Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Greetings

Wishing all of you days full of contentment and fulfilment, with enough excitement to keep life interesting!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas to All !

However you celebrate this season, my wish for you is for an abundance of the intangible blessings: some peace, much serenity, and enough happiness to make your life a joy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Touch of Trinidad

The Artword Artbar is becoming an important artistic/cultural hubs of the city. This past weekend Ron and Judith, through their connections in the Toronto scene, brought us another wonderful mix of music and language.
The main performer was Rhoma Spencer, a transplanted Trinidadian now rooted in Toronto as a writer, actor, director, etc.; the evening was billed as "an evening of Caribbean comedy and the oral traditions." Her presentation, a mixture of stand-up comedy and storytelling, was complimented by sets from the calypso musician (acoustic guitar!) Roger Gibb.
Although we non-Caribbeans had been warned that some of the terms and expressions of everyday Trinidadian speech would probably be incomprehensible to us, Rhoma often took the time to explain them and their origens. Doing so certainly drew me (with my curiosity for language and usage) deeper into her performance. Enough so that I truly felt part of the mostly Caribbean-Canadian audience.
Much of Rhona's spoken word delivery (both poetry and prose) was based in the tradition brought from WestAfrica of trading a (friendly) mixture of brags and insults as entertainment and competition, closely related to the Afro-American "dozens." The lilt and inflections of Trinidadian speech, as she pointed out, differed a great deal from that of Jamaican. Roger "Rajiman" Gibbs traced how calypso developed out of sung presentations and commentary on the news and concerns of the day, often with one singer answering a previous one and making this a musical competition rather than Rhona's spoken word; he traced the development of traditional calypso into soca, kaiso, rapso and other forms.
No matter where you look, the English language continues to change, proving that it is alive and well. I used to be a stickler for "proper" usage. Not any more. The changes in the use of language can't be stopped or tied down by rules. Now all I ask for is consistency: if you're going to say (or write) "I ain't" do not turn around and say "I'm not" in the next sentence.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Olympic Flame as Metaphor

Yesterday evening the Olympic torch, carrying the flame lit using a concave mirror at Mount Olympus in Greece and heading to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games at Vancouver, came to Hamilton as part of the relay that brought the symbolic spirit of those Games to many of the communities throughout the land. (Whew, what a mouthful of words that is!) Although it was cold and dark, I decided to go and take part in the festivities. Just to be able to say I did, you know. Like dipping your foot in the ocean when you're on the coast. And it was taking place only a few blocks from my home.

Several thousand enthusiastic supporters had gathered. There was music by several local artists. There was another creating a painting on stage. A troupe of acrobats cavorted. Drummers drummed. There was video when the stage wasn't monitored. And always the words from the sponsors and their displays and their hand outs.

The flame arrived as and when it was supposed to. Stirring speeches were made. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So what's it all about? Symbol and metaphor, the stuff of poetry. There was no poetry there last night even though the event (to my mind) cried out for something to embody that symbol, to use it in its full metaphorical context. I wondered if that had ever been done; someone must have put their mind to it but, unlike the record books, was any trace left?

Later at home I researched my question. (Alright, I googled "Olympic poetry.") I discovered some interesting facts. The early Olympic games in Greece BCE was a combination of several regional contests; one of those had included competitions of poetry and rhetoric. Imagine, barrel-chested men roaring poetry to an audience or to each other! And then I discovered a proposal to reinstate this at the London Games in 2012 with a poetry slam! Hmmmmm.

On a more realistic note, the Australian poet Mark O'Connor had written a series of poems about the Sydney Games as they were happening. What's more, he was supported with a grant by the Aussie government; the IOC, which he did approach, wanted nothing to do with an "official" poet, a sort of Sport Poet Laureate." Among the poems Mark created are two dealing with the torch. One is called "Torch Running," about the relay as it passes from place to place. The other is titled "The Olympic Torch As Metaphor."

That takes the necessity out of my hands! Only goes to show.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Erotic or Pornographic

The warning here is that this entry is more personal in its opinion than usual. Don't let the XXX fool you; there are no pictures or descriptions here of people engaging in sexual activities for your 'prurient' pleasure.

