She likened the process of writing poetry for her to the wait in fishing.

I found Nickel’s poems to be mesmerizing, the imagery precise, the cadence and rhythm in the sonnets very delicate and subtle, and the lines powerful and surprising. In "The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife" the “house is a body she’s trapped in.” And there’s a juxtaposition between the domestic experiences and the gruesomeness and sadness of the doctor’s life. “He mounts the stairs. Today/ he touched a bruise, a wart, a man’s eyelids/just dead still warm—he reaches for / his wife.”

What else did I enjoy about Nickel’s poems?

The imagery of white and stillness in poems like "Girls’ Room," inspired by The Veiled Virgin, a statue by Giovanni Strazza.

The echo of themes throughout the poems she read. For example, the line “the only way to touch her is to hurt’” appeared in two poems Nickel read: "Master Bedroom" and "Girls’ Room" and in this form in "The Doctor and Doctor’s Wife": “He touches pain so she can buy the meat.”

The play of syntax in poems like "Girls’ Room": “the heave/down rock of water.”

The repetition from poems like "Athabasca Falls, 8:40 am": “and view, endlessly, ourselves/viewing the view.”

The way sound patterned and reinforced the poems' moods and subjects. For instance in “Living Room” the melancholy mood of remembrance is echoed in the hollow open o and the lax i sounds which call to mind the pure white waterfall of the opening line: “my brother flicking stones/into the foam, christening me with names I still hiss at the mirror. Where do those stones/exist?”

Nickel’s work, to me, is an example of shamanism, of observing what is real and forecasting what it might mean in the broader sense, with lines line “Climbing depends/ on loving the rock wholly and letting go.”

In a series of poems about Catherine the Great, Nickel opens with epigraphs from Catherine and from others in the era and then creates glossas using part of the quote within the poems. She also had a series of poems on graveyards, explaining that she is a collector of graveyards, writing a series of laments for people she’s lost in her life through breakups and deaths. The poem "Churchyard: Tiefengrund," being a particularly heartbreaking poem about the burial of a baby son and the speaker’s grandmother.

Dennis Lee followed Nickel, reading first from a collection of children’s poems and moving on to Yes/No (House of Anansi Press, 2007), a follow-up to UN (House of Anansi Press, 2003). He advised the audience to treat his reading as a piece of music and to not be too worried if they found it disorienting.

I found it playful and delightfully overwhelming to my ear and brain, engaging my cerebral cortex in ways it likely rarely gets engaged. I admitted to Lee during the book signing later that the last time he came to the Writers Festival, I hadn’t really twigged on to his writing and that now I was finally ready for it. I enjoyed the accumulative effect of the strings of utterances, the side by side placing of unlike ideas like “blunderling underlying”, “extinctions con carne”, “calling all lords of the rigor mort tango”, “quotidianic aha. His reading had a Lewis Carroll Jaberwocky feel to it for me, an absurdity and playfulness with language and still maintained an Aligator Pie cadence, which I also mentioined to Lee.

“Plague of indigenous nada” sounded like something one could yell out at a business meeting. I’ll have to sit down and read both "UN" and "Yes/No" to get more than sound out of this work, but it did remind me of something Steve McCaffery has said in an electronic poetry centre interview with charles berstein, which I can only paraphrase, that sometimes it is good to focus on sound to shift the reader’s attention from the pattern of literal meaning.

Simon Armitage, the next reader, was much more a storyteller, fashioning poems that are easily accessible to the reader yet at the same time still strong in the craft and precision of poem-making. He read from his new collection “Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Cowboy Kid" (first published by Faber and Faber, Canadian edition by House of Anansi Press, 2007) His poems combined humour and wit. This is a return for Armitage who came to the festival two years before. I was particularly pleased to hear him read “You’re beautiful” again. It’s in the current collection. The speaker praises the you in the poem while the I is ugly for things like “saying ‘love at first sight’ is another form of mistaken identity...”

During the question and answer bit, O’Meara asked general questions about how hard it was to start a poem, how the writers knew when the poem was finished.

Lee explained that his first drafts were dull and boring, that they often contained too much chatter and too many bright ideas. It can take him up to twenty five drafts to create a poem. The more the drafts, the more spontaneous sounding the poem would be. The poem, he said, has to find its way out.

For Armitage, a poem often starts as a daydream. Like Lee, Armitage and Nickel both found early drafts to be a form of hard labour. Armitage, whose work relies heavily on sound and rhythm, explained that he’ll start with sacrificial words that have the correct sound and rhythm but not the right meaning. He said that it was different for books, in which he starts to commission poems in his mind, focussed towards a theme. He described the poet’s holy trinity of anxiety as being the title, the first line and the last line. In his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he said he was lucky in that since those were given to him, he could concentrate on moment-to-moment poetics.

Armitage uses long hand to write his poems, believing in conserving the archeology of his own work through written drafts. He said that the word processor tends to make him feel like he’s already got a finished product and many writers delete previous versions. He ascribes to the philosophy of Ted Hughes in that he sees a relationship between crafting letters with the hand and the side of the brain the writer is appealing to.

I particularly liked what Armitage said about how to know when you’re finished. He said that when you feel you’ve created what you set out to make, you’ve failed. Instead you are finished when you’ve outreached own grasp, when the poem has taken you beyond your own capabilities.

An audience member asked about artistic inspirations. Armitage is currently working with the natural sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy; Nickel mentioned Chagall as being one influence, which makes a heck of a lot of sense given the dream-like nature of her work, but also said that it differs for each poem. I anticipated Lee would mention Mark Rothko as an influence, so I gave myself a gold star when he noted Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

O’Meara in a very skilful segue asked about the music that influenced the writers. He mentioned that Lee’s poems had a jazz association, while Nickel’s were majesterial and classical and Armitage was known for his liking of punk music, which made sense given the colloquial nature of his writing. Armitage said that his poetry followed the punk reaction to the Thatcher years and that at the time he had been fascinated by the use of journalese and that British writers had witnessed its effectiveness by people in power.

For his own writing, Armitage doesn’t listen to punk, but rather needs something arythmical to not influence hiss own rhythms. Nickel explained that she needs complete silence in order to write.

The evening went by quickly. I have to admit that it was the most engaging and inspiring evening for me of the writers festival so far. And there are still two more days to go!

Related posts/pics by John MacDonald, Charles Earl and perhaps more to come as the late night owls awake ;)

No comments: