There’s a lot of history in the scuffed, wooden floorboards of the Niagara Artists Centre. The organization, now in its 43rd year of serving Niagara’s artistic interests, has hosted countless literary heroes through its Grey Borders Reading Series alone, including the likes of Phil Hall, Catherine Owen, Stuart Ross and Dennis Lee. That eclectic venue in the heart of St Catharines’ fragile downtown earned a few more stripes last Wednesday when Donato Mancini, Beatriz Hausner, Steve Zultanski, bill bissett and Ottawa’s own Pearl Pirie convened for a celebration of wide-ranging poetry.
I was mostly drawn to the event because of Pirie, a familiar face in the crowd of bespeckled wordsmiths and enthusiasts, whose prolific output has always intrigued. After some time for book-buying, booze-finding and a fond eulogy for Raymond Souster, hosts Eric Schmaltz and Craig Dodman gave the brick-backed stage to the evening’s guests.
Establishing an unpredictable tone that would colour the whole event, Donato Mancini dropped a heady gauntlet of philosophical ideas, political buzzwords and household names in self-described “lists” that built up in momentum until they threatened to collapse at any moment. His compendium on Death Row inmates’ last meal choices and Dr Pepper – Texas’ beverage of choice – devolved into a lengthy list of doctors (some real, some imaginary). Flipping haphazardly through pages of his notebook, it was the uncertainty of Mancini’s sporadic jumps that ensured a vital, if occasionally bewildering, reading.
Beatriz Hausner followed with a selection of essay meditations and poetry inspired by her lover “Raccoon” and their nocturnal rites of passion. With her sensual approach to wordplay, Hausner won appreciative nods from many in attendance with “Loneliness of the Fashionista”, a rebuttal on the black leather and metal-pronged ugliness that seeks to identify bondage.
Steve Zultanski offered two rapid-fire examinations during his oft-comedic time onstage: the first, of yawning and its space-time relationship to those who know him most intimately, and the latter entertaining the cause-and-effect possibilities of pushing his friend into a pool. In reaching for outlandish strands of logic, Zultanski’s sly use of repetition and speed-reading unveiled tiny shards of brilliance that rendered his doubts, while dysfunctional, wholly relatable. Knowing laughs from the audience seemed to verify that everyone was strapped in for the ride.
To the untrained eye Pearl Pirie looked the relaxed participant, listening and taking the odd photograph. But speaking to me during intermission, Pirie admitted she was just as actively listening for the crowd’s reactions and amending some poem choices along the way. Her ensuing plan of attack, a loosely tied knot of rogue poems – some new and unpublished – provided a freewheeling test-drive of a unique literary voice.
Whether describing isolation and conversational fever in “We’ll Leave At Night For Thunder Bay” (from her mini-chapbook Sprockets Away) or an evocative landscape that flexes between the earthy and bodily on “River-High” (from been shed bore), Pirie’s language shined especially when read aloud, her rhymes emerging in stuttering successions that countered any straightforward pacing. One of the evening’s highlights was surely a poem (from Where There’s Fire) inspired by SlutWalk, capturing the air of sexual freedom spilling through a metropolis’ etiquette of suits and cigarettes. But just as intriguing were poems assembled from games of Scrabble and snippets of Hollywood dialogue, spun in reverse, which highlighted her creative playfulness. All of the five poets showcased their inventiveness with finished poems but Pirie’s willingness to discuss her work’s origins added to the event’s refreshing openness.
Although I was due to meet friends on the other side of downtown, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear bill bissett read from his previously out-of-print, post-modernist/ collagist manifesto Rush: what fuckan theory. It was a joy to behold. And as he chanted syllables around his essay of “the artist as a young man, an outsider” with a shaker in hand, I smiled at the thought of bissett’s revolutionary calls emanating through the NAC’s outdoor speakers and ricocheting down St Catharines’ chilly storefronts. With regards to each of last Wednesday’s poets, I can’t think of a better way to announce the latest chapter in Niagara’s understated literary history.