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.