Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ottawa International Writers Festival, spring 09: poetry cabaret #2 (talonlaunch) + #3

The second event for four authors in the space of a week and two provinces, Tuesday night was the launch of New York poet Adeena Karasick’s sixth trade collection Amuse Bouche, Toronto poet bill bissett’s sublingual, and griddle talk: a yeer uv bill n carol dewing brunch (with Carol Malyon), Vancouver writer Gerry Thomas Morse’s short story collection Death in Vancouver and my own poetry collection, gifts, all published by Vancouver publisher Talonbooks. After appearing in Edmonton the week before with playwright Kevin Kerr, launching his Talonplay on photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Studies in Motion, as part of the Edmonton Poetry Festival [see the photos from such here], I think we’ve decided that the four of us play well together, and should perhaps perform as a trio or quartet a little more often, which is good, considering there are talks about the group of us in Calgary and Vancouver come the first or second week of June. We work well together, concerned more about sound and the language itself, according to bissett and Karasick during the question and answer period after, than many of our contemporaries. Did you know that Morse has a voice that can sing opera, and does in some parts of one of his short stories, read in both cities? Did you know that Karasick has a three minute parody of a song for Barack Obama, hers for Osama Bin Laden?

My favourite part of the evening was asking bill (I facilitated the on-stage interview/conversation after the readings) about the book he did with Malyon, quoting him inside where he says “i think th provinces hav 2 much powr / i like federalism / i know its problematic,” and where he took the conversation further. Too often, it seems, bissett isn’t taken as seriously as he should be, his performances often allowing audiences to overlook just how aware and smart he is, and making it more jarring when he does slip in something brilliant and insightful in conversations, much the way he did in our combined radio interview at the University of Alberta the week before. I’m fascinated by Karasick, who seems to be writing out a study of language and culture using the language of language poetry, writing out writing in a way that no one else is, and I wonder if this is why she doesn’t get the critical attention she otherwise would, had she been working in a more conservative form. Theory-driven and theory-spent, Karasick moves through where most of us could not even begin, merging heavy thinking with a serious, sing-song play.

You Are Advised

I am sorry but you have failed this relationship.
Your performance was unsatisfactory.
And I am hereby administratively withdrawing you.
This relationship may not be repeated.
There will be no credit granted.
No makeup exam will be permitted.

Though you attempted to present a main idea or thesis,
your development was lacking, repetitious,
and at many times contradictory.
You demonstrated flawed or incomplete understanding
of fundamental mechanics and failed to meet
even the minimal requirements of the assignment.

The organization of your arguments were weak,
riddled with inaccurate summaries, faulty paraphrase
and reckless misquotation.

Further, if I may say, your vocabulary is limited.
Your syntax is rudimentary and often tangled.
Your explanations were poorly handled
(in a technical sense),
with recurrent lapses in judgment, digression and blurring.
You continuously overstepped boundaries
and there was little subject agreement.

Though you did exhibit variety and strong inflection,
(I dare say, an effective use of subordination),
I am making an appropriate transition now.

I regret any inconvenience
this may cause you. (Adeena Karasick)

[Zoe Whittall, eating] Wednesday night saw the second of three poetry cabarets, featuring Toronto writer Zoe Whittall, Montreal poet Carolyn Marie Souaid and Ottawa poet David O’Meara. Launching both her second poetry collection with Exile and first novel with Cormorant Books, why does Whittall keep publishing books with publishers who refuse to send out review copies? At least her second will be out this fall with Anansi. It was interesting listening to her lines, working straighter narratives on more personal matters, poems about home and growing up. It was interesting how the festival, a night after the Talon event, worked a poetry cabaret with three poets who worked, comparatively, relatively straight lines. Souaid, who hasn’t read in Ottawa in some time, suggested that her book had actually been pushed to an earlier release date, thanks to her participating in the 12 or 20 questions series last year (watch for a second series of same to start June first). You mean people actually read those things? She was launching the collection Paper Oranges (Signature Editions, 2008), edited by Winnipeg poet and editor George Amabile. She talked about living beside a graveyard and unable to drink the tap water for three months, worried that the bodies might have infused the water supply, before being convinced otherwise.

The Graveyard Lives Inside You

You taste bone in each sip of water. News-
print, bits of the previous century, straw, musk.

Those who did or didn’t make a sound when they died,
who whimpered, who trumpeted, who hit the road jack,
who refused to go gently, day or night; those

whose eyes shot forth, whose pores cried
blood, phlegm, urea, whose guillotined heads
flew, whose sponge fed the mad cow, whose
heart kissed a bullet, whose lips turned black.

You know it as Infinite dusk. (Carolyn Marie Souaid)

Ottawa poet David O’Meara might have had his book appear last August, but considering he was travelling Europe for six months starting August 20, this was the first Ottawa launch of his third poetry collection Noble Gas, Penny Black (Brick, 2008) [see my review of such here]. How does one feel connected to a new poetry collection after such an absence? I’ve been hearing O’Meara read around Ottawa for years, back to a reading he did at the Manx Pub with his pal Ken Babstock circa 1994, and I think this might have been the best reading I’ve heard him give, hosted by poet Rob Winger, who talked about O’Meara’s writing as having “a firm grounding in the contemporary.” His reading had a kind of clarity and precision that the other two writers didn’t quite have; wise, to make him third. And the best poem had to be his opener, a new piece exploring voice like a speech, from the “poet laureate of the moon.” After the reading, O’Meara talked about how the editorial process involved him removing much of the rhyme-schemes of a number of the poems, simplifying them; is there a correlation here? And in the question and answer session, where he referred to poetry as “an outlet to explore the reaction to things.” After his six months away, I am intrigued to see what kind of writing he has returned with, just what kinds of pieces might slowly emerge.


It was Sunday. September. Our crew
was pushing it hard for second place.
Our ears roared as the stem-post filleted

the Venice lagoon.
Then another boat kicked into the turn
and we hit their high wash. Our sponson

just pecked the wake, but hooked,
dragged, snapped and we barrel-rolled
back over front, then tacked—

a split-second aloft—
straight down, like hitting brick
at 80 mph. My mind left;

there was a high-pitched whine
like a dog’s whistle, that piped on and on.
I flat-lined. Giuseppe, the medic,

got to me, wiped the blood clear,
and blew into the place where my teeth used to be.
I’d been injured before, bruised black

as an old banana, and twice broke my nose.
This was different. There’s no fear,
you just know you’re gone.

Someone was screaming, She’s dead, leave her,
and there were thumps on my chest
like a fist on a tomb.

The sky fluttered, wobbled. I started to breathe.
I was nowhere; calm, happy. My team
hovered above while I flowed underneath.

And that weird whistle, the dazzling brightness.
I drifted like TV static, prickly-warm, like Epsom salts
dissolving and sifting through Giuseppe’s hand.

There’s one moment I remember
in all that light and clatter: I’d been lifted
into a helicopter when something cold

went from my neck to my stomach.
It was paramedics bent over
my shattered body (for all I knew kneeling to pray),

and cutting through my race overalls with a cold
pair of scissors. I remember thinking,
But it’s a La Perla bra. It’s expensive,

they’re going to cut it off
. Then they lost me again.

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