Friday, December 31, 2010


Wishing all of you health, happiness, and peace of mind in the coming year. Be kind, be joyful.

A Momentous Loss: Kerry Schooley and I

In 2010 we lost a mainstay in Hamilton's literary world. Kerry Schooley will be sorely missed.

By the mid-nineties when I met him, I had spent a decade and a half in the local literary scene. At a time when not much of a literary nature was happening in the city, Kerry started a new literary reading series featuring local and visiting writers at a venue in Hess Village. At its beginning it was called “First Friday” after the day of the month it was held, but soon moved to Sunday and became LitLive, the prestigious reading series that continues to be a Hamilton hallmark. I was one of the guests in that first season.

Over the years our paths crossed in many ways, basically because our ideas on writing, and especially poetry, was complimentary. As members of the Tower Poetry Society, both of us in our way tried to get the group to open up and take poetry out of enclosed spaces by taking it on the road to other towns and venues. Kerry was instrumental in developing the Tower Poetry website while I became its editor-in-chief.

He coordinated Dundas Cactus Festival's Prickly Poetry contest; I was always a semi-finalist but never won the main prize.

We shared other projects. I founded a poetry performance group called Radish; Kerry was a member of it. Kerry ran “Street,” a project for the International Village BIA featuring poetry displayed in storefront windows; I was asked to help him collect and chose the works to be used.
We both loved to perform our poetry, whether alone or with jazz accompaniment. He instituted several music groups just to enhance his performance on the stage.

Even our choice in prose were complimentary. Much time was spent discussing and evaluating noir fiction, Kerry's favorite, and in which genre he wrote two novels, numerous short stories, and edited several anthologies.

I entered several short stories in Arts Hamilton's “Creative Keyboards” competition earlier this year. One of them won third prize. Kerry Schooley was the final judge. (There is a movement to name the prize for this competition after him.)

His enthusiasm, his power, and his imagination may be missed by many, but he will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Oscar Wilde - Salome

I've fallen behind in saying the things I want to say in this space. Part of the reason for my procrastination has been the production of my own collection of poetry, a small volume with a “cat” theme. I'll get to that later, but there are some things I want to mention before I forget them.

Back in November I went to see a presentation loosely based on Oscar Wilde's one act play Salome at the Pearl Company. It was subtitled a “Physical Theatre” adaptation and revolved around the interpretive dance numbers by Sergiy Shvydkyy, dancer and choreographer from the Ukraine. I personally found the production interesting but confusing and lacking.

The characters were caged in separate corners and performed almost no action; all the movement focused on Shvydkyy, the dancer. Any intercourse between Herod, Herodias, Salome and Jokanaan took place from separate corners of their world. They never seemed to interact, only provide a prelude to the next dance. With Wilde, one expects flowing and masterful language; what there was of it here was lost. When a character needed to proclaim, which seemed to be much of the time, he (or she) came across with what sounded like conversation. Conversation (as from one character to another) became lost in the shuffle. As well as the language, Wilde's moon imagery seemed so diluted as to be almost imperceptible. And for me, Wilde's language and imagery were the attraction. Dance as communication is not something I feel strongly about.

That's two strikes against it. What carried it through was the innovative approach. I do need to applaud that, and wish the producers and the Pearl Company well.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

I've always wondered about that Christmas song, the what and the why of the true love's gifts. This season I found an interpretation that suits it and makes perfect sense if you see it in the context of the persecution of Catholics in seventeenth century England. Memorizing the doctrines as a song was a perfect way of not needing incriminating religious materials.

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love gave to me...A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . ." (Luke 13:34)

On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Two Turtle Doves

The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God's self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.

On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Three French Hens

The Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)

On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Four Calling Birds

The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God's reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Five Gold Rings

The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity's sinful failure and God's response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.

On the 6th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Six Geese A-laying

The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).

On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Seven Swans A-swimming

The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)

On the 8th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Eight Maids A-milking

The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)

On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Nine Ladies Dancing

The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness,6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Ten Lords A-leaping

The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God's name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)

On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Eleven Pipers Piping

The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Twelve Drummers Drumming

The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.

It's very reminiscent of another aide-memoire, the song/recitation (rewritten in 1948 by T. Texas Tyler and probably best remembered as performed in the late fifties by Wink Martindale) "Deck of Cards," about a soldier caught playing cards in church.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Haiku: a Review

It's time in this blog, to revisit my views and understanding of haiku.

Back among the first entries, I took exception to what a fellow poet called haiku. At a reading in the autumn of 2008, Brian Bartlett presented poems he referred to as haiku; personally I could not connect and stated that for me these were not “haiku” and gave my reasons. Recently Brian discussed his haiku on his facebook page and I made some response. The exchange led me to review, to revisit my understanding of haiku.

And that's always a good thing. Blindly holding onto your views simply because they are the ones you've always held stunts facets of your personal development. You are not asked to change your beliefs; it is suggested that you examine them in newer light, under other circumstances, or bringing other knowledge into the equation. Granted, this sounds like a philosophical discussion reminiscent of Socrates and his pronunciation on the “unexamined life.” But it works, even in poetry.

