Friday, October 19, 2007

[ottawa] festival notes: october

Thursday, October 18;

It's been said for years that if Toronto writer Stuart Ross was an American writer, he would have been famous a very long time ago; I think the same thing could easily be said of Montreal poet, fiction and critical writer David McGimpsey, author of a new poetry collection (his fourth), Sitcom (Toronto ON: Coach House Books). Writing a collection of soliliquies and sonnets based on the works of his literary heroes, McGimpsey's poems bring in classical references from Greek literature and Shakespeare, mixing it in with the most banal of popular culture, whether scenes from the sitcom Joey or Lindsay Lohan.


Precious as the love between a man
and either Betty or Veronica,
sweet as spending the night in a van
with a bottle of no-name Goldshläger.
Into the thicket the gnatcatchers go,
grey winged with high-pitched mating calls;
I take you to my parents' bungalow
after three Big Macs at the East Side Mall.
Sweet as toffee muffin without the muffin,
gentle as a less-howly howler monkey,
soft as soft-serve, cute as a postcard puffin
riding the back of a ceramic donkey.
Mom's on meth and Dad's left for Vancouver,
so let's skip school and love one another.

I have to admit I did like the way Neil Wilson introduced David, referencing a story of eggnog paralyzers from the Edmonton part of the 1998 Great Canadian Via Rail Tour that the festival organized (I remember that morning well), and referencing Dave's piece "Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat?" [also included on] from side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002), that includes:
I don’t write poetry for respectable reasons. By that, I don’t mean to suggest I'm some kind of rebel, writing things so beyond the norm that traditional niceties and conventional rewards leave me unimpressed. On the contrary: whatever hokey, half-baked, self-aggrandizing, obscuring, mythologizing, self-defeating, daydreaming, flaky, effacing, please-love-me, log-rolling, "I'd like to thank the Governor General" sins that are alleged to plague poets, I'll cop to those same sins and more. I guess what I mean is that I'm still not entirely sure why I write poetry. After a long time writing the stuff, some days it doesn’t feel worth it, some days it still kinds of feels too personal to talk about. Though, unfortunately for my friends, some days it's all I can talk about. I agree with Tennyson when he famously said "I sometimes hold it a sin / To put in words the grief I feel" (181) but, as with so many sins, I haven’t let
guilt stop me.

Poetry is still wonderful, isn’t it?
What makes this collection different, with the threads and twists of bizarre mixture of base and highly intellectual humour that McGimpsey's work is known for, is the way he's returning to more traditional forms (his first poems in school, years ago, were sonnets about Batman). What made the event even more than spectacular, after killing the crowd with piece after piece, was Clare Latremouille's ten-year-old son Sam at the back of the room, barely able to contain himself; he has such a wonderful laugh, too, and it was infectious.

At one point, too, the technician had to go on stage to replace McGimpsey's microphone, which prompted Dave's response that this was "not the first time in the throes of passion, someone told me that the batteries were dying."

I was very taken by the 7pm event, Richard Gwyn in conversation with Charlotte Gray about Gwyn's new biography about Sir John A. MacDonald, John A: The Man Who Made Us. An extremely interesting speaker, Gwyn said that the book came about after the realization that there hadn’t been a major biography on our first Prime Minister for half a century, whereas American and British culture produces many books annually on their leaders past and present; why shouldn’t we at least be able to do the same? It's a constant complaint, that we are so unaware of our own history (and didn’t Pierre Berton, in fact, create the whole "Canadian popular history" genre? Where would we have been without him?). Gwyn argued that MacDonald was Canada's most successful politician, with six wins and even brought to the table the idea that women should have the vote, perhaps being the first world leader to do such a thing (it was voted down by all but four members of even his own party). Gwyn talked about the lunatic ideas that MacDonald had that actually helped create a country, including the fact of putting in a national railway pretty much for the sake of only 20,000 people in British Columbia; lunatic!

