Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Recession and Poetry

This year's Acorn-Plantos Award for People's Poetry (which I administer) saw the number of books entered dwindle significantly, by such a number that I had to consider seriously whether we were doing something wrong or whether the decline (in numbers only? in interest also?) was part of a process we could not control.

I believe part of the fault lies with our publicity. We seem to rely a little too much on word of mouth dissemination of information. I get e-mails that "our" website carries out of date information. (We have no website; somone has published the info on theirs and not updated it.) I have had queries, replied to them, and then nothing follows.

Another member of the committee brought up the fact that most small presses, the ones that publish poetry, are experiencing difficulties due to the current economic downturn. Some have stopped publishing, many have cut down on the number of titles they produce.

I believe it's probably a combination of both. Next year, if the Acorn-Plantos Award is to remain viable, a more vigorous approach to soliciting entries must be undertaken. Let's hope the economy has strengthened and we are healthy and free to expend some energy on promotion.

I take some comfort in the fact that all disciplines of the arts are suffering. In uncertain economic times it seems the arts are the most vulnerable. It is difficult to explain truth and beauty to an empty stomach and a burdened mind.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Theatre and Poetry (3)

One last taste of poetry related musings from the Fringe Festival. I won a pair of comp. tickets from http://www.cityofwaterfalls.ca/ and decided to take my friend Gary to one of the shows. Because he had once planned to write a modern interpretation of the Divine Comedy, I took him to see the production, "Dante."

It was well done on an interesting premise, an underlying theme of selling out one's art for one's own survival/well-being. Dante has survived into this time in the company of Petrarch's inspiration "Laura" who has taken care of him through the centuries. Dante may have lost his own inspiration, his Beatrice, but his reputation and that of his masterpiece continue.

Dante is useless, unable to even try to get a job to sustain the two. To make ends meet and unknown to Dante, Laura has been selling quotes from his poems as advertising jingles but the producers want fresh materials. Dante refuses to write. Then a lucrative offer from a movie production company to film the Divine Comedy, promises to become the answer to their problems. What's more, the power behind that offer is the incarnation of his beloved Beatrice, his inspiration all those centuries ago. Now he can have his cake and eat it too, so to speak; have his poetry spread through the world and his beloved Beatrice by his side.

All Beatrice wants is that he sign over all rights to his work. To make it more palatible for her audience she needs to make some changes, changes Dante did not envision in the original. So. Does Dante sell out for money and basking in the glow of his beloved or hold his art close and continue to try to exist under harsh circumstances but with his masterpiece and reputation intact?

Important questions for any artist. If your muse deserts you, can you recognise her should she return? Would she be the same, treat you as she did before?

How much should you let others influence or even shape your art? If it is produced for a commercial purpose, is it art?

Every painter, writer, sculptor, photographer, whatever the medium of expression faces this question at one time or another. And sometimes our answers do not remain constant.

We have to live with and by our decisions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Theatre and Poetry (2)

As I mentioned in a previous entry, several of this year's Fringe Festival productions involved poetry. Sunday afternoon I went to see one that caught my attention.

"The Portrait," written and produced by local people, was described in the program blurb as "a play written almost entirely in poem form." The theme: murder and haunting and suspense.
I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, perhaps a Shakespearean performance in iambic pentameter or something equally solemn and dramatic. What I got was a narrator, the spirit of the niece of the man whose portrait comes to ... however, this isn't about plot intricacies but about the advertized "poem."
The lines were in a less conventional form; the complete play consisted of an extended ballad delivered in quatrain stanzas with lines of three or four feet and alterate rhyme. The marvel of the experience was twofold. Unless you were listening carefully for it, the rhyme and rhythm was almost unnoticeable. And even if you made yourself aware, there were enough changes to ensure that it wasn't repetitive or boring. The metric flow would often jump naturally from one character to another.
Although at the end I felt unsatisfied and wanting more, I left with a sense of amazement that the language had been so well-used.
The flow of narrative carried by rhyme and rhythm in this piece, contrasted with a segment of a performance I had seen the evening before. "Tell Me Another One" was a retelling of three fables. 'Little Red Riding Hood' was delivered as an interprative dance.'Fox and Girl' was a newer puppet show which, for me, didn't cohere. The center of the presentation was the Grimms' 'The Juniper Tree,' but it was done as a folk ballad. What could have been a brilliant concept in the hands of a true balladeer or singer/songwriter was turned into tasteless pap. I hadn't heard the story before; I don't remember it now. I couldn't tell you what it was all about and it didn't interest me enough to look up the original. The accoustic guitar accompaniment was uninspired and forgettable.
All I remember is a strumming guitar and a bearded face. That is neither poetry nor drama.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Theatre and Poetry

I went to two of the shows running at the current Fringe Festival (theatre) because I had read about several that involved poetry. The first I attended was called "I Hate Poetry."

It had an interesting premise: three spoken word artists (poets) do a last minute impromptu rehearsal for a performance. They act as a troupe and as individuals, and the audience is left to consider what is "act" and what is the characters' unplanned disclosure, what is being rehearsed and what is supposedly not. But about the poetry.