So what did I gain from a review? Quite a bit, even though my basic thinking on haiku hasn't changed.

Brian hinted that for him haiku became an exercise in form and language, especially that five - seven - five “syllable” count nonsense. And here we agree. That form so dear to English-speaking teachers and dilettantes neither translates properly from the Japanese script nor does it suit the spirit of English-language haiku. Both Brian and I take exception, but in different ways. I reject the syllables, using the careful selection of words and their multiple connotations to carry the purpose of the poem. Brian, on the other hand, takes the form as such, changing it, worrying it, playing with it but always keeping that form in mind. He turns it, in a way, into a game.

And games have their purpose. Even some of the earlier Japanese masters used the form to make fun, to play word games, to entertain. And much as I prefer to see haiku as an expression of spirituality, as continuing realizations on the way to final enlightenment, I accept that one way toward enlightenment is laughter, through fun and games as well as word play.

So I have been pointed to a vision of haiku different from mine but no less valid. In the same way, somebody referring to the Christian Bible as “great literature” does not take anything away from the faith of believers.

I have learned a little more tolerance. I have learned not to take myself all too seriously. I have experienced a small “enlightenment,” my own little satori.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Anthologies and Collections

Several weeks ago I was honoured to take part in the launch of two anthologies of poetry. With the decrease of small literary magazines, such one-time projects have become more and more important in placing the work of younger and less established poets before the public; they are no longer, as they once were, simply selections of poems that would point a reader to other work by the collected authors.

Most of today's anthologies are collections of new work. New poetry by established authors usually appears in the established and recognized literary journals; more innovative material and "no name" writers can usually only attain publication on electronic websites or in inexpensive paper 'zines. A collection, whether soft cover or in hard and perfect-bound form, therefore carries a certain amount of prestige.

In Canada the shift from one to the other, that is the move from sampled verse from established authors to showcased work from those writers who were up and coming, is best seen in the Storm Warning anthologies that Al Purdy produced for McClelland and Stewart in the 1970s. Their popularity proved to young poets that collections of their work could be as widely disseminated as those usually carried in bookstores and used in classrooms.

That development continued in two directions. Often a writers or poets, connected through membership in a group or organization or having something else in common such as living in a specific area, would produce a collection, themed or not, to showcase their own work. That way, the friends and acquaintances of each would be exposed to the work of a greater number. The other way was to devise a specific theme and invite poets to submit work that seemed to fit the theme.
My participation that weekend was in anthologies with both those characteristics. One was a celebration of twenty-five years of publication of The Saving Banister by the Niagara chapter of the Canadian Authors Association. Established to feature through a contest the best of Niagara regional poets each year, it has now been opened up province wide. The silver anniversary edition was doubled through the inclusion of work from former winners and judges, and included a new poem of mine. The main theme of the annual has not changed.

The second anthology is a very different project. Unlike the one mentioned above, it is a one-time occurrence. The visual artist and poet Frances Ward collected a number of her images of cracked asphalt and invited poets to submit poems about streets/roads/ driving, then selected a number to accompany her art. The result was Road Work Ahead, a coffee table sized anthology and a beautiful publication. I was honoured to have one of my poems included.

So both anthologies were produced for a purpose and not simply as a showcase for the contributors' work. Anthologies or collections such as these, that aspire to be something special, hold the promise of the future of limited press publication.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whooping Poetry

Recently there has been some intense discussion in certain circles about the increase in Black American churches of “whooping,” the vocal technique whereby a preacher urges for an emotional response to his sermon, and its value not only as a part of communal worship but also as a means to deliver the message. Those of a rational mind-set prefer their sermon to be delivered as lecture, reasoned point by point to a determined conclusion. Others see bringing and receiving the message as involving more than the mind, and that whatever will emphasize it is valid even if not necessary.

Whooping, as practiced by black preachers, is a rhetorical device. Most agree it should not be used to present the substance of the sermon, the message. However, some of those who practice it refer to it as the “gravy;” after delivering the meat-and-potatoes you pour on the extra, the joyful element. Others see it as a method of emphasizing, impressing in the spirit what has been given to the mind and thereby involving the whole person – often with physical responses, whether by voice or body or both.

Now what has this to do with poetry? Let me explain. I believe that poetry is as much a vocal art as singing. Before general literacy, well into the twentieth century, people experienced poetry as spoken language. I see the book, the page, as a storage and retrieval system. Even when I read silently to myself, I want to fear the words sing in my own voice. And, when poetry is publicly presented on a stage, any technique of drama or rhetoric that enhances the poem is important.

On more than one occasion my delivery, my method of presentation, has been compared to that of a preacher. And that's not a bad thing. In poetry I want to involve much more than reason. I want to invoke an emotional response, even a spiritual one if you will. The greater the audience involvement is, the more the poem is poetry.

