Sunday, September 23, 2007

Report: The (second annual) Edmonton Poetry Festival

Part of the fun of being in a new place is learning the context, whether culturally through food, television, newspapers or language, and part of what I've been participating in over the last few days has been the second annual Edmonton Poetry Festival. Originally created by then-city poet laureate Alice Major, her baby has grown into the "terrible twos" into an impressive array of performance and creation over the space of near-a full week. Still: one major frustration; why is the website so difficult to navigate? Why does it mention that Christian Bök is reading/performing, but not mention anywhere the event he's actually at? Extremely frustrating. Anyway, here are some notes I took along the way:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007; CORTEX: a multidisciplinary event

According to the flier they handed out at the event (held at Latitude 53), "CORTEX brings together poets, visual artists, video/media artists, musicians, and dancers for an evening of collaborative creation. The participants of CORTEX have spent the last several months working on their own and together to create new work that explores the inspiration that can come from art in another discipline. Poets will work with dancers and musicians; visual aritsts will work with media artists and poets ... and more." Catherine Owen, for example, was performing text she'd written influenced by artwork in the same show, and then Don Ross performed music influenced by Owen's text, providing, over the space of a few hours, dozens of interweavings between Edmonton artists such as T.L. Cowan, Gerry Morita, Paul Saturley, Rebecca Traquair, Theresa Dextrase, Thom Golub and Kelley Bolen. One of the real highlights was the dance piece by The Occupants, a trio including one on upright bass, using, as they were introduced, a movement style based on shifting weight. I don't think I've seen anyone use the bass so physically (as though it was dancing as part of a quartet); one even crawled her way over the audience, shifting their way around the room (and audience, here and there, even moved seats to get a better view, almost as though they were part of the piece they were trying to watch).

The Latitude 53 space, as well, is just lovely; I must make a note of getting back in there for an opening.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007; Hip-Hop Night

I couldn't go (a dinner party), but former QWERTY guy/fiction writer/U of Alberta grad student Joel Katelnikoff reported that it was an amazing event, including actual rappers and breakdancers, as well as two poets (this is where Christian Bök performed) at Grant MacEwen College. And now Christian is gone again, off to York University in Toronto to read. I've missed him again.

Thursday, September 20, 2007; Douglas Barbour, Sheila E. Murphy and Jonathan Meakin

After knowing Meakin for years (he was one of the inventors of the Olive Reading Series, along with Andy Weaver, Adam Dickinson and Paul Pearson), I had no idea he wrote poetry, so it was good to finally have an opportunity to hear him perform a few pieces, opening for Barbour and Murphy. What intrigued me, too, was the long poem about an eighteenth-century theme park near where he grew up in England. The long poem he didn't read. Is this worth getting a peek at, sir? The crowd at Hulbert's Cafe (where Olive happens now) was quite impressive, with poet (and new kid at the University of Alberta Press) Jeff Carpenter hosting a packed house of friends, readers, writers and otherwise admirers including T.L. Cowan, Jenna Butler, Bert Almon and Olga Costopoulos, kath macLean, photographer Danielle Schaub and Richard Stevenson (in town for the poetry festival).

Mixing the reading up between their own collaborative book, Continuations (University of Alberta Press) and their individual works, Barbour and Murphy read from parts 14, 18 and 25 of their ongoing project (the book holds the first twenty-five parts; they're apparently already over sixty parts so far).

conceptual stone then stone
a colour then some human formal
fraction meant to be
a whole immobile say-so
ambiguous though featuring
a fall not yet discerned a fall

chipped wing ground rubble
carved by bombs or
bullets / yet blank
marble eyes still stare up
to strain toward some
concept beyond beyond
(from XXV)

The difference between Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour and Phoenix, Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy, almost erased during their collaborations, becomes more evident during their individual readings. Murphy seems more aware of the breaks and her breath; the extended breath and the uninterrupted flow, reading the title poem from her selected poems Falling in Love, Falling in Love with you Syntax (Potes and Poets), and the Canadian-produced pure mental breath, published in the 1980s by Nick Power's Gesture Press out of Toronto (Ottawa-born Power was also co-inventor with Stuart Ross of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair), as well as from her most recent collection, The Case of the Lost Objective (Case), published by Otoliths. Barbour's poems, on the other hand, seem almost a matter of broken and even held breath; more about a series of accumulations, with a poem for the late Syd Barrett, and another for Robert Creeley ("in the presence / of what measure spoke").