I do want to take a little space to explore the porno-erotic question, not as a legal matter but as it applies to my own writing. Some of my more socially conservative friends think my poems and stories that have a more or less sexual basis are "pornographic." If writing or portraying any and all sexual activity is so then what they do in their bedrooms is not love but pornography (or prostitution, to revert to the Greek root of the term.)

Sex is a natural daily part of human life. Talking about it, writing about it, depicting it in any of the arts, is just as natural. It is the diverting of the relationship to a not inherent purpose that, in my eyes, makes pornography.

The matter arose some time ago when I answered a call for erotica with three poems and a short story. In due time they were returned to me with a note that my entries were not explicit enough. Oh, I agreed with that, but the editors had asked for erotica; I consider erotica to be suggestive rather than descriptive, a lyrical treatment rather than a prosaic one.

A good poet and a good story teller presents more than one level of meaning. My poems do that by approaching the actions and emotions from a certain point. My short stories will often use sexual activities to explain and explore character rather than be the total focus of the plot.

So, what does it all boil down to? The main fact as I see it is that both sides of the presentation of the material have to be in agreement for the work to be either erotic or pornographic. Let me explain. If I write something that I think is erotic but you read it, treat it as though it were pornographic, then it has lost its eroticism. But vice versa, if I write something with only pornography in mind and a reader finds it erotic instead, that too has lost its purpose.
Heaving a tired sigh, I will remark: one man's eroticism is another man's pornography.

At least as I see it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sounds of Poetry (Encore)

As an extension of the previous entry, I want to deal with the delivery of poetry and the way it is presented to a live audience.
I've had the chance to hear poetry read in foreign languages, where the combinations of sounds that form words which deliver specific meanings are not familiar to me. Still, such reading/presentation often had a certain level of meaning due to the manner it was presented.
If foreign language poetry uses rhythm, rhyme, and all the common non-word-based tools that English language poetry does, it can convey the same emotional meaning. This is often, depending on the presenter's level of skill and/or involvement, enhanced by body language and movement that involves the eye.
Even if the surface meaning can not be discerned, other levels of meaning still exist. A good poem does not depend simply on what words convey. By emphasizing the visual aspects of presenting poetry, a supporting level of meaning can carry its desired impact.
I remember attending a reading by the Russian poet Yevtushenko. Although I did not understand the words he used, the mood of the poems were established; the translator's English rendition came as no surprise but only accentuated what had already been conveyed by hearing the original.

So vocal presentation, volume, the rise and fall of intonation, all become essential when hearing or speaking poetry in a language unfamiliar to the audience or a part of that audience. For myself, I enjoy poetry presented in such a way in a language with which I am not familiar. Because it uses the structures of language, it becomes, for me, even more enjoyable than sound poetry that depends on sound without the strictures of language.

Then again, why deny any audience the way to explore other depths of meaning in English language poetry? On stage, at the mike, use the voice and body. They captivate the hearer and make your work more memorable!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sounds of Poetry

Let's be clear from the start. This entry is not about 'sound poetry,' the use of sound as opposed to words as a means of poetic expression. Here we are dealing with the sounds that are language, that form the words we use, and especially of those sounds as they take part in our poetry.

Two incidents brought this to mind recently. First I had taken my cat to the veterinarian for his annual checkup and necessary booster shots. When we got home he was quite put out and avoided me. Some time later I lay down on the bed and invited him to join me. He did, and after some time ended up lying against my chest, purring. In return, I hummed deep in my throat and chest in response. We quietly lay, side by side, exchanging vibrations. It reminded me of how a mother will use a wordless hum to soothe a fussy baby.

Now for the second influence. I was reading a passage of poetry aloud to myself when I noticed that the author had used an unusual number of 'm' and 'n' sounds in one of the four line stanzas, and the soothing effect (much like the cat or a baby) that had on me. I had read the poem before, but never aloud. I was so intrigued that I read the poem again several times, this time emphasizing and lengthening those sounds. Granted, I sounded as if I suffered from an acute stammer, but it certainly heightened the effect.