I admire the cadence structures used by black preachers to enhance their sermons. I may take a look at my own delivery of certain poems to see if such a (deliberate) stucture can work for them.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another Grammar Rant

Sometimes small things irritate me.
Right now, I have just finished reading a very good short story. It held my interest in the plot and characters and their development but ... Several times the writer used the verb 'to lay' when he should have used 'to lie.' No great matter, you might say, people make mistakes. True enough, but this was the same mistake over again. Several times.

I admit to my own faults and quirks, but I usually catch them when I reread a raw manuscript. Before publication, an editor or proof reader should catch them. Or are line editors and proof readers extinct, wiped out by Spellcheck and the like?

The difference (with exceptions, of course. After all, this is the English language.) is that 'lay' is a transitive verb, 'lie' is intransitive. In other words, 'lay' means something is being done to something else. Action. 'Lie' refers to a passive state of being. No action. The only thing they have in common is that the simple past tense of 'lie' is 'lay' which is the present tense of the verb 'to lay.' In a small example: "I lay the book down. (Action, now.) It lay on the floor before I found it. (No action, and in the near past.)

Somewhere in my first few years of dealing with our language, I realized the difference; I've never, even in conversation to my knowledge, interchanged these verbs. In conversation the misuse doesn't seem as glaring, probably because there is greater context. But printed on the page, or on a website? Very annoying.

I tell you no lie.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Changing Times, Changing Language

One of the things that struck me last month at the Labour Day parade was how the language and terminology of work and the workers has been changing. When, as a young working man, I began to involve myself in the labour movement all the words and slogans pertaining to rights and benefits that had been most identifiably the basis of the movement since the beginning of the industrial age were still current and still had the same meanings.
But now. Imagine a workers' celebration without talk of 'us' against 'them,' nothing about 'the bosses,' no reference to striking for increased wages, better conditions, shorter hours, increased benefits. The only recognizable sloganeering is about pension rights, not so much demanding the workers' rights to a pension but crying out against the international conglomerates' ability to erode pension benefits almost at will. That's not imagination, that was the reality. Joe Hill should be raging in his grave.
But when our concept of work changes, as it does more and more, so must the language change. When work was considered as physical labour, the time spent doing so was important to a person's physical well-being. Now such activity is becoming less and less a part of our culture.
A person who spends an inordinate amount of time at his job is no longer considered a 'slave' but more likely a 'workaholic,' one who chooses to spend more time at work for whatever reason. Bosses and employers have become faceless entities without any presence against which to direct protests. And so the workers' language must change.
The real force for change and workers' protection must necessarily be one of revolution. The problem seems to be that the work force has been fragmented. There are no longer thousands of people working together in one place who can unite into a single entity. A lot of the work done for a large corporation is handled by a few persons operating machinery or computers; much of it is outsourced to small businesses or individuals under contract. The old terminology no longer applies.
A revolution that cannot gather together like-minded people in one place needs to be fuelled by language. The possibility of pamphleteering still exists but a far greater force would seem to be the newer electronic media. It has already started with petitions using e-mail and/or facebook. The continuing growth will see new terms and language.
An example of the changes in the labour movement is happening locally. The Workers' Art and Heritage Center is sponsering a project looking for new labour songs for the new labour reality. Tonight during the monthly Art Crawl (an open house of a number of art galleries in one district) one of its proponents was seen going up and down the street pulling a cart – emblematic of the old concept of work – but singing a song dealing with the more recent concept of labour.
A post-industrial society needs to express itself using not only the age-old concept of work songs but also the post industrial media.
And an information language for this information, post-industrial world.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mime, a Foundation of Language

I was listening to a linguist/anthropologist on a radio program expound on his theory that even before we humans assigned meaning to sounds and groups or sequences of sounds we were communicating by what we today consider mime. He was so animated as he spoke; I could imagine the gestures and facial expressions he must have been using to emphasize his points. Not only, he claimed (as a result of long and careful research), did we communicate with each other that way but also with different species!

And I think of how a lab environment must have been set up. First people would have been put in close proximity and told they could only communicate without using language. Of course it will work; ask any immigrant placed among people whose language is totally foreign to them. You make yourself understood by gestures. It's no great leap to conceive that such must have been the case when there was no recognizable language at all. We still use mime and mime type movements to emphasize what we say. That's known as body language.

Body language is also a large component of how we communicate with other species. Anyone who trains dogs, etc. will tell you that motion is as important as tone of voice and more so than specific words. We have been communicating with other species as long as we've been around; there is nothing new here.

Let me tell you, too, about poetry and mime, about poetry and motion. In the earliest times descriptions of activities and events must have depended on the poet/storyteller miming those acts. The great epic poems needed action to impress and deliver their meaning. The bard did not simply sit by the fire or at the table and speak; he got on his feet, proclaimed, gestured and mimed. When he spoke of the hero, he would strut, stick out his chest, raise that powerful arm. When he spoke of the defeated enemy he would make himself look weak, beaten, and slink

It all holds true today. The better speaker is the one who engages you with gesture and motions as well as sound. The poet who will be heard and admired more is one who does not simply read or say his words. He must get up on his feet, raise his body and his voice to proclaim.