Friday, September 21; Word! Symposium: talk, poetry and performance

Session one: page to stage, with Anne Simpson (Nova Scotia), Kris Demeanor (Calgary) and Jack McCarthy (Washington)

As part of the Edmonton poetry festival, I got to participate in the Word! Symposium at Grant MacEwan, Alberta College Campus on Friday and Saturday; I got completely lost trying to find my way there on Friday morning (an hour walk, lost coffee, angerangeranger). The first speaker, Anne Simpson, talked about "poetry and difference," saying that "poetry is difference," about how poetry brings us to the threshold of silence and then into silence, and that the value of poetry is "to challenge sameness and otherness." As much as I found this interesting, predominantly what she talked about was metaphor-driven poetry (which makes sense, since that's what she works in), but it seemed almost contradictory that she talked about all of this differences, and all her examples had variations on a particular method of construction; it came out further when she said things like "we need specifics, not abstractions," and quoted from some computer-generated semi-erotic verse she found on the internet, saying that it wasn't poetry because of what had been removed from it, through construction. I wonder if she ever read Erin Moure's book of computer-generated lesbian love poems? It gave the inference that poems and the authors of them have variations on the same goals, and the "everything" didn't take into account other forms of language writing, etcetera. Am I being nit-picky? It felt very much that her talk was instead on metaphor and (un)knowing, reminding me of that anthology of essays on poety and poetics, Poetry & Knowing, that came out a few years ago, edited by Tim Lilburn (he was even one of Simpson's examples). A good book, and one I'd recommend, but it ain't the whole world; but honestly, what is? It felt like her talk presumed that all poets worked with the consideration of writing pieces with "something to say."

Calgary singer-songwriter Kris Demeanor was utterly charming; why haven't I heard of this guy before? He sang a couple very clever songs he'd written, introducing them with a charming story of what was going on in his head to get the songs built, and other things. He told some lovely stories, including one of sunflowers, and how they can't grow in the Yukon. In the weight of summer, when the sun never leaves the horizon, he said, sunflowers constantly turn to face the light until their heads twist off. Another was about his travels and loves while a young man venturing across Europe; Canadian men aren't the best at romance, he said, and how to pursue it. They treat it like the Olympics; "we're just happy to be there."

American stand-up poet, Jack McCarthy is perhaps the oldest and one of the most effective slam poets that I've heard in a very long time; his poems are well crafted, and sometimes venture into the sentimental, but don't linger there for too long. He had a story about the former-American poet laureate Donald Hall that was interesting, and disappointing, about him dismissing slam poets and the structure of how the system works; why bother trashing something just because you don't work within it?

I thought the question and answer portion particularly interesting. Simpson talked about the difference (since she was asked) of poetry and fiction, saying that fiction is "a long narrative line," whereas poetry is an "illumination of a moment." I don't know if I agree, but who cares. Perhaps I make too much out of these little differences...

Session two: hear this! live and personal, with Heather Haley (Vancouver), James Carson (Edmonton) and Chris Craddock (Edmonton)

Creator of various videopoem festivals, series and events in and around Vancouver, Haley gave a talk on the history of the videopoem in Canada that I'd love to see as a non-fiction piece; worth getting her to work on to consider for a future issue of James Carson, on the other hand, was a very interesting speaker; extremely quiet, the poet and musician focused his talk on zen (getting very abstract); I'm glad this guy hasn't started a religion. His manner of speaking was slow and almost hypnotic; I could easily see myself giving him all of my money and possessions.

There's a story of Leonard Cohen at the Monteray Pop Festival in the late 1960s, after hours and hours of performance and crowds screaming to the point that most bands on stage couldn't even hear themselves. Apparently Cohen got on stage around 4am for his set, and spent about 20 minutes tuning his guitar; there was something about his presence that calmed the crowd down, and they hung on his every sound; that's what Carson reminded me of (at least one other writer in the audience I suggested this to didn't agree with me). I don't know if this guy has published a book (it appears not), but he studied with Robert Creeley in Boston (we took long walks and got lost, he said. Creeley always got lost...), and is currently building a cabin in the woods so he can practice his piano more, and be able to play whole concerts off the cuff (he played a portion of a recording of an improvised piano piece, and it was magnificent). He talked about how poetry saved his life, and that music allows him to express what the poetry means to him. He talked about travel, and the experience of travel (all very abstract). "A new idea," he said, "is only new once."

Chris Craddock, playwright, talked about working on things like a gay rap opera, and educational theatre for the school systems (which the Catholic school system doesn't just not like but deliberately works against so they can misinform through fear...), a system run on religious belief and the one-letter system (stopping just before they start getting that one letter of complaint from the angry parent; that extreme point of view holding back an entire structure).

Should I mention the later afternoon drinks with Heather Haley, Jeff Carpenter, Richard Stevenson, and what the drunk guy tried to use to talk to Heather? Probably not.

Friday, September 21, 2007; The Roar!