I thought about how poets when they read their work aloud in public seem to ignore the importance of sound in favour of putting across the meaning of the words. Seldom is there any lingering over a single sound or emphasis on a series of sounds. And sound is so important to poetry. We use its repetitions to enhance our words: rhyme, both at the ends of lines and internally, and with its many elaborations; alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants; assonance, where the vowel sounds repeat but not the consonants; consonance, where the final consonants agree in sound but the vowels do not. And, of course, the many variations of these.

So if a poet goes to all that trouble to use it in the written word, why not note it in the spoken? It doesn't take much. It is not necessary to stop so long that the silence underscores it, or to voice it in such a way as to bring undue attention. The simple answer is to read slower. If we read slower than normal speech (and speech in modern times has tended to quicken noticeably), the hearing ear can catch patterns of sound that could easily pass ignored. Those patterns of sound are as much of the poem as the words and meaning.

So, poets at the mike. Slow down the tumble of words; sing out the sounds.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Prose Poem

A number of years ago I won a prize for a prose poem. Since then I have been asked every now and then what the distinction is between poetic prose and a prose poem, and how you can tell the difference. I remind the questioner that (in modern times) the prose poem began as a poem that rebelled against the strictures of form in much the same way as free verse did. With both of these, the main difference from conventional poetry is in the presentation.

A prose poem should first of all be a poem; it should use language to do what poems do. It can, and should, use poetic devices that are not acceptable in simple prose. An extended metaphor may be the underlying conceit. The use of meter, of repetition, of internal rhyme - all the tools employed by the poet only enhance the prose poem.

Try taking a formal (shaped) poem and present it as prose: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove." Shakespeare's sonnet remains just that, no matter the presentation.

In my own work, I often develop a poem/idea in paragraph form, throwing in everything that I want to say and often twice. Then I look for places the piece can be broken into sections or stanzas. After that, I tackle each stanza separately, honing it down to what needs to be expressed in the best way I can express it, always with a sense of the whole. Only after that do I take a look at it and consider form. Would certain restrictions enhance the poem? If I present it as free verse, will the subtleties of rhythm be lost? Different questions for different presentations. Even going back to the prose poem is considered.

All that thought goes into the formation of each poem. That's why poetry is not simply inspiration, it is a learned and practised craft.

And by the way. If your free verse poem, when the line breaks are ignored, looks and sounds like a prose paragraph, it probably is. Try to write a poem using the tools inherent in language.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Poetry on Stage

Klyde Broox, as promised, returned to the Artword Artbar for his second monthly presentation of poetry on stage. He's still considering what to call it. "Poemagic" was the handle of the series he did at the Staircase; so far he is leaning toward a "soiree."

So, with some speechifying about what he expects and hopes for, he began to present some of his poems in dub style - spoken with appropriate gestures, voicing, posture and movement. Two had built in refrains which called out for audience participation, and participate the audience did: once in two parts, where he divided the room in half and had one side call out the first part of the refrain, followed by the response from the other half, and then all together on the last line. In another poem he divided the chorus into four parts to deliver one word statements (in full voice) and come together for the conclusion.

He invited me up. I presented two of my cat poems with voice and movement enhancements. (When the evening was finished, I watched one member of the audience talking about my performance to someone else; I could tell by the movements and facial expressions. A more honest compliment than common applause or even a thank you afterward.)

After a few more of his own poems, Klyde introduced a man he called "a certified Dub poet, certified by Durm-I" whose name I didn't catch but who had an intriguing story. At Hamilton's first Dub Festival (organized by Klyde) he was moved to explore performance poetry. He wrote one that he performed at a slam in Toronto, was seen by someone who wanted to use it for her show in Poland and perform it there. Her presentation was so well appreciated that he was invited to Poland and did a series of guest performances. His work and intensity held the room at the Artbar spellbound.

Klyde then finished with a few more, and by special request we all joined in on the old favourite, "Yank the Chain."