The language of the voice, words and sounds so intricately woven, enhanced and emphasized by mime, the language of the body.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On The Street

Sometimes I discover little things or happenings that please me deeply. One such happened at the most recent Art Crawl here in the city, that evening when all the galleries and related businesses on James Street North open wide and party. The street fills with people, in clusters and individuals, moving from one to another to sample the art and other attractions in the area. Some galleries provide incidental music or other performance. You can find buskers on the sidewalks: musicians, dancers, and more.

Often you'll find a display of books in front of a shop. There may also be a used book dealer displaying his wares. But this most recent Art Crawl offered something dear to my heart; a young lady had positioned herself in front of a gallery and was offering poetry for sale! She was sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk, copies of her first (self-) publication spread out on display. Without even reading one poem, I bought a copy. (She said I was the first person to purchase her work; I feel proud of that!) It didn't matter if the poetry was good or bad, what mattered was that the young lady was putting her words and her craft where it belongs - out on the street with all the other arts.

It reminded me of myself, hawking copies of my own poems in Yorkville in '67-'68. (Gestetner, remember those?) And a plan that never came to fruition, of chalking poems on the sidewalks of Barton Street a number of years ago. Then there was the International Village's initiative that displayed poems monthly in storefront windows. There is the current project of Simon Frank incorporating a poem in the sidewalks of Locke Street as public art, rather than the usual mural or sculpture.

Poetry on the street. Poetry in the markets. Poetry for people where the people are.

(By the way, that book "Poetry's Dead - on Love, Despair, Hobo-ism and produce" was worth the price. Nyki Hamilton, I'd love to be in touch with you!)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Words and Music for Peace

Yesterday, the Sunday of the Labour Day holiday weekend, I took part in an exquisite experience, artists expressing their art for a cause. The cause: building a community of peace; the event: Michael Pickett's third annual "Concert for Peace" at his home in Crystal Beach, Ontario.

There was no fervent preaching, no raising money for a cause. The music Michael and friends provided and the often expressed reason for all of us being there rang out the message loud and clear: if there is ever to be world peace, it must start with the individual and grow among friends. Here we grew from music fans to friends to a community, a group who hold something in common.

Five musicians/bands performed in diverse styles, from gentle and introspective to powerful and driving. All left their marks on the common consciousness and with those marks the awareness of the need for peace within and without.

At one stage in the planning there had been some consideration that Poets for Peace might also take part in the performance, a group of which I am also a part. That idea could not be developed but that didn't matter. Sometimes poets become preachers for a cause, and that wasn't needed. The music and the communion of friends were more than enough.

I want to thank Michael and Louise Pickett, all the musicians who performed, and all the friends there, old and new. Together we were what we could not be independently.

Peace. May it live and grow through us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Expanding Experience

One of the things I do when I write a poem is to take a small image, something that impresses, that catches my attention with the emotional response it calls forth, and expand on it. Not always. Often the image that touches my perception can stand on its own and becomes a haiku. If it elicits one specific response, it will often become a tanka. But for a more expansive poem, the initial experience becomes the beginning of something else, something greater. Building a poem becomes an act reminiscent of constructing a cairn.

It’s not that the first impression has little or no intrinsic value. What happens is that I make connections to other events and emotions, and feel the need to bring them together. Often the first attempts will sound and feel over-sentimental, like a juvenile diary entry. Like building a cairn, shaping a poem takes time and effort.

Let me illustrate with an example – no, not the finished poem itself, but the layer-by-layer construction of it.
Sometime ago I was driving through wooded farmland on one of the four-lane divided highways toward sundown when I spotted some deer drinking from a creek several hundred meters away. Several factors impressed that sight in my mind: the evening light, the distance, the contrast of the natural (creek, deer, woods) and the constructed (highway, automobile, rushing humans), as well as my inability to stop and become a small part of that scene even though I wanted to do so.

Over the next few days that image would not leave me. It became connected to several other things. I was reminded of the creek on the farm where I grew up. I remembered also seeing and tracking deer in that area when I was young. The flowing water reminded me of a young lady I knew who loved to walk beside flowing water and stop to sit with her feet in the flowing water as a way to relax.

All these items came together in one unit, like different shaped stones in a cairn. Had the young lady, while sitting with feet in the running water of a creek, ever been surprised by deer coming to drink? She would be careful not to disturb them. Would she envy their freedom? I remembered that she now lived in a small city, married to a long-distance trucker. I wondered at the emotion she would feel, left alone so long so often. Would she go looking for flowing water to soothe her spirit? Would she remember the deer (the ones only my imagination provided)? Would she wonder if the deer remembered her?
So you see how the glimpse of deer drinking at sundown becomes a totally different thing, with the initial image remaining as a corner stone for the whole construct. My own emotional reactions, even my rational reaction, play only a secondary role to the imagined emotions of a young lady who is not part of the original.

