Wednesday, March 16, 2011

VERSeFest, Ottawa’s first annual poetry festival

Ottawa recently celebrated VERSeFest [photo of our own John W. MacDonald, super-photographer], organized as Ottawa’s newest annual poetry festival. Headed by Rod Pederson, David O’Meara, Jessica Ruano, Kevin Matthews and Monty Reid, the festival managed to corral fourteen of the city’s reading series into a spectacular collage of events at the Arts Court, from participating hosts Plan 99, The TREE Reading Series, Dusty Owl, Capital Slam, The AB Series, Voices of Venus, The Factory Reading Series, In/Words, blUe mOnday Reading Series, Urban Legends, the Sasquatch Reading Series, Oneness Poetry Collective, KaDo Haiku and the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam. What became quickly apparent was in how the side-by-side events were managing audience crossovers between what has unfortunately been labeled “page” and “stage” poets (designations I find problematic, but at least understand for the sake of clarity, to talk about the chasm between groups).

One of the features of the festival was in how it managed so very well to highlight many writers in the local Ottawa community, while also bringing in talented outsiders, including John Akpata, Richard Greene, Amanda Earl, Steven Ross Smith, David McGimpsey, Chris Turnbull, Ian Keteku, Craig Poile, Sandra Ridley, Christine McNair, Brad Morden, Beth Anne Fischer, Barry Dempster, D-LightFul, Sense-Say, Michael Dennis, Ben Ladouceur, Danielle K.L. Gregoire, Karen Solie, jwcurry and singer-songwriters Mike Dubue and Megan Jerome.

What will be interesting will be in seeing just what happens next, if all the reading series in the city manage, through the increased publicity and attention, more audience across the board, or if it simply falls back to where it was before, post-fest. What will be interesting to see will be how the festival develops, over the next couple of years. Anyone interested in readings in Ottawa generally should just check out the Bywords site, which lists everything literary, festivals and otherwise.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it out to much (other postings exist for various events from VERSeFest, including those by Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, John W. MacDonald, Kate Hunt and Charles Earl), but here are some notes I scribbled down during some of what I did catch.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ottawa poets Christine McNair and Sandra Ridley read as part of the blUe mOnday Reading Series, hosted and organized by Aaron Kozak and Sean Moreland. McNair, the author of the self-published chapbook Evidence (cartywheel press, 2010) is author of “Conflict,” one of nine manuscripts recently shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, now forthcoming in spring 2012 with BookThug. Ridley, on the other hand, is author of the acclaimed poetry collection Fallout (Hagios, 2009), the chapbook Rest Cure (Apt. 9, 2010), co-winner of the 2009 bpNichol Chapbook Award for her Lift: Ghazals for C. (Jackpine, 2008) and author of the forthcoming Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press). 

Interestingly enough, a collaborative manuscript Ridley wrote with another Ottawa poet, Amanda Earl, was also on the Kroetsch Award shortlist (a further Ottawa poet, Pearl Pirie, actually won), meaning that Ottawa women poets made up a third of an impressive shortlist.

Following an open set that seemed (unfortunately) to drag on a bit long (especially after a previous event featuring many of the same performers), Christine McNair and Sandra Ridley each read a set of recent writing, both taking turns stepping up into the other’s set for a poem for two voices. McNair’s work over the past few years, between this and her recent Voices of Venus event, bounces furiously along with clear, hummingbird intensity, and include a quiet, sly and subversive humour, bouncing language at the speed of light, the speed of sound.

a dolce tiramisu cut into shreds
reshaped into threats

the trauma of being everywhere
and nowhere all at once

‘even when we are quite alone’
‘we recognise the same influence’
‘a man cannot prevent past impressions’

a desolation of cupcakes and sherry

my ears melt into pads of cotton
wool fear a seed stitch picked off hems

icing sugar caulks broke tile dusts
breast petals falls in drifts
For Sandra Ridley, her lines extend like horizon lines, furthering even longer than the endings, and slowly edge their way so far you manage to lose yourself, completely, asking, how exactly did we get here? I’ve long been a fan of Ridley’s long prairie breaths, long prairie lines, but so much of her reading was obscured by a muddy sound system, and I was occasionally lost in her poems’ horizons. How did I get here? After seeing fragments of her forthcoming second poetry collection for months now, I am very interested in seeing the shape of the entire second manuscript.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It became striking to note that The Factory Reading Series has existed back to January, 1992, when I began to organize readings in the Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, some nineteen years ago. How do things manage to exist for so long? Striking, or perhaps even terrifying. What previously was called Poetry 101 (for a time), what before that didn’t even have a name, with events going back through The Ottawa Art Gallery, The Carleton Tavern, Gallery 101 (two locations), The Mercury Lounge, Mother Tongue Books, Collected Works and the Stone Angel. I’m sure there are some other locations I’m just not remembering right now. Nineteen years is a long, long time.

For this event, I thought it would be more interesting for poets familiar to Ottawa audiences to give a series of talks, to extend what we already know of their works. Marcus McCann, formerly of Ottawa but now living in Toronto, presented his “No Permission: Why Poets Don’t (and Shouldn’t) Ask Nice,” followed by Ottawa poet Monty Reid’s “How Come Inger Isn’t Here?” And perhaps this will be my annual contribution to the festival, featuring two writers talking about writing, featuring one local and another from further away. Both pieces are scheduled to appear online this fall in the fourth issue of the online journal seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics.

