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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Breaking Out

I want to borrow a conceit from an old Rodney Dangerfield joke. He used to proclaim that he "went to the fights and a hockey game broke out." Well, I'm a man of words and letters, so I was surprised the other evening when I went to an opening at an art gallery and a poetry reading broke out.
Now there's nothing new about holding poetry readings in art galleries. It's a good use of dormant space, a means of drawing in customers who might usually not enter the place. Advertise a poetry reading and you attract people not usually drawn in by the visual.
The venue is new. The name perhaps explains its purpose. The Artword Artbar is trying for all it says: a bar/hangout for artists with gallery space and performance space for musicians and writers to showcase; a video component is in development, theatrical pieces are more than welcome.
That's why my visit the other evening was such a joy. The main draw was the opening of a show at the gallery in conjunction with a number of other gallery openings. (The famous 'James North Art Crawl.') Some galleries provide music; here a blues band was playing. When the band took a break, the other activities began. First came an interpretive dancer with violin accompaniment and a video backing. Then the artist whose work was on display and who is also a poet, read from his work. An attempt was made to show an eleven minute "video poem" by the artist/poet but that ran into technical difficulties. And then the band was ready to return.
So, in one evening a conglomerate of the arts. Paintings/sculpture in the gallery. On stage, music and dance, together and separate. An attempt to project videography. And in the midst of it all, poetry - poetry where it belongs, in there with and equal to all the other arts.
I wish the Artword Artbar well. We need more multi-use spaces in the arts/culture community.
(P.S. I'm reading there on Sun. October 18 as part of the launch of an anthology in memory of Al Purdy, And Left A Place To Stand On. Come down and inspect the venue, talk to the owners and the writers, buy a book or two.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A People's Poet

"The lonely sunsets flame and die;
The giant valleys gulp the night;
The monster mountains scrape the sky,
Where eager stars are diamond-bright."

Just a short stanza from "The Land God Forgot" by Robert W. Service, still one of Canada's best known and most quoted poets.

Service was a Brit who came to Canada at age twenty-one looking for adventure. He worked at odd jobs in the West for some time; he found it not as romantic as expected so he returned to his first line of work as a bank clerk. The bank posted him to Whitehorse, Yukon several years after the gold rush where he became enamored of the people and their tales. He took snippets from stories and real experiences, formed them into verse that lent itself to being recited.

It's this love of the people and their lives, the ability to reflect their joys and concerns that made him both famous and rich. His poems put on no airs; they ring true to the folks he is writing about, and those he is writing for. He had no need for obscure or classical references in what he wrote. Like Kipling, his mastery of hearing and speaking the rhythms of language are the foundation of his poetry.

That expressiveness using the rhythms of words and lines, that music that is the heart of recitation is a great part of what keeps his poetry before a continuing audience. To memorize and recite works like "Thee Shooting of Dan McGrew," "The Cremation of Sam McGee," or even "The Bread-Knife Ballad." ("Please, Mother, don't stab Father with the bread-knife. / Remember 'twas a gift when you were wed.")

From pole to pole, anywhere the English language is used, you can find someone reciting Service. This entry comes as the indirect result of a friend of mine giving to me a copy of Service's complete poems that was a gift to his Aunt Mary in 1951.
And you? Pick him up and enjoy. You'll find a way.