And all that, as poetry, is as valid and real as deer beside a creek beside a highway.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Language Irritation

I just want to complain about a strange construction I have been finding in works published in the English language. For a long time I have heard it in the spoken language but have not, until recently, discovered it in a newspaper as well as a novel from a very respected publisher. Here it is:

One of the functions of the infinitive mood of a verb is as a noun. The infinitive is expressed with the preposition "to," as in "to find," "to make," "to have." Why, when an infinitive is a noun serving as object to a verb, should it be changed to a correlating verb connected by the coordinating conjunction "and"? Do you understand? Allow me to try to explain.

That construction is correct, but so many will say "try and explain." Even tense doesn't matter. Instead of saying " She came to see me yesterday" the tenseless infinitive takes on the relative preterite as "She came and saw me yesterday."

The examples could go on and on. The recent construction probably grew out of speakers' laziness; it is so much easier to say "and" instead of "to" especially when it can be slurred to " 'n' ."

So. Should we live with it or try and do something about it?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Celebrating with the Word

Usually in present North American culture, we celebrate events and times by music and motion — song and dance. A wedding celebration naturally culminates in a dance; funerals and memorial services move from song to hymn. It was different then, and quite uplifting, to attend a literary event of celebration. Last night, as part of commemorating 175 years of existence in Hamilton, Stewart Memorial Church began their homecoming weekend with a gala of presentations of a literary nature.

The church was founded as part of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and remains a predominantly Black congregation. Perhaps because of the ties to African slaves as well as more recent Caribbean migrations, this celebration by word was offered to the congregation and the public. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the concept worked.

It worked for several reasons. The writing presented was a mixture of both substance and style. There were presentations, authors reading excerpts from their books, that were historical and accurately researched; there were poets spinning words and images only grounded in experience; there were storytellers who took the factual to build stories that tugged at the spiritual and emotional parts of us. But the most notable aspect of the church’s literary evening of celebration was that it did not focus on the church, its history, its well-known members past and present. Instead it presented the culture of all the peoples it encompasses.

Nor did the words of celebration only recall the past. The past was dealt with in story and history; too, there were poems and stories of the present. From the poetry especially, joy and hope for the imagination. Commemoration of yesterday, the solidarity of today, the brightness of tomorrow: all were interwoven into the celebration. And rightly so.

Today the celebration continues, this time with music and song. Tomorrow a more solemn service with a guest preacher.

And it began with the words. Sound familiar? “In the beginning was the Word … ” (John 1:1)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Attitude Poetry

There’s a fellow poet with whom I was discussing the basics of poetry not long ago; on some things we agree but on others we don’t. That, I suppose, is to be expected.

We both agree that language is basic but each has a different emphasis on the way it should be used. I prefer to keep my words and expressions working the way they usually do. Nouns name things, verbs are action; adjectives describe nouns, adverbs explain action. They fit together in phrases and clauses. My friend will often turn a noun into a movement or a verb into a thing. That’s not new; we “squirrel” things away; a wave is an action or a thing. He just likes to do the same with words we don’t think of using in such a way.

He claims it helps establish “attitude.” Attitude, he says, is the second most important principle of poetry. Here we disagree. Rather than something as tenuous as attitude, I prefer to emphasize the tools used to make poetry —similes, metaphors, images, sound, rhythm, and shape — something he puts much lower on the list. So I began to consider attitude as an integral part of poetry.

Several instances that seemed important crossed my mind.
One occurred when someone read one of my poems before a group; he read it as words on the page, without the expression I would have given the delivery, without my “attitude,” if I could consider it like that. The second, strangely enough, was Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali with his ‘poems’ not only predicting the outcome of his fights but also the descriptive “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” phrasings that were new to the prizefighting game. Ali had attitude, physical and verbal. His words, his poetry, caught the ear and demanded attention.

I’m quite sure that this was what my friend meant by claiming poetry must have attitude. If a poem doesn’t grab and shake its hearers, it might pass away as if it had never been. And in a way this is also a valid point, this emphasis on attitude.

Jamaican-born Dub poetry grew out of this sensibility. Dub doesn’t live by the written word; its vitality lies in its performance. I grant that the tools of poetic language (rhyme, rhythm, etc.) are a vital part, but its attitude is most recognizable. Similarly today’s slam poetry with its aggressive and competitive aspects depends on attitude more than on well-formulated thought progression.

The question of attitude remains for me a matter of balance. Certainly a poem needs something special to make it stand apart from the common flow of words in our lives. However this expressiveness, this attitude, can become a cover hiding flaws, a thick coat of paint over the incipient rot in the wood.

After consideration this emphasis on “attitude” my friend espoused has moved up somewhat in my view of poetry and poetics. But care must be taken. It is too easy to push too hard, to blow too loud, and defeat the whole purpose of the attitude.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Recently an acquaintance of mine published a collection of poetry. Now that’s not noteworthy; I know many writers, and usually somebody is bringing out a book. This person I know mainly as a musician who plays several instruments. I also understand that he was the main songwriter for a folk group some years ago. So we have a reputable musician and songwriter turning his talents to poetry.