Marcus McCann, formerly of Ottawa but spending most of his time these days in Toronto talked on permissions, referencing writing such as flarf and plunder, asking, is citation necessary? Is permission? And how far do these “borrowings” extend before legalities emerge? His talk gave the most interesting post-lecture discussion, heading off in all sorts of directions including Canadian copyright law, and just what exactly qualifies as “theft.”

Monty Reid’s talk began with absence, suggesting that The Odyssey and The Iliad were both stories about absence (which others have referred to as stories about home, about the return, about the entire journey being one of return instead of leaving). As he said, we predominantly write and talk about what is not actually there, not here. Poems of leaving, poems of loss, poems even of heartbreak. He ended the piece by talking about three poets who were also not “here,” reading at the festival. VERSeFest aims to be international in scope, which is a worthy goal, but not always easy for the first year, for the sake of organizing and funding, but one of the poets he mentioned “not here” was Inger Christensen, a Danish poet not at VERSeFest in part because she had died in January 2009. Here’s a poem from her Butterfly Valley (original title: Sommerfugledalen, trans. Susanna Nied; Dedalus, Poetry Europe Series No. 9, 2001). There were two other poets he mentioned, very much alive, but of course I can’t remember their names. Why is Inger not here?

Delusion for the universe’s fool
is the belief that other worlds exist
that there are gods who bellow and roar
and call us random tosses of the dice;

just remind me of a summer day in Skagen
when arctic blues, in their mating flight,
fluttered about all day like bits of sky
with echoes of the blue from Jammerbugten,

while we, who lay lost in hills of sand,
as numerous as only two can be,
allowed our bodies’ elements to blend

with earth as fusion of sky and sea,
two people who bequeathed to one another
a life that does not die like anything.
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Originally Ottawa’s TREE Reading Series (considered the third-longest continuing reading series in Canada, alongside Harbourfront and Montreal’s Yellow Door) had planned to host three poets instead of two, but David Seymour, body-double for actor Russell Crowe, got caught up in a film shoot in Sault Ste. Marie. How strange is that, and have there ever been poems emerge from his time spent doubling? I’m intrigued by this.

Otherwise, TREE hosted Cobourg, Ontario poet Richard Greene, Governor-General’s Award for Poetry 2010 winner for his Boxing the Compass (Signal/Vehicule Press, 2010). Having already gone through part of his book, I knew it wasn’t going to appeal, stylistically, yet I found him a charming performer, reading excerpts of a longer, more narrative poem about his Greyhound travels through the United States, there for the sake of editorial/archival work on the (unrelated to him) writer, Graeme Greene.

I’ve heard Toronto poet Karen Solie perform a number of times over the past decade or more, and there’s just something about her soft, subtle and smart explorations that are getting stronger as she continues, with an undertone of wry humour that comes through far stronger through performance. I think I’ve heard her read from her mega-award-winning Pigeon (Anansi, 2009) at least three or four times now [see my report of the Griffin Prize reading here; see my review of her book here], so I could imagine that she’s possibly wearing on the collection, and her reading included a small selection of newer poems (one exists in the festival-specific issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club) which were quite magnificent. How could anyone else manage a love poem about rental cars, or is it really a love poem? (It probably is.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

One of the last events was The Dusty Owl Reading Series, featuring Ottawa poet, publisher, performer, bookseller and archivist jwcurry. Steve Zytveld and Cathy Zytveld-MacDonald have been running their Dusty Owl Reading Series (with a slight break in the mid-1990s) for fifteen years now, which is an impressive amount of time. They’re even working up to an anniversary party, if you can believe it, in May at the Elmdale Tavern, which I am very much looking forward to.

Given his recent major performances in multi-vocal sound works, it was an interesting counterpoint to hear jwcurry feature his reading on a series of straighter texts, starting with a fragment of his correspondence with British writer and music critic Ben Watson, known for his extensive work on the late Frank Zappa (a curry favourite, alongside bpNichol), including the seminal Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (1995). I’ve always wondered, when will someone attempt a Ph.D. on the collusions between bpNichol and Frank Zappa, as seen through the critical lens of jwcurry? I’m just disappointed that curry himself can’t work the project, given the sheer amount of other works he keeps adding to. Once the suggestion between the two is made, the connections almost begin to make themselves.

The excerpt of curry’s correspondence with Watson explored considerations of fatherhood and children, Frank Zappa’s music, postmodernism and the avant-garde. Given his less-than-usual productivity as a publisher over the past year or three, there are those of us clamouring less for more of his critical writings (or even a collection of some of his criticism) for the sake of simply wishing for more of what he used to make regularly, from the 1cents to chapbooks to newsnotes [see my review of a recent issue here]. Where have all the 1cents gone?

The highlight certainly came at the end, when curry’s infamous LAND IS DOWN piece was performed as a work in two voices with Alastair Larwill, one of the group that participated in curry’s most recent Messagio Galore [see my report here].

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