Although the audience wasn't as great in number this night, it was more than equal in spirit. It may take some time to become as much a part of the community as Poemagic was but it sure feels like it's on its way.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Poet / Storyteller

The other evening I went out to hear Charlie Chiarelli perform. He's an actor, musician, and storyteller who made his name telling stories about his immigrant Sicilian boyhood here in Hamilton. He's no longer working the Canadian-Sicilian bit but was trying out a new direction. I enjoyed it; it suits him.
He is taking stories (plots) from Boccacio's Decameron and using them to tell today's stories. In itself, this is nothing new; Shakespeare too borrowed freely from Boccacio. The surprising thing is that the stories, transposed into today's language and imagery, come across very well. It may be true that, as I've been told, there are only a small number of possible basic plots: the rest is details and embellishments. In Charlie's hands (and mind, and mouth) the embellishments made the stories.
The twist came when our host introduced him as "the poet of the North End" and at first I went "Humphf, a poet? Not likely." But I began thinking. The main function of the bard, the skal, the scop, the poet in the beginning was to remember and tell the stories of the tribe. The storyteller continues that tradition perhaps even more so than the poet.
Now that poetry has given in to self-indulgent introspections and explorations of emotion and experience, who is left to tell us about things, and other people, and far away places? Even the singer/balladeer has become self-involved. The popular media is so skewed that much of it is irrational flim-flam, an entertainment for the masses. So who will tell the story about Jake down the street or what happened to Betty last week? The mantle seems to have been passed to the storyteller, the one who can keep it straight and simple the way the poets and the singers used to.
It's probably a good thing that many of our immigrants come from places and cultures that still honour the storyteller. Without such "new" blood our records of the simple parts of our lives could become as distorted as soap operas. Who will record the true story of Colvin's Brave Stand? Not one song will be recorded, not one poem published. But sometime down the road a storyteller will say, "Once there was ... "
Poets, in a time of unrest and injustice we need to do more than bemoan the times. We need to lead by example; we need to keep and tell the stories of ordinary people.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Collaboration Among the Arts

I recently finished writing a poem for an acquaintance of mine who wants to use it as part of a framework for an interdisciplinary project for which she is approaching a television network for funding. You may know how lukewarm I am about writing for a special occasion or purpose, but when she outlined the project for me I was intrigued. Using my poem as narration, spoken by a professional voice (i. e. actor), as well as video of a free-form dancer (perhaps in situ) she would explore in film the waterfalls of Hamilton.

I like the idea; I can see it work. I am honoured that she chose me to write the words as an artistic narration rather than a descriptive or historical line of approach. I have been involved with a group that is heralding Hamilton as the "City of Waterfalls" to replace the old "Steel City" image and have visited and observed the wonder of many of the more than one hundred places where water falls over the edge of the Niagara escarpment.
The initial problem was one of approach; how was I to portray the waterfalls? There were several false starts that bogged me down for a time. I finally came up with one that satisfied me, and I hope it works for my friend and her presentation.

I used as theme the ancient concept that all the world consists of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. I briefly explore the attributes of each element and show how they interconnect, and how a waterfall is the majestic manifestation of the elements coming together while remaining separate.

I've done this type of thing before. I had in mind a series of poems based in native symbology. With a musician/composer and a dancer/choreographer onside, we worked out a program of poetry, music and dance. We submitted it to the Canada Council for the Arts and applied for funding as an Interdisciplinary Project. The project was denied, and instead of fine-tuning it and elaborating on it as we might have, we abandoned it and went our separate ways. In some ways, I have no great expectations; been there, done that. But this is interdisciplinary and not mine. I hope she gathers her material in the way it needs to be presented, that it all comes together and gains for her the funding she needs.
Me, I'm content to be a small part of a common effort.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Literary Genres

I don't know if it's because of envy or what, but sometimes I find myself getting irritated by writers who, having achieved a successful reputation in one genre of literature suddenly switch to another. And find even greater acclaim there!

I'm thinking of people like Atwood who had a fine reputation as a poet before she began publishing novels. Ondaatje went the same route. Nowadays the poems that they publish are few and far between. They concentrate on the novel; that's where the glory and the money are. As representative of those who continue to struggle in their original genre, I sometimes feel that we have been discarded. Poets and their work are not worth much to a modern society. It must be fed on massive tomes of prose.

It's not that I write only poetry. I've written some fiction, some non-fiction, essays (some of them, like these blog entries, short and pithy.) My problem, if "problem" it is, lies in the fact that I believe in poetry. Any other writing is, for me, an adjunct to my single purpose. I ride the horse I bought and am not looking to trade for one more handsome or stronger.

