Sunday, February 12, 2006

Running Into Poets at the Toronto Airport by Sharon Thesen

Running Into Poets at the Toronto Airport

Travelling Air Canada, dark morning, middle of January, a thick layer
of icy white mist over Lake Ontario & drowsy heat of the Greyhound
out to the airport–& there’s Tom Wayman in the waiting room at
Gate 79! We talk about the general wear & tear of poetry readings
and teaching jobs (on board later the Filipino lady next to me wants
to know who owns the college I am “professor” at. Owns it? I briefly
explain public funding, the mandate of community colleges. Her
estimation of me sinks with every sentence.)

There’s a story that poets are always running into each other at the
Toronto airport & now it’s true. One other time I sat with four poets
and two of them were quite famous and we all smoked cigarettes.
Eventually we rose to catch our respective planes. Soon everyone was
gone and someone came and wiped the table off. She had a lot on her
mind such as how to afford a college education. She had no idea that
the people who had been sitting there were Canadian poets as she
dumped their cigarette ashes into a metal container and the airplanes
the poets were on were leaping in all directions off the earth.

Every time I’m in an airport, since I found this poem in Sharon Thesen’s News & Smoke: Selected Poems (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1999), I think of her. It’s a strange thing, I know. Previously published in her collection The Beginning of the Long Dash (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1987), the piece reads as though this was a story Thesen had heard herself over and over but hadn’t witnessed first-hand, not believing it until finally she did. Characterized by halting sentences and ampersands, its composition suggests the poem itself is built out of waiting too long; waiting in an airport lounge, smoking cigarette after cigarette. The destination and delay in what is actually quite simple; that this poem only exists on its way to something else.

Perhaps I’ve not spent enough time in the Toronto airport, but I’ve never met any other writers at all while travelling through airports, let alone poets. I once met Sean Wilson and Kira Harris, organizers of the ottawa international writers festival, at the Ottawa airport. I was flying west to a reading, and they were flying to Greece for vacation. I sat with them in the smoking lounge until I finally had to catch my plane. Can writers even afford to fly anymore? I once met poet Gerry Shikatani at the Greyhound bus terminal in Victoria. I think we had both just taken the same bus from Vancouver, but only noticed the other once we had arrived. On another occasion, I took a greyhound bus from Ottawa to Toronto to do a reading with Michael Holmes, as the girl beside me was reading his novel, Watermelon Row. Does that even count? Do any comparisons hold between travel then and travel now? Composed back in the days, perhaps, of fewer poets and more funding for literary readings, when such accidents would probably happen pretty regularly. Back in the days when the Toronto airport was smaller than it is now.

And what do poets talk about when they get together? Gossip, work (or lack thereof), and general other things that most people talk about, I suppose. One of the last things might actually be writing. And I wonder, if the poem makes me consider how often I run into poets in airports, what does the non-poet reader make of all of this? What does someone like the woman, wiping off tables in the poem, perhaps, make of it all? From Sesame Street programs of the 1970s that I grew up with, the “people in your neighbourhood” segments always involved firemen, the grocer, policeman. Designed to represent the world that we live in, the writer and artist doesn’t even register in the public imagination. Do readers even know the difference if they were sitting beside a poet in the airport? Would they care? But perhaps this is the question Thesen is raising, the question of whether it matters that poets are hovering unnoticed in airport food courts, drinking coffee and talking about the elements of fantastic, but predominantly mundane, life.

So much of the working class is referred to in this piece, from Ontario-born poet Tom Wayman, west coast poet of the working class, to community college professors, the girl who wipes off the table while saving money for university (possibly to study literature, as is the inference), and having no idea that the people who had been there had been part of the business of literature.

There are two ways to take this: the underlying pessimism of the secondary nature of the author to the work, or the way I prefer it, leading me nonetheless to an underlying optimism in Thesen’s poem, to believe that “Running Into Poets at the Toronto Airport” references both the invisibility and abundance of not only the writing, but the writers, moving from point to point, leaving ripples in their wake. How you don’t need to see the boat to feel the shift on the shore.

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