September 26, 2013

A Main Stage Bricolage

By Joshua Whitehead

The calm before the "bash".

Yesterday’s main stage event was titled, "Poetry Bash," and a wondrous bash it was. The two- hour event was a bricolage of poetic voices. Charlene Diehl, director of Thin Air, stressed the Poetry Bash’s importance in the festival and proclaimed Winnipeg as being a city that appreciates its poets. The roster of poets featured: Jon Paul Fiorentino, Robert Priest, Jennifer Still, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Jay MillAr.
The audience was full of a variety of people ranged in age. Fellow Canadian poet Meira Cook sat but a few rows behind me. Being a fan of Cook, a part of me wanted to run home, grab my copy of A Walker in the City and beg for an autograph. Impulses set aside, I recited “Adam Father” in my head and felt content. Joining the venue I entered the door prize, grabbed a beverage and eagerly sat in the second row.
JonPaul Fiorentino, a native to Transcona, was the first to read. He opened his set with a humbling shout-out to his old neighbourhood, which was quickly followed by a hilarious recounting of the numerous times he was beaten up. Fiorentino opened up the Poetry Bash with his breathy poetic rhythm and growling, elongated vowels. He introduced to us a sort of found poetry. One poem featured a series of complex pharmaceutical items -- who’d have thought that those long waits in doctor’s offices would lead to the jazz-like qualities of Fiorentino’s medicinal musicality? Fiorentino embodied Winnipeg’s motto, which he explained to us as being, “One with the strength of many.” His poetic style seemed to emulate the very essence of Winnipeg, and more over, of Transcona with its lively, violent lusciousness. 
RobertPriest was next to read, rising from the stage furniture as an eclectic character with a set of stylish, red-magnetic reading glasses. He opened with an interesting poem titled, “What is the Word?” Weaving through ad-libs and fill-in-the-blank poetics, Priest created a ‘You and I’ stream of consciousness style that allowed us to decide what the word truly was. He then moved into a delightful parody of Churchhill’s V-for-victory and reinstated the V-for-vagina stating that, “The inside of the vagina is as numinous as it gets.”  

His next poem, “Rights Left” was a theatrical exhibition wherein Priest reenacted a militaristic march. Mimicking the musicality of the soldier’s march, Priest played with direction: with right, with left, and with the movement of politics asking, “What rights do we have left?” Priest then introduced us to his experimental poetic style. He played with memes, re-sculpting and redefining the word ‘money’ by removing the ‘ne’ and adding in ‘mm’, thus creating ‘mommy’. His poem went on to exhibit the absurdity of capital through a drag-like performative inversion. Priest riddled through lines such as,” I have no mommy sense” and “mommy burns a hole in my pocket”.  

Lastly, Priest strapped on his guitar and played for us, in my opinion, his most powerful poem, “Bomb In Reverse”. The rhythm emulated childhood rhymes, though in its simple rhythm laid its powerful imagery. The poem acted as a means of rewinding the horrors of warfare. Having just read Keiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical, anti-atomic manga, Barefoot Gen, I was deeply affected by Priests’ images. Priest went on to sing of a bomb imploding rather than exploding, of a bomb extinguishing children on fire, of a bomb sucking fire back into its shell. My entire experience with Priest truly was a backwards resurrection; a miracle; a bomb in reverse. 
Next up was Jennifer Still, the winner of The Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry award, for her poem, “Spiny Oak Worm”. The poem was a barrage of beautiful imagery and colours, from a vibrant yellowness to water, to pink skin and moth wings. The poem featured a variety of beautiful lines that etched themselves into my mind, such as, “a wing darkening a word” or “a child you thought hatched inward”. The entirety of her poetic form was a chrysalis of sorts: the words being oak worms, the poem being the emerging winged insect. Still’s lulling voice matched perfectly with the poem’s metamorphosis. 

Still then went on to read her poem, “Lower Birth”. She explained that her inspiration came from her experiences of riding the rails in a sleeper car. Her rhythm was interesting as it shifted, like the tracks of a train; in and out of consciousness, from the reality of the railroad to the trance of the dream. Her anapestic rhythm mimicked the sound of a running train, the chuk-chuk-CHUK of it all. It called to mind the onomatopoeia of Allen Ginsberg’s, “boxcar, boxcar, boxcar”. In other segments, the fierce chugging of her rhythm became enchanting and fluid. Her poetics strongly resonated with me. Her images: powerful. Her cyclical birthing cycle: profound. And her sense of time: everlasting.
Next came the intermission. I purchased Still’s book, Girlwood, and gasped at her beautiful awarded ring as I received her signature. I refilled my beverage, briefly discussed my thoughts with the people around me and sat back down in earnest, waiting. 
SouvankhamThammavongsa was next to read. Having heard her earlier at the "Afternoon Book Chat", I came prepared for her affective poetic style. Thammavongsa, not tall enough for the podium, stood to its side and read with the microphone bent down to reach her. Though short in stature, her clear imagery and velveteen voice captured the audience. The man beside me, upon hearing her read, sat straight up, attentive. One of the kids in front of me leaned forward and perched his head in admiration. Thammavongsa captivated the audience with her reading of “Perfect”, and kept them entranced with wave after wave of her short but powerful “I Remember” poems. When she finished, the audience readjusted themselves, took a deep breath and contemplated deeply. A friend who was sitting beside me, turned to me and said, “She was my favourite of the night.” 
JayMillAr closed the show with a series of readings from his latest book of poetry, Timely Irreverence. MillAr’s poetics, in my opinion, were the most accessible of all five readers. His voice was universal as it spoke to everyone young and old. His existential meditations were provocative and thought-inducing while his narrative techniques reminded me a lot of the voice of the bildungsroman genre. He appeased my love for Young Adult fiction, and in fact, his style throughout his readings reminded me of the works of John Green and Stephen Chbosky. And though his style possessed a seemingly young poetic voice, it lent itself to the contemplation of the serious. I was enthralled by his poem on children and guns. In the eyes of the children he is observing, every object becomes an object of destruction, a gun. The suburban atmosphere quickly fills with a myriad of metaphorical child-soldiers. MillAR, perhaps speaking to the globalization and accessibility of violent spectacles, asks us to contemplate the origins and contaminative qualities of the violence that lies beneath the click-clack of your keyboard’s keys. 
This year’s Poetry Bash was a rollicking good time full of experimental styles, with imploding bombs and violent keyboards, with metamorphosing oak worms and the chugging of train tracks, with medicinal rhythms and embodied cities. As I left I couldn’t help but feel full of  inspiration and confidence to follow in the steps of such great Canadian poets.

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