Once I wrote most of a novel. It had reached just over a hundred pages, when I lost it. I considered beginning it over again but figured that if the forces that control the universe saw fit not to let me bring that work forth, it could probably exist without it. No one will ever know.

I continue to compose, write, publish, and share poetry because I must. It defines who and what I am: a poet, not a novelist or essayist; a writer, not a singer or musician; an image maker, not an actor or dramatist. I can live with that, and do so gladly.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Cat" Poems

At a reading in Toronto the other evening, an acquaintance brought up what he referred to as my wonderful "cat" poem. I had difficulty remembering which poem he meant. Over the years I have written a number of poems about or featuring a cat. He was referring to one I had read to a small gathering in Gage Park several years before. I didn't have that one with me so I read a more recent one. The incident made me pause and consider.

Since I began to go out with my wife, long before we were married, we have always shared our home with one or more long-lived cats. One lived for nineteen years, one for over seventeen, and the current cat is going on sixteen and still quite healthy. So a cat, in one way or another, has always been there. And, since we write about what we know, about what touches us, it is no wonder that I have produced some "cat" poems.

I don't write little lyrical passages praising cats. Cats (for me) deserve much more. I tend to use one as a metaphor, sometimes for myself, my inner self, or for all humanity in its relationship to the natural world. I often use "catness" as a mirror to being human. Not in a fable-like way, nor do I endow a cat with human characteristics. Usually it's the other way around: I point out the "catness" inherent in people.

Cat poems have been good to me. They have won me prizes (cash and prestige) and brought me much satisfaction. Perhaps I'll leave you with one of my earlier ones.


Your cat has particular manners, ways
developed for her own purposes. A voice
that leaps from articulate whisper to
bone-scraping howl in less than a second.
Hiding places that will change just as fast
as you can discover them. She has need
for constant warmth; on cold days she cocoons
among blankets, in the sun she stretches
out full length on her back.
----------------------And you have wiles
in common with your cat. Your body too
stretches to capture my warmth, slips away
from cool indifference. The place you hide
changes with the moon's phases. Tentative,
my hand reaches out for your approval.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

2009 Acorn-Plantos

The 2009 recipient of the Acorn-Plantos Award for People's Poetry was announced recently. He is Brian Bartlett of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches literature and creative writing at St. Mary's University.
On reading his book, The Watchmaker's Table, I agree fully with the judges' decision. For those who have been following this blog, or who have explored it thoroughly, that may come as a slight surprise. When he read here for the Hamilton Poetry Centre last year, I ended up with some criticism here. Please remember that I was not turned off by his poetry as such; I only objected to the "haiku series" that he read.
That not only irritated me - it also blocked my mind from appreciating the nature of the rest of his poetry. It is accessible and lyrical, and a good follow-up to Acorn, Purdy, Nowlan, and Plantos. It intrigued me and made me think, consider the world we live in. And that's what poetry should do.
Oh yes. I read those "haiku series" that so upset me. Some of them aren't as bad as I had made them out to be. It's just that they don't meet my personal standards for haiku. (Even I don't meet them all the time!)
So, congratulations to Brian Bartlett, a fine poet. for The Watchmaker's Table, a fine book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gender and Poetry

Sometimes, it seems, the old dichotomy that separates women from men is still strong even though it has been some time since we classified writers by gender. We've come a long way from the times that female authors felt they had to write and publish under masculine names to be read and taken seriously. We've finally dropped the designation "poetess" from our lexicon the same way "actress" has disappeared. And on the surface, that's a good thing.
But any real differences have not been obliterated. A writer writes with his whole being, and that includes gender as well as many other characteristics that formed the person. If the writer is true to him/her self (see how awkward this is already?) those traits, including gender, will show. I, as a male, find it impossible to write honestly with a female point of view. I can try to imagine, but only imagine.

For some strange reason, poetry written by women appeals to me more often than that written by men. I don't know why. Perhaps I am more in tune with a feminine insight into daily existence than a masculine outlook. It does not seem to affect any other aspect of my being. This too has become a part of how I express myself.