Although there are great differences between writing songs and writing a poem, (I know, I’ve tried writing songs. I’ve even attended several workshops by excellent singer/songwriters) it’s not a great leap. Scotland’s Robbie Burns wrote lyric/poems. Some of the old folk ballads are wonderful poems apart from the tunes. So I had some expectations.

Granted, I did not expect a modern Burns. I did not look for comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, or so many others. But I was certainly looking forward to see what this musician could do with words. And I’m sorry to say all my expectations went for naught. The “poems” in his book were … well I can’t really sum them up in a word or two although “drivel” comes close.

From a musician, I expect music. Since as a songwriter he must be aware of fitting words to rhythms, I looked for sustained rhythms and the use of sound because these are also basic components of poetry. Even the ancient Greeks saw music and poetry as a complimentary pair, as sister Muses.

I was sad to discover his poems do not sing. There is no hint of music, either obvious or latent. When I heard him read some to an audience it sounded like prose, and I thought I was missing something, something obscured by his delivery perhaps. When I examined his book in private, I found that was all there was: prosodic language masquerading (and not very well) as poetry. No marvelous use of language; none of the devices that make a poem the special thing it is. Lacking in imagery, lacking in descriptive phrasing, lacking the rhyme and assonance that connect poetry to music.

The poems about places read even less exciting than a travelogue. The poems about emotions read like a teenager’s diary. Most of the language didn’t rise above a hastily scribbled letter home.

And this is a singer, a songwriter, a musician. And now an artless arranger of meaningless prose. Words without music.

Who dare call it poetry?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poetry and Multiculturalism

Yesterday I learned about an interesting poetry related event happening in Bologna, Italy earlier this month. Let me explain the event as I understand it, with cycling and recitation becoming a traveling presentation of poetry to the unwary as part of a multicultural festival. This is known as the “poeciclettata,” or “poetandem” as the English language media expresses it.

A number of poets are recruited to recite from memory a poem in a language foreign to Italy, not the poet, a language native to a segment of the population of the region. These dozen or so gather in a suburban square and recite their poems at different locations in the square to passersby and anyone who cares to gather. Poets are usually accompanied by hand drummers (acting first as a call to attention and then as a background rhythm.) After the performances are done, the poets and drummers (in tandem?) take off on their bicycles for the next stop, ready to invade another public square and repeat their performances. It takes place in late afternoon and early evening, ending with a public party after the final performance.

I love the idea! I can see it now: the drumming gathers a few people, the poet begins to recite. The words mean nothing to some or most of the audience, but one or two are excited – hey, that’s my native language! Maybe they pull out a cell phone, spread the news. Others recognize their own language from other poets who are performing nearby. The poets repeat at intervals; it’s not a personal reading. After a set time all of them, poets, drummers, and possibly some of the audience, take off for the next public space to repeat. As they move on, the cyclist audience travels with them and the whole thing just grows!

Bringing poetry back to the people, not just to native speakers but to migrants who have settled or are passing through. In a way it’s like Canada’s “Random Acts of Poetry” but with an ecology minded emphasis (bicycles) and a lot of street theatre thrown in.

And then I imagine it happening here. Poetry for the people entering or leaving the mall. In Korean, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish. Moving on by bicycle to the bus station, the train station. Stopping by the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. Ending with music and food in a downtown park.

Yes! Poetry as an expression of culture. Poetry as fun and pleasure. Poetry as a reason to party. Bring it on!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Multidiscipline Improvisation

It was not just another Saturday night at the ArtwordArtbar. This Saturday night was special. No musical act had been lined up and since the venue is inclined toward all the arts (and with the availability of some of the guests at this time) the proprietors decided to hold a multidiscipline improvisation evening.

They had done something of the sort before: dance, some music, video projection on a screen behind the dancer. This session was intended to be expanded. An artist who created and layered sound and music on his laptop computer was available and eager. A new projection program needed to be tried in a more public situation. Several dancers and various musicians were ready to take part. And to this mix I suggested myself.

What I wanted to do was something I had tried before, a good number of years before. I wanted to place some of my poetry before an audience ― with enhancements not of my own making. Back in the eighties I had come together with a saxophonist and a male dancer; we had begun work on a suite combining words – music – movement to explore a primitive understanding of the world. Although the concept was never fully fleshed out for anything like public presentation, the urge to see my work interpreted by other artists has always remained in the back of my mind. Here, I believed, was the chance to do something similar. I would speak my words. My voice would stand alone without my usual stage presence and physical movement. Instead the flow of words would be interpreted instantly and without prior consultation by a dancer or dancers there on the stage.

My idea was welcomed. I would present two poems, one in each set, and then be obligated to take part in a free, unstructured performance of all the artists involved.

I decided that the first poem would be just myself and the dancers, three ladies. I wanted to recite from off stage but they preferred me onstage as they moved around me. I compromised, sitting on the front of the stage with my words and microphone, presenting the poem as they moved and controlled the open space before me while the projectionist worked her magic on the screen behind us. At the break between sets we discussed the presentation. My difficulty had been that I was not able to see their movement and use that to vary the pacing and tone; one of the dancers expressed a slight frustration that sometimes my presentation didn’t match what she expected from the words. All valid and useful comments.

