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.