I have just finished reading two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, about strong women and found myself with strong feelings of empathy. That's what set off this musing. And that brought to mind an incident that happened a long time ago: I was giving a reading to a (mainly Afro-Canadian audience and included, as contrast to my own, several by the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. I was somewhat taken aback when several of the ladies took me to task. Who was I to try to interpret the work of Ms. Brooks? At the time I thought that it was because she was black, but now again I think it may also have been because she was female, and female sentiment and expression were not expected from a male.
Ah, well. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. The divide has not crumbled completely; in some places it is stronger than ever. With very few exceptions, women write romance and men write porn.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poetry, War, Remembrance

Since the end of the first World War, November 11 has become established in many countries as the day to memorialize and remember the sacrifice of armed services personnel in defence of their country or common ideals of peace and freedom. Many of the services held on this day will include poetry of some sort, especially but not exclusively John McCrea's "In Flanders Fields." I agree with the use of poetry to focus collective emotion in public ceremonies, but poets have a responsibility to do more than tell about the horrors and sacrifices of wars past and present.

There is a need in our society to try to change that mindset that conflict can solve problems. As long as we have existed, conflict has been part of our life. For poets, the first great and lasting poems were the heroic epics that came out of wars and struggles, poems that created heroes and memorialized war. Only seldom was the ugliness and destruction held up to view. If there were poets writing or speaking against war, they have not been remembered.

Especially today poets have an obligation to make their voices part of the social fabric. They can not stand aside and claim that war, violence, crime, and other "ugly" topics should not be considered as subjects for poetry, for poetic expression. War especially is such a transforming and spiritually crippling matter that to ignore it is dishonest. And a poet's duty first of all is to express truth honestly.
The problem remains that war and struggle have been pigeonholed; we do not let it become part of our daily life until the reality is all around us and can not be ignored. Poets worth the name must step out of a comfortable existence and become the voices of those who can not or are not allowed to speak.
The existence of organizations like Poets Against the War, Poets For Peace, and others are only a small means to spread the words and ideas. We need poets to write, to speak, to shout from the rooftops and in the halls of legislatures. Tucking words into books and pulling them out at memorial services is not enough. Even if we can stop no conflict ours is the duty to speak out.

We must do more than remember.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mixed Arts

Friday I went to watch my friend Klyde Broox perform at the Artword Artbar. Klyde is an outstanding poet and performer in the Dub tradition. His performance went well. He had provided for musical breaks, a marimba player who accompanied him for several numbers,improvising a rhythm behind him. Klyde also saw fit to introduce a couple of up-and-coming young spoken word artists.
The main point of interest for me, however, was his expressed desire to run a word/performance evening here once a month. He had done this before at the Staircase a few years ago. As he explains, it is an attempt to get the different cultures to work together on the same stage, in the same venue. He envisions black dub poets and white spoken word artists, mixed with musicians and dancers, performers together in a real potpourri. I performed regularly with him at the Staircase and would gladly do so again.
The Artword Artbar, with its already eclectic establishment of entertainments including film, theatre and dance could be the right venue at the right time. The vibes seem positive.

So, let the action begin! Let the colours blend! Let the multitude of cultures come together and present a heady brew!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The "I" of Poetry

Anyone reading or writing poetry should keep in mind that when using the first person singular pronoun "I" the writer is not necessarily speaking for himself or about himself.
Granted, so much of poetry is about personal expression. Poets describing their feelings and reactions to the world around them in imagery and language will most naturally use that pronoun. Sometimes, however, it may begin to interfere; egotistically the poet can become so self centered that his reader/listener begins to feel left out. However impressive the use of language and the skillful use of poetic devices, the poetry loses its audience and thereby becomes redundant, another "blowing in the wind."
A skillful poet will often use a mask. Rather than lay his own persona open before the world, he will create an "other," someone or something he can hold at arm's length. Whether such a character is named or remains nameless doesn't matter. What does matter is the poet's stance: this needs to be said but don't pin it to me as a person. Another way he may do this is by using the second person, "you." Then it becomes necessary for the reader/hearer to decide if he is referencing "me" or "not me." Either way, the poem implies that the self of the poet is not the main thrust of the poem.
And then there is the impersonal "I" where the poet puts himself in the place of a group of voices that includes his own. He may use the imperial plural "we" but more often remains with the first person singular. We are asked to see him as representative, the voice of the voiceless expressing truths held in common. This is the ancient and honoured function of the poet. He is everyone of us, speaking for the tribe, the voice of his people.
A great responsibility, but a great honour.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Action / Reaction