As far as the Friday evening events went, there were eleven mostly-concurrent group poetry events in eight venues, including a large blow-out at 10pm as a final, in the basement of the AXIS Cafe, with the Raving Poets Band, Heather Haley, Jack McCarthy, Phil Jagger, Garth Lee, Mary Pinkoski, Shima Robertson, Richard Stevenson and myself, as well as an opening by SWYC - the Spoken Word Youth Choir. With Stevenson and I (with Jeff Carpenter) tearing from hourly venue to hourly venue from 7pm on, the two highlights (apart from the shirtless kid in the green hat who went on about penises during most of his reading; I thought most of the writing wasn't very good, but he was so enthusiastic...) were easily Sarah Lang reading from her first poetry collection from Coach House Press (I very look forward to going through it), and fucking awesome spoken word by Laura Crawford (with musical assistance by Marco Katz). Apparently Elizabeth Phillips read somewhere, but god knows where; and why did Jannie Edwards disappear from the bill? At the end of the night, drinks drinks and plenty of drinks, and then the woman at the end of the evening who offered me a ride home; we got lost looking for her car, and then even lost-er driving me back to where I've been staying. A ten minute drive turned into a little more than an hour (although I have to admit I had plenty of fun); and I know I saw parts of Edmonton I'll never see again (since we had no idea where we were).

My part of the reading was plenty fun, but the crowd almost turned when I introduced my hockey (read: Ottawa Senators) poem; will this be the thing that'll make Edmonton trade me to LA?

Saturday, September 22, 2007; Word! Symposium; talk, poetry and performance

Session one: the wider world, with Roald Hoffmann (New York), Jalal Barzanji (Iraq/Edmonton) and Michelle Brandt, Devona Stevenson and Andreana Brochu (Video Poem Project)

Not as many notes on these events as on some of the others; who knows why? Chemist Roald Hoffmann (while searching for info online I discovered something interesting; why didn't any of the promo for the event talk about how this guy won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981? Holy geez!) talked about the place where poetry and science meet, starting his long talk with "There was a time when they were together, poetry and science..." and about how natural philosophers once worked through science and poetry together as a way to understand the beautiful and terrible world around us and within us. The language of the theoretical sciences, he said, is "a natural language under stress, and therefore poetic." He read a number of his poems, many of which were okay enough poems but had amazing lines throughout:

we can’t pass through


are always

It reminds me of Da Vinci, the last individual who perhaps understood the whole world because he didn't divide it, sectioning off knowledge to focus on, instead working the whole range of study, therefore able to see the connections that no-one else could. He ended his talk by showing both the final and earlier scribbly drafts of the poem "Tyger" and the Periodic Table; what, as he showed us, is the difference between trying to figure out the world in one arena as opposed to another?

In the end, we have only words, he said.

Continuing on that theme, Edmonton's first writer-in-exile, Jalal Barzanji [we do a reading together on October 3rd] talked about his escape from Irac to Canada in 1998, and said that we have all a common language; a language of the heart.

The third piece was the showing of two short video poems that came out of a program/workshop run by filmmaker Devona Stevenson (who apparently leaves on Thursday to intern at Vancouver's infamous Western Front) and poet Catherine Owen. The program focuses on what could otherwise be called troubled youth, and one of the participaints even said that the workshop saved her life, as a young single mother who felt very little need to do anything with her day, with her life. Now she has a job, plans, ideas, and things that she wants to accomplish; how can there be any better advertisement for the program than that?

Session two: Learning the Art of..., with George McWhirter (Vancouver), Douglas Barbour (Edmonton) and Sheila E. Murphy (Phoenix AZ) and Morningstar Mercredi (Edmonton), with the last-minute inclusion of Jack McCarthy (Washington)

I've heard of George McWhirter for years now, poet and professor (now retired) at the University of British Columbia; a beloved teacher, former students such as Stephanie Bolster speaks very highly of him. Once I saw him talk about making poetry more specific, I could easily see the attraction of him as a professor (he must have been great at it). He started with a New Yorker cartoon with a man saying "I love you" to a woman, and the woman responding with, "Can you be more specific?"

How does one get more specific than that? What would the purpose be?

He talked about lightening, about poetry and inspiration and the effect it has on the body, like "the girl from Abbotsford," who wondered why her feet were suddenly warm, not understanding (yet) that she'd been struck by lightening. He talked about wanting his poem to be from that effect, and the cause of that upon others (another inference of all writers having similar goals, but anyway). A poetry of diffused light upon the senses.