My second presentation was not as concrete in imagery, leaving it more open to interpretation. I also asked the musicians ― bass, percussion, violin, and the aforementioned computer keyboardist ― to come in wherever they felt they could. This time, I stayed off-stage and was able to watch the dancers, vary the pace and intonation; the musicians were doing the same. This ensemble seemed to work together well, not flawlessly but to the satisfaction of the whole group.

Then, to end the evening after another break for refreshing mind and body, the improvisational “free-for-all.” The focus of this extensive … I suppose you could call it a “jam” … was the dancers on stage: as individuals, in twos, as a trio. To their actions each of the other artist/participants added their own layer, using their own medium. As a poet, I am not able to compose and speak out on the spot but I did not withdraw from the fusion. I used the opportunity to add voiced sounds ― sometimes words, phrases, short sentences, but more often hums or unstructured voice. I would take a clear vowel and slowly run it through different shapes of the mouth or flit it back and forth. Throw in a few do-wop phrasings (often at greatly reduced rhythms) and I knew I was contributing to the whole, even wordlessly.

Ah, the magic! Layers of creative expression, unrehearsed and spontaneous.
I look forward to the next time I can be part of such an experience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Artist's Awareness

I met with an acquaintance who writes poetry a week or so ago. When we were closer and he was just beginning to write, I encouraged him and helped him, in some small ways, to improve. After he moved away I continued to follow his work in various publications. Then it stopped, and I had no idea if he had quit writing poetry or taken up something else (for he was also interested in film and music.)

When I met him recently I was going to ask until I realized immediately that he was not the same man. Oh, he talked about writing poetry and a possible poetry/music/film project. He also let me know about a number of health issues. Throughout our conversation I could sense that the creative urge was still there but greatly subordinate to his mental and physical state. He seemed to me incapable of focusing on anything outside himself, as if he no longer had any interest in the world around him if it did not directly involve his well-being.

At first I was going to chastise him for abandoning his writing but I’m glad I did not. I have come to realize how much awareness must be a basic part of the creative process. I don’t mean a ‘hyper’ awareness, some sense more developed in artists than in others. I’m referring to the primitive consciousness that keeps the senses operating and the mind processing the information the senses receive. The sudden notice of a smell and all the associations it may bring; an awareness of how colours and shapes flow together; the way one thought leads to something other under certain circumstances; all these are part of how we interact with our surroundings and how we understand it.

That’s what poets work from, an awareness and understanding of the world around them. That’s what any artist has. It doesn’t matter if such awareness is called “the Muse” or insight or vision. It is nothing more than any person has. The artist, however, has come to use that awareness in creative ways to enhance what he needs to show, to say.

It’s very much like a muscle the artist or writer exercises almost unconsciously, one that more ordinary people tend to ignore and sometimes even actively suppress.

That calls to mind one beautiful morning not long ago. In the early morning quiet I had paused to sit in the nearby park, simply to think, perhaps make some plans, get away from any pressure in the house. Before the day’s impending heat could overtake the morning I enjoyed the play of sunlight and breezes in the trees and on my skin. I felt aware of my surroundings and even as one with the environment. And then a young lady came by, running along the paved track that circles the park.

You’ve seen them, the early morning joggers. This one was no different: proper footwear, light snug clothing, sweatband at the forehead. I’ll swear there would be a bottle of some special drink waiting where she had stashed it (probably in her car.) The dark glasses to protect the eyes. The ear buds leading up from the I-pod.

And it struck me; she had gone to a lot of trouble to negate all the things I was enjoying – the sunshine, the slight breeze, the movement of leaves on the trees, the singing and chirping of birds, the scurry of a squirrel, the splash of colour in a nearby flowerbed, the scent of a juniper bush. All these external stimuli and all the pleasure they give she was denying herself because she wanted to focus inward. Her feelings concentrated on perspiration and muscle fatigue; all she heard was whatever mechanically reproduced sounds she allowed herself to hear and perhaps the pulse of her own blood; all she saw was just enough to keep her on the chosen path. She certainly did not seem to notice me. In no way was she open to any outside stimulus.

That’s just a case of normal awareness being suppressed, for whatever reason. And what if such awareness is impaired, perhaps even lost altogether? What if I, as a poet, suddenly could no longer see the brilliance of colour, could no longer hear the small sounds around me? If I was unable to enjoy all the small miracles that make my life worth living, could I still write poetry?

I shudder to think of myself so wrapped up in myself that nothing else matters. To what sort of animal is the poet reduced when he has lost his Muse, his awareness of the intricate world outside himself?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Paths of Poetry

Recently I was speaking to an acquaintance about some of the fundamentals of poetry, especially if the making and dissemination of poetry had any use in today’s society. Several aspects we agreed on: the value of poetry as cultural and personal expression, and poetry as a philosophic and moral record of time past. Where we disagreed most fundamentally was in the proper function of poetry.