I did something on the spur of the moment last night that I hadn't done in a long time: I attended a performance of classical music (or should that be 'formal' since contemporary music was included.) I soon remembered why I had stopped attending many, many years ago. It's not that I don't enjoy music in any form, it's the audience at these events.
The performance of chamber music by the quartet Made in Canada was exciting; the venue and its acoustics were excellent. The ladies used their energies, their instruments, their skills to offer a marvellous experience that was met by an unmoving, dead wall.
Personally, the music and its performance did what it should: it involved me, made me want to dance and sing, anything to express the emotions it aroused. Even in the subdued surroundings I couldn't help shaking and bobbing my head, tapping my fingers and toes. When a nearly inaudible "bom, bom, badda bom" escaping from my mouth brought forth nasty looks and one hiss from my neighbours, I screwed the lid on tight and surreptitiously watched the audience.
They sat there. And that's it. Not a whisper or rustle, not a movement of any body part that might hint at pleasure. All that beauty of sound and movement on stage, all that energy pouring forth, and no visible response. Fine, the applause at the end of each piece was warm but still formal: no shouts, no punching the air (as I wanted to do.) The dress may be much more informal nowadays but the attitude still sucks. I don't intend to subscribe to any formal music series in this lifetime.
But this blog is about poetry so what has that to do with this. Poetry, when read to an audience, is a performance. It shouldn't hesitate to elicit an immediate reaction. Dub poets know this; rappers and hip-hop artists demand such involvement. Too many of our poetry readings, even of popular or people's poetry, are becoming staid and solemn. We need to put the joy, the despair, the laughter back into it.
Tonight at a Halloween event I intend to do a 'dramatic reading.' I'm going to ask the audience to respond as they see fit: shout, laugh, scream, throw food, whatever they are moved to do. I'll do my best to handle their reaction!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Young Writers

This past Friday evening the annual "Power of the Pen" Awards for young writers were held again; again, I had had the honour of judging the poetry submitted by seventeen year olds. Much of the event was the same, but let me dwell on a few things that were different.

Previously I mentioned that I had greater difficulty choosing the top two (and their order) than in years before. Speaking to other judges, I found that I was not alone. Therefore, I think it fair to say that the overall quality of writing entered was better than before. I didn't feel so awkward about suddenly giving out honourable mentions.

The overall awards given out by the Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art, which seem usually to go to older and more mature writers went to relatively young writers this year. The short fiction award went to a fifteen year old; the poetry award went to a thirteen year old. After reading the award winning entries, I concurred with the judges. Just as an aside, the second place overall for poetry was the one I had selected for second prize in my age category.

That brings me to the one disheartening part I feel I must mention. When I opened the book of winning stories and poems, I didn't recognize at first the poem I had selected as first in its category. Why did I choose this one over the #2 which seemed so much more direct and poetic? Then, nosing around in the presentation envelope I saw a copy of the original work. Part of it (a part just as important as the rhythm and the images used) was the placement of words and phrases on the page. In the publication all that was lost, all the intricate possible relations between words and images, simply by centering each line. I hope the prize satisfied the author; the layout of its publication certainly dismayed me.

Anyway, enough vexation to make me want to stop judging if I can't control the quality of final publication. But then, would someone else have seen the significance of the layout, and rewarded it? That's enough to keep me in the game. I would have liked to congratulate the young poet in person, but that didn't happen. And so it goes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Long Poem

As happens as often as not, this musing came out of an adventure with used books. No matter where I am, I will usually make time to browse through any books around, be they new or used. This time I was snuffling about in the various materials available at a local used book store. The treasure I found for myself was a copy, in good condition, of a poem by Joy Kogawa as illustrated by Lilian Broca called A Song of Lilith.
I knew and admired Kogawa's poetry long before she became an award-winning novelist, but I had not read or even seen this work. It seems that Broca had produced a series of works dealing with the mythical "first wife" of Adam; friends who are classical musicians suggested she find a composer, a writer, and a number of actors and musicians to present a concert/performance around the pieces. Kogawa was the writer brought in. This is part of the multi-disciplinary result.