It was the common spoken word genre, at times heavy on rhyme, often rhythm depended on that rhyme, and very little else that establishes language as poetry: the use of metaphor or simile, images to portray meaning that is not immediate. Any emotion or feeling was direct and in your face; all to keep the piece moving. Any contemplation would have to be done elsewhere later.

Still, with all my reservations about spoken word poetry, language, form, and meaning, I found the frantic pacing that is the nature if this type of presentation worked well. It communicated the characters as well as the concerns behind its topic. Thank you, Dream Chasers.

The second performance I went to because it was so highly recomended. "Head First" by the Toronto all-women troupe Femmes du Feu had won a main stream staging at the Toronto Fringe Festival and would only be here for four of the ten days. They had also won an audience choice at the London Fringe and so became a "must-see."

The performance consisted of interpretive dance, most of it aerial. The first segment was a pas-de-deux performed by the two co-founders of the troupe and explored the idea of two people sharing the same dream, not dreaming but existing in the same dream space; it sometimes occupied the floor, sometimes high off the stage, other times in mid-air, often in motion between those levels.
The second part was a mini flamenco performance, an interesting reflection on rhythm and movement. It was all the more intriguing because this was the only part without music; the motion and the tapping of the shoes had to say it all.
The third segment was performed by six dancers, sometimes all together and sometimes in smaller numbers. The movement and accompanying music fluttered and hung in a number of aerial silks, portraying six or seven aspects of a woman's life.
And what has this to do with poetry? There is no better explanation of how expression in poetry should be understood. Rhythm and flow. Brilliance to capture the attention, colour to hold it. The meaning suggested by the movements of the dance, by the phrases of the poetry.
Although meant to be an experience of theatre, the evening became one full of poetry.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Different Task

I have taken upon myself a task that is becoming quite a challenging project.

I'm involved in the activities of a group promoting Hamilton as the "Waterfall Capital of the World," the city with more waterfalls within its boundaries than any other. Some of the earlier background research found a poem concerned with a legend attached to one of the more spectacular waterfalls. In a poem written in about 1900 and called Na-Go-She-Onong, a J. L. Lewis tells the story of a native princess who died with her lover in a leap over Webster's Falls.
The story is straightforward, a tale of love and jealousy that ends in tragedy. However, the original poem consists of 216 lines, 27 stanzas of eight lines each. Since I'm a poet and most of the others photographers, I was challenged to turn it into something that could be read or recited at gatherings without boring the audience with length and detail. I accepted that challenge.

Because of the non-literary nature of my primary audience, I have decided to rewrite it in "poetry" they know, structured with rhyme and rhythm. I am approaching it by using a ballad form. The problem now is how much of the narrative can be left out, only hinted at; how much of the description is necessary.

So far I have a framework in mind and the first several stanzas have been written as tetrameter quatrains. Now to touch on the important points of the "story" and keep it all simple and succinct.
Honour the lady, the legend, and the place!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lovers Through the Years

I bought a collection of love songs and sonnets (Everyman's Library) last week and thought I should post something about love poetry. I read a fair selection of the poems and was struck by the way poets and lyricists had not changed all that much in their approach, both in imagery and language, to the expression of love over the centuries. My dilemma became finding a context for my own remarks. That happened tonight. During the regular crawl of art gallery openings, several times I crossed paths with a couple who seemed just as interested in the new displays. What's more, they acted like young lovers have always done: holding hands, cuddling, whispering to each other. The difference was that they appeared to be physically so different from the regular patrons.

Dressed in blacks and reds. Faces and eyes in stark makeup. brightly dyed hair. They looked as if they had stepped out of an alternative culture, but they were here. And they were in love. And in any way that counts they were no different from any one else in love and appreciating art.
Art and love through the ages haven't changed. No matter how it appears to the eye or the heart, art retains its original functions; and no matter how it appears to the eye or the heart, love hasn't changed.

Not in its experience by human beings, not in its appearance in artistic expression, not in lovers who care for each other. Good art and good poetry mirror this.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pain and Art

It's commonly accepted that art can often be the result of pain, whether it be physical or emotional. Artistic expression may come in response to pain or as a way to deal with it. Painters and photographers, musicians and writers, no matter the medium it has been used to convey pain, its effects and consequences.

My question comes from another angle. Has art and its expression ever been used to deliberately cause pain?

A few evenings ago I was at an outdoor concert of reggae and other Carribean music. To emphasize the beat, the rhythm, the promoters and/or the musicians turned up not only the volume but also the bass. I found it necessary to leave.

I used to laugh at my wife when she refused to stay at a concert with a pronounced and heavy bass because it hurt her. Not her ears so much as her bones, she said. Myself, I would joy in the vibrations of my own body to the rhythm of the pounding beat. Pain, no; discomfort, maybe but the excitement was worth it.
That night, the bass vibrated my bones: ribs, breastbone, collarbones. What's more, it hurt. After several minutes the pain throbbed as constant as a toothache and I had to leave.
It made me wonder. Has sound as art ever been used to destroy its 'consumer'? Has any other art form? I know good writing has been used as fuel for political movements, but has a combattant ever been killed by a poem? A barrage of poems?
Art is an antidote to war, anger and negative behaviors but can it ever stop it without the bodies of the artists?

Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier is as strong as ever. Over against him is the Universal Artist. But, may sounds and looks and words never kill. It's more than enough that they hurt.