I'm always fascinated by the non-fiction titles about Canadian history, and somehow these talks are always the highlight for me (I remember the 1812 talk from the previous festival; or was it the one before?). Gwyn talked about some of the 19th century differences between Canada and the United States, including the moral superiority that Canada felt over their neighbours to the south, simply because of our stronger ties to the church; can you imagine (or perhaps you can), Canada not wanting to be part of the American system in part because of their increasing secularism? Because the Americans believed more in democracy and the separation of church and state? It makes for an interesting shift now, as religion is thrust forefront on the table of every Presidential election, whereas our national elections talk far less on the topic, if at all. What happened?

I think the moral superiority is still there, ingrained and even programmed into us, even if we don’t always entirely know just what exactly we're feeling superior about.

Canadians didn’t want to be Americans in the 19th century, Gwyn said, for very simple reasons. The French were anti-American because they worried their religious culture, more important to them than anything else, would be threatened; for the English, it was the threat to their Britishness.

Lovingly hosted by Ottawa poet David O'Meara was the poetry cabaret, with readings by Ottawa poets Stephen Brockwell and Rob Winger, and British Columbia poet John Pass. O'Meara called Brockwell's fourth collection "startlingly inventive," and there are aspects of the formal mixed with his recent explorations with voice (as well as his ongoing classical references) that would make for an interesting comparison between this new collection of his and David McGimpsey's latest, especially when you consider the fact that they both came out of Montreal creative writing side-by-side (Brockwell was there when the Batman sonnets were introduced). Brockwell made a point of thanking the festival, and congratulating them on their engagement with not only international and national writers, but the diversity of local communites, which many festivals aren’t always aware of.

Brockwell's new collection is made up of monologues, he said, and poems made through procedures (again, see McGimpsey), including poems put through voice recognition and translation software; "made through the things it did not understand." Brockwell said he was working a series of "imitation" poems.

I love Rob Winger's suggestion of "meanders as a way of getting there."

John Pass isn’t a writer whose work does anything at all for me, but I found a number of things he said quite interesting, and would even welcome essays by such a writer (I hold Robert Bringhurst, Tim Lilburn and Robyn Sarah in the same regard; I don't care for their goals as poets, but find what they have to say in non-fiction prose pretty interesting). Pass, who won the Governor General's Award for his latest poetry collection, talked about the difficulty with engaging with beauty; our difficult love with it that doesn’t reciprocate, he said. Environmentalism, he suggested, perhaps even devolving from our high romantic notion of beauty; and that beauty is natural, and not man-made. Poetry, he said (very modernist, sigh), as a practice of the oblique, and by the end of writing the current collection, he was writing himself into silence.

Touring Utah; An Object Lesson

Tease (from the van's speed, mind's
slip-stream, the shif-

ty vistas) landform, fossil of a cloud.
Going where you think to
go: Four Corners, Inspiration Point,

Angel's Landing. Work 'round the case
of the Anasazi displayed in shreds
of sandal, 800 AD corn-on-the-cob.

Buy turquoise tumbled by the Navajo
and an arrowhead recycled as a charm

against the wind's slick way with it, them, you

(old earth entire on its lathe)
throwback, smooth-talker.

Can you ease down the sliprock, toes
to the river's exhaustive marginalia

and not know?
Pant up the trail

and to hand in the canyon
sandstone in flesh-tones
is hot for you. (Stumbling In The Bloom)

Again, the post-reading conversation was pretty lively, as John Pass said a thing or two about emotion being an essential part of writing a poem that Brockwell took exception to; I think Pass needs to be very careful, when he talks about poets who write about "only language" instead of the emotion being somehow less than valuable, working "word games" as some sort of dismissal. I think he has to be very careful to not equate, for example, word play with a lack of emotion (one has nothing to do with the other); I think he has to realize that not everyone has the same goals when they craft a piece that can eventually be called a poem. He can do whatever he likes, but he was certainly narrowing his focus as he went, being very clear (somewhat) about what kinds of things a poem should and shouldn’t be doing, and what he obviously doesn’t take seriously as writing. He made it sound as though the emotional intent of the poet was essential to the final piece; he made it sound as though reference was essential, as though somehow we all had the same referential points; what?

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