Saturday, April 22, 2006

festival notes, day five (or, night of a million billion ninjas)

I hosted the second poetry cabaret last night at the ottawa international writers festival with my usual grace, wit and charm to a crowd of roughly seventy people (twenty more than the estimate from Monday night's cabaret) who were treated to lively and vigorously performative readings by Prince Albert, Saskatchewan writer John McDonald, Toronto poet and editor angela rawlings and Hamilton, Ontario writer Gary Barwin. Through pre-reading conversation I discovered that Barwin attended Sir Robert Borden High School in Ottawa's west end, the same high school attended by actress Sandra Oh, and where my own lovely daughter currently attends grade nine; does this mean potential big things for my Kate? (I say: yes!)

I didn't know anything about John McDonald before last night's event, a Cree writer with his first poetry collection published by Kegedonce Press; a sixth generation descendant of Chief Mistawasis of the Plains Cree, you have to admire anyone who, in July 2000, sent out media releases about his "discovering" and then "claiming" England for the first people of the Americas. Three authors who share the performative aspects of their work, as much as they exist on the page, angela rawlings rounded out the evening with a magnificent performance of her Wide Slumber of Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006) (see my review of the collection here, if you haven't already) with the whole of her body; currently on tour, she left today for Montreal for another Coach House launch there. (see a review of the same show by Amanda Earl; rawlings' own blog account here; other members of the audience included Monty Reid, Allison Pick, Jennifer Mulligan, John MacDonald (with his version of events), etcetera.

Sometimes the best readings of the festival are the ones not seen by the audience (including a reading a few years ago that David W. McFadden did around midnight a few years ago in the hospitality suite to an audience of seven, reading the entirety of his 1971 collection The Ovi Yogas); Ottawa writer/publisher/bibliographer jwcurry performed a few pieces in the hospitality suite just around midnight last night (with vocal help from Max Middle), including the two-voice Opium Marble (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999), a fraction of bpNichol's The Martyrology Book(s) 7& (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1990) and Mike Patton's "Ma Meeshka Mow Squoz," some of which were also performed at his Messagio Galore last year.

The night before all of this, as part of the Beckett centenary, was the inaugural performance of Ottawa's own Deasil & Widdershins (John Lavery, Max Middle and Carmel Purkis), presenting a series of readings based on the short fiction of Samuel Beckett. An extremely lively event (including three pieces that Purkis arranged for three voices; easily my favourite parts of the reading), Lavery is one of the finest readers of fiction I've heard in a very long time; Lavery manages to put in exactly the right kinds of emphasis and expression, and one easily gets the impression that, depending on how he wanted to present a text, he could completely alter the meaning of any writing simply by shifting his performance. The mad (fiction) genius of the Ottawa area, the only comparison I could make to his reading style generally would be to Leon Rooke (who once included a record of a reading with one of his books of fiction), with Lavery's energy tighter, and more reigned in. In Lavery's hands, words and phrases written by almost anyone can turn into dangerous projectiles.

Middle and Lavery are used to working more of the surreal and nonsensical in their own work, so it was interesting to hear their take on Beckett, whether through selection or performance; the big surprise of the evening to many of us who had been around for years, was the performance by bookstore staff (and one of the three publishers of the slowly-building Ottawa literary publishing company Chaudiere Books) Carmel Purkis. Fluid and almost dangerous, Purkis could easily do documentary voice-overs, but with a twist (madness, perhaps?) that beautifully infected everything she read. And what to say of Max Middle? He simply gets better and better ever time I hear him perform; hopefully this will not be the only performance by such a stellar group (also, if anyone is interested, Middle reads solo on Sunday as part of Sasquatch; 2pm, Royal Oak II on Laurier; open set + featured reader; free).

And let's not forget the conversation I had with Paul William Roberts in the hospitality suite (after everyone else had left) around 3:3o am; somehow all of his stories involve him being in court, or what countries he's no longer allowed to enter. If you ever have a chance to hear, see or read him, I would highly recommend it; he is dangerously informed and wonderfully entertaining at the same time (the last time he was here, he and I watched the vice-presidential debate together; he had lots to say about that...). No wonder the Americans won't let him near the border). His talk, "The Impossible Logic of War," happened yesterday, but you can still catch him again on Sunday at his "Journey of the Magi: In search of the birth of Jesus."

Yes, 3:30 am; will I ever be able to sleep properly again?

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