Next up was Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy again, talking about the process of collaborating on a project over email; I hadn't realized until after the talk that this was only the second time (after the reading the other day) that the two had even read from the poem together publicly. I thought it interesting that they composed through a series of alternating six-line stanzas, but read instead longer sections, taking turns after a half dozen stanzas or so. It was good, in fact, to have moderator Jannie Edwards introduce Barbour as the "quintessential student" and being "endlessly curious." There is much about Barbour that seems to get overlooked, and even taken for granted, so any attention he gets is certainly long-deserved. They talked about the third voice, and Murphy talked about taking it down to the daily level, as their ongoing project had elements of a day book but exists as a shared thing.

The sequence was something suggested by Barbour to Murphy, after seeing that she had collaborated with others, as a way for him to get back into writing. As Barbour said, "language generates language; reading generates writing," and that "language is the way in which we know the world."

Author, blogger and actress Morningstar Mercredi talked about being an aboriginal woman in Canada, giving homage, as she said, to the women of the world who are beaten, killed and raped because of their gender. Working with women over the years who are living high-risk lifestyles, she worked, as she said, her "humble efforts to shed some light on some sensitive issues" while being aware of "not wanting to traumatize the reader." The result of that became poetry, she said, and talked about child sexual abuse, and how on any given night in Saskatoon, for example, twenty to thirty girls between the age of nine and seventeen would be out selling their bodies. "I can not afford to feel fear."

Jack McCarthy followed briefly (which I thought odd, since he was on a panel the day before), and managed to do what he does very well after Morningstar's very passionate and raw presentation. How does one follow, he suggested, without feeling a lightweight? I would love to be able to do what she does, he said, working as an advocate for an important and essential cause; as writers we don't choose our material, he said, the material chooses us. He also had another great line that I think applies to almost anyone: "If you haven't embarrassed yourself, you haven't taken enough chances."

Saturday, September 22, 2007; Word! Gala

The event ended with a gala evening in two parts; the first part was a music/dance piece performed by Karly Coleman, Marilyn Dumont, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Melissa-jo Belcourt Moses, Anna Marie Sewell and Kirstin Smith. As the program wrote, "Honour Songs is a suite in six parts; selected poems by ensemble members, edited, arranged and directed for performance by Marilyn Dumont, Tanya Lukin Linklater and Anna Marie Sewell." Also from the program:

the land she came in by Marilyn Dumont
“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

Elizabeth Brass Donald, Cree/Saulteaux, was in born 1836, a member of the Key Reserve in southeastern Saskatchewan. At the age of 17, she married George Donald, Metis, carpenter and blacksmith for the Hudson Bay Company, and raised 11 children. Later she became a member of the Papaschase Band, but extinguished her Indian status by taking Metis Scrip in July 1885, likely under duress of starvation.

In two surviving photographs of Elizabeth Brass Donald (Betsy Brass), she is diminutive, with rounded shoulders, and she wears a dress of crisp black fabric and a black shawl. In one photograph she stands defiant in front of Frank Oliver’s house, the founder/owner of The Bulletin, Alberta’s first newspaper.

Oliver, was opposed to the establishment of the Papaschase Reserve in what is now South Edmonton, and he was amongst a vociferous group of Edmontonians who advocated that the Papaschase Band ‘be sent back to the country they originally came from.’

The line in the poem, “Where it all went wrong” is a derivation of “Where it went wrong.” This is an English translation of the Cree word e-mayikamikahk, which refers to the tragic events of the so-called Northwest Resistance of 1885.

The piece was not only quite beautiful, but it was an interesting (and essential) counterpoint to all the Alberta/Edmonton history I've been reading lately. It's always easy to forget that there are more stories than the ones that get told.

Other participants in the rest of the evening were Ted Blodgett, Jack McCarthy, Pierrette Requier, the Spoken Word Youth Choir, Jalal Barzanji, Anne Simpson (who I've been realizing is quite lovely and charming), Heather Haley and finally Alice Major, closing off the evening. Drinks?

Sunday, September 23, 2007; last days & then a day

After seeing the whole event, I'm extremely impressed with what Alice Major is doing here in Edmonton; it certainly does make for a poetry town, and part of the claim for cultural capital. Who else gets a packed house for poetry? I don't think I've seen that in a long time, and the houses all over town were packed for this thing; why haven't I noticed this before?

It seems somehow unlikely that I'm going to make anything today. Moving today (a week displaced), in the office working, and still haven't been home yet from the event last night; oh my. Crashed in Heather Haley's hotel room on her comfortable couch around 6am, after plenty of talk and drink with her and Devona Stevenson and then some pizza by the very end; I wonder how the Whyte Avenue etcetera stroll is going?


Marco said...

Thanks for the mention Rob. I also enjoyed following your further adventures around Edmonton. Who knows? Maybe you will see some of those places again.

Hubert said...

Thanks I also enjoyed the festival and the many artists as well as your reviews.I really enjoyed the Spoken Word Youth Choir and hope to see their involvement in more festival performances. Thanks again Hubert