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!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pleasure Through Difficulty

I read somewhere a few months ago an interview with Alberto Manguel, the Canadian writer, editor and anthologist, and marked down a phrase that resonated with me. I may not have it word for word, but he expressed something along the line that “reading is pleasure through difficulty.” What lay behind this thought, if I remember correctly, was the argument that the pleasure we derive from reading comes from a willed and directed action.

Let’s look a little closer at this argument. Much of what brings us pleasure comes from a passive attitude: hearing music in whatever form, viewing painting and sculpture or any of the plastic arts. Theatre and movies are a combination of these two; all we have to do is to put ourselves in their vicinity. The enjoyment of nature, the pleasure of the outdoors, the experience of a different place, the company of family and friends, all fall within these parameters. To enjoy the written word, however, is something completely different.

Reading for pleasure a very deliberate action. It has to be separated from other reading activities such as to gain information, to find explanations or directions, and all the other uses we find to communicate by the written word. To become “literate,” to gain the ability to read and write, takes a lot of work long before any true “pleasure” can come from it. A person who cannot read or write well finds no pleasure in such activity.
Once you have attained a level of skill, you can begin to read material that may have no application to your daily life. Reading for pleasure takes the imagination and applies it to words and concepts, the stories of places and people, or emotional and rational suggestions that move our spirit in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves and our world, that gives us pleasure.

Choice and effort, we see, are the twin foundations of enjoyment through reading. So how does a poet make these choices easier for his intended audience/readership? Remember, unless it is forced upon the reader he will have no reason whatsoever in these times to approach poetry for fun. The poet must make it pleasurable. Any concept hidden in language not familiar to his audience is soon forgotten except for by a few critics and cognoscenti. This seems to point to two things. A poet should make his words and ideas accessible to as many as possible and he should do his best to present them in a memorable way. There are poets I read whose words ring though the depths of me but who bore me when they read for an audience. There are also poets whose poems leave me cold until I can hear their voice echoing inside my mind. And occasionally a miracle happens – the poet who sounds great on the stage and still sings from the page.

Those are the ones I go back to, again and again. They make me feel the pleasure of reading and make me glad I am literate.

And the difficulty of reading is worth all the effort.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Recently I heard a poet friend of mine remark in a conversation that listening was a language skill, perhaps the first. I had no chance to ask him to expand on that, but it remained in my own mind as I kept examining and pondering his statement. With the modern time’s emphasis on various communication skills, why are we concerned mostly with expression?

Our first contact with language is as a receiver. Long before we are able to express ourselves in words, we learn to differentiate and categorize the sounds we hear, to recognize what emotion is conveyed by what tone and timbre of a voice. The first understanding of sound groups as words comes long before we imitate and try to make our own. Our own development of language depends on what we hear: the language spoken, the sounds that are part of our environment. (An urban child will have a different understanding of the world than a rural child.) Vocabulary and grammar depend on what we hear more than on what we are taught. Every young child wants to hear stories, to learn about the world in structured sound.

Listening, the other half of a conversation as well as the most important response to a lecture or speech, and its associated activity contemplation have become lost art forms. We pride ourselves on how well we express ourselves. This is especially true of poets. We seldom worry about how and what the audience hear; we worry more about their understanding of the sounds we make, the marks we leave on paper.

I have a habit in conversation of listening to what is said. When I am asked a question, or if a remark requiring a response is directed to me, I don’t answer immediately. I take what I have heard, examine it with some care, and formulate a proper response. This may take from ten seconds to more than a minute; in the mind of the speaker I have ignored it and the conversations flow on without my input. It makes for difficult social chitchat. In a telephone conversation it may become almost paranoiac: “Are you still there? Hello! Hello!”

It seems that the only people we expect to listen are professionals, the therapists and others who get paid to carry out such roles. It seems unnatural that we leave half our language skills, the listening and interpreting, to others.

Perhaps poets can be the spearhead of a movement to reclaim the neglected part of language skills. I don’t mean that they should transcribe what they hear; we have technologies that can do that. But the combination of listening and interpreting, isn’t that what poetry is all about? Shouldn’t we spend more time listening so that our interpretation of the world is more meaningful? I would imagine our poetry would be stronger for it and the world a better place because of it.