What attracted me was the label poem, the singular, on a full size book. The work consists of seven sections, with more subsections. Then I looked at my own work and again wondered at the difference between a collection and a long poem.

Remember, the earliest of our poems are long ones, the epic poetry of Greece and Rome and the great works in English like Beowulf and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The tradition continued through Milton to Whitman and Hart Crane. Even early Canadian poetry has its examples.

So what constitutes a long poem, as compared to a collection of poems? First of course is its length - but not simply its length. The length should be so integral the the poem could not be and say what it does in any other form. Second is the unity of the material. Like Kogawa's poem, all segments (if the poem is divided into such) should flow from and into a common idea.

This brought me to consider my own works. I have a long poem, Garden Concert, which falls easily into these parameters: it is self-contained, all segments are variations on one theme. But I also have a small book consisting of thirteen pieces which I consider a "sequence" rather than a long poem. Even though it is partially narrative and deals with the same specific idea, there is a plurality of voices and time is fragmented enough that I'm not comfortable considering it as a whole although something like Eliot's The Waste Land is. And then again I have a long, book-length collection of short poems which I sometimes tend to see as one extended poem. Ezra Pound spoke about the long poem as an "expression of the tribe" in regards to his Cantos, and my We Measure Our Time In Coffee Cups would fit as a voice of the "Tim Hortons" tribe.

So it's good to see the long poem holding its own. Its problem seems to be finding a place for publication. Perhaps a multi-media approach, as illustrated by, as performed by, or again as narration for film ... (something I hope to be working toward soon.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sound Poetry

There is a form of poetry that happens in performance and is separate from "spoken word," a poetry that basically stresses sound as sound and not as words delivering meaning, etc. Even though I don't write (formulate?) material to be presented in such a manner, I do emphasize the role of sound in poetry and its presentation. The use of repetitive sounds - rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance - have always been a staple in poetry. In "sound poetry" the main emphasis is on vocal sound and how it works, much like music in a way.
I had the good fortune recently to share a stage with bill bissett, Canada's foremost practitioner of the style and probably one of the best in the world. Often his work consists of familiar vocal sounds and the changes that can be worked through and from them.

Sometimes, especially when used with ambient background music or an accompanying voice, the performance begins to feel like a jazz concert with structured improvisations. At other times, especially when he uses rattles or other small percussion instruments, it has the feeling of a tribal chant. And sometimes he makes you wonder if he isn't using a structured language, but one about which you have no knowledge, have never heard or experienced before.

To see the work printed on a page and deal with it like that is more than a challenge. Only with his voice still in your head do the sounds represented by words, scraps of words, approximations of sounds, etc. begin to make any kind of sense.

With bissett, with all sound poetry, the meaning is that mixture of dream and emotion and instinct that resonates with the listener. There is nothing grander than when, in this manner, the poet and audience become one.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Literate Rock

Rock and roll can be a strange beast. A lot of the music will set your toes tapping, involve you in a peripheral way. Some will take you over so physically that you can't help but move your body, to make you dance. And there is a small segment that urges you to listen, to hear the words as well as the music, to sense the combination that makes it more than tune and lyrics.
I was at a concert the other night celebrating the release of a new recording by Tiny Bill Cody and the Liquormen. One of the reasons I have always liked Tiny Bill's music is because he is a writer as well as a musician, an artist expressing himself in several disciplines. The performance and the new disc carry on with his established reputation.
I like what he does to me, moves me physically and mentally. I can't turn off either mode of perception. For me, most classical music doesn't need the body; much of modern music doesn't engage the mind. Granted, there are singer/songwriter/poets that engage all the modalities; Cohen and Dylan stand out for me. A good blues number will engage my soul and leave mind and body behind. But a driving beat and the crash and flash of new images in the language carry for me a special magic. And much of it depends on the words, the poetry, the way the Taupin/John combination did for me years ago.

Yes, you can set literature to music. The music need not be etherial, contemplative, nor primally rhythmic. The nature of art is that it adapts to what it needs and the result is more and greater art.