He argued that it was the purpose of the poet especially, as a custodian of language and broker of its many functions, to explore all the possibilities of language, to stretch what and how ideas can be expressed in the forms (or lack of forms), shapes, and other attributes of poetry. Quite vigorously he claimed that, since no one else was pushing the boundaries, the poet must.

In a way I agree with him. I can understand the urge of a poet to experiment with the sounds and colours of language, to find new ways of expressing the old. “To boldly go where no (poet) has gone before.” Certainly the poet should be free to find new ways through the jungle that is language and usage. But.

It is this “but” that I raised that he seemed to disparage; he seemed so wrapped up in his own argument that he could see no other truth. (And truth wears as many faces as there are ways of looking at it.) I offered the argument that the poet also, and perhaps more importantly, has an obligation to preserve the past and to work with it, to expand what has come before prior to rushing into uncharted spaces.
I offered him two analogies, two metaphors if you will. I asked him to consider orchestral music, saying that there were experimental composers doing fine work that finds an audience but that the most popular and still quite valid works were those of years gone by, and those written today in the styles of those times. When he looked confused, I offered him a simpler one. It’s all very well, I told him, to go exploring, to hack new paths through the undergrowth of jungle or forest. Those who feel the need to do so should. But. And here is that “but” again.

Using the land is more than making one’s way through or around obstacles, more than making paths and drawing maps of them. In the age-old tradition of cultivation we plant what we know we can harvest, what we can use. We shape the landscape to our need, whether that need is utilitarian or simply for appreciation of beauty. A garden is a garden, whether laid out in row upon row of vegetables or plot and cluster of flowers and ornamental vegetation. And the path between their beds are as valid as a trail though the densest part of the forest.

I think he finally got what I was trying to say. He became calmer and changed the subject. I certainly hope that he doesn’t think that I believe his efforts to be worthless, I only hope that he can see the importance of tradition and its relationship to what he wants to do. Such are the functions of poetry: different directions, equally valid.

Changing language, I think, has little to do with poetry as such; poetry probably only reflects change. The changes happen in the street, in everyday usage and media adaptations. I will leave him to hack his way through the jungle of undergrowth as he finds it. I will tend my more formal garden, adding a little bit of colour in one place, a different shape in another. And each one of us walks his own path.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Word as Sound

A couple of evenings ago I walked into the Artword Artbar late because I wanted to take a quick listen to a group I had heard making some intriguing music the weekend before. The Blues Explosion (Sarah Good et al.) had finished one set; in the interval a group calling themselves slowly, slowly were performing. I thought they sounded interesting enough to wait through until the last set. It turned out that they were the ones who impressed me.

The five person collective performed on a number of various instruments, interspersed by vocal phrasings rather than typically structured “songs.” With the interplay between voice and instrumentation and the minimal of layering over and against each other, it made for a presentation quite intriguing to the ear.

Most interesting to me as a poet and spoken word aficionado was one piece when the group read text as part of the presentation. The music faded out (it did not stop abruptly) and the focus became the speaking voice, first by a few and then involving the whole collective. As this continued it felt to me that the content, the subject matter, the meaning, were not as important as the voices as they wove together. It felt like overhearing conversation at a party but standing away from direct involvement with it.

Later I wondered if this had any relationship to what sound poets do. They take words and parts of words, combinations of sounds that usually have specific meanings, and turn them into a pattern that may not have been there before. These musicians took ordinary words and sentences and did not change anything except the presentation as music, placed them in a different context and asked you to hear them in an unusual way.

It’s one thing to read aloud a newspaper article and, through emphasis, inflection and intonation, make it sound like poetry. (I have heard/seen that done.) It’s another to take the banality of the human voice in conversation and make it music. But then there’s the creative spirit that joins the poet and musician. There is not and should not be a wall between artistic disciplines, no cubbyholes to hold and contain.

Just as a postscript, when Sarah Good returned to the stage (alone this time) and began a series of electronic sound manipulations I slipped away. It seemed almost common compared to what I had experienced.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Naughty Little Difference

For something different and lighthearted, I want to present you with a few limericks. You should know that the limerick has a definite form - rhyme and rhythm - and is seldom serious; the rhyme and rhythm doesn't really allow it. It is meant for enjoyment, often working on word play and very often with an off-colour reference. So, be warned, if the illustrations haven't already drawn you in!

Melissa was crowned the most pretty
And ambitious young maid in our city
But she left us no trace
Of her figure and face
But a grin and a perfect left titty

If ever you walk down our street
A saucy young miss you might meet
With a wink of her eye
She makes truck drivers shy
And teenage boys kneel at her feet

A cowgirl roared out of the West
At putting down men she was best
Some she would beat on
And some she would cheat on
And cut off the balls of the rest

An Indian gent named Challussee
Has found that some girls may be fussy
For he has learned that
When she says "pet my cat"
She may not mean "fondle my pussy"

Place tongue firmly in cheek; if you feel the need to chuckle, do so!