September 26, 2013

Leaking Memories, Imagined Shores

By Joshua Whitehead

The home of this week's series of Afternoon Book Chats.

Wednesday's "Afternoon Book Chat" at McNally Robinson was an offering of exceptional poetry. I was introduced to two poets: Souvankham Thammavongsa and Jay MillAr. Not having heard of these two poets, was for me, a great benefit as it allowed me to discover their poetics in its raw, oral form. Seeing them sitting before me with festival director Charlene Diehl at their side, I readied myself for an hour of vivid imagery and vivacious poetic language. At this point. the room was robust with energy: from the lulling whispers of teenage excitement to the furious scribbling of pen on paper from the women who sat next to me. 

Thammavongsa was the first to read. She chose a poem titled, “Perfect” from her latest collection, Light. Although small in height, Thammavongsa flooded every inch of the atrium with her soft, fluid voice. Written as a retroactive first person narrative, the poem maintained a powerful effective voice throughout, and upon it’s ending, cascaded into the realization of perfection, of it’s meaning, of its cost, and visibility. 

Thammavongsa writes, “I can’t begin to say what it took to get it that way. It’s perfect. Perfect.” Her repetition of perfect brings to mind an earlier line in the poem wherein she says, “like a Captain plugging leaks in a ship.” Thammavongsa’s poetics allow for a metamorphosis: for her to become the poem, for the poem to become the ship, for the ship to become the page with its leaking memories and liminality; all undoubtedly perfect in their rawness. 

After her reading, Thammavongsa explained that it was difficult for her to write “Perfect”, as it was a true event.  She talked about the twenty-year process, and that in placing the poem’s narrative in the first person, Thammavongsa was able maintain a sense of poetic agency, for her memories to remain alive and under her control. Thammavongsa stated that, “Putting it in the past made it feel like it was something I left.” Writing this blog post now, I see that memory is something that never leaves and never will. In respect, Thammavongsa’s poetics remain with me: her preservation, her reservation and her beautiful metamorphosing perfection. 

MillAr was next to read. His charm and humour were clearly evident through the explanation of his work. MillAr explained that poetry is difficult to talk about and even harder when it is your own work. He goes on to state that there is no answer to a poetry question, that behind every answer is another quote of poetry. MillAr likens the artistic process of his book to a 10x10 scaffolding project. He explained that he “stole” 10 titles from other Canadian poets such as Leonard Cohen and Phyllis Webb to help facilitate his creativity. Then to build upon this rigid structure, he created another 10 poems by taking passages from the body of other poems. 

MillAr read from his latest book, Timely Irreverence and chose to read “Eating and Being Eaten.” His full-breadth style differed greatly from Thammavongsa’s subtle poetry. MillAr’s poetics expanded and filled the page. His vastness was wonderfully exhibited in the opening of his poem, “I have never sought out large bodies of water./ They exist to seek me out.” His poem featured a steady rhythm, which never allowed his audience, nor himself, to stand still. MillAr announced, “There is so little stillness upon the land we occupy.”

With a charming personality and witty jokes, MillAr meditates with a seriousness in his poetry. He contemplates the sublimity of life and death while balancing between history and future, as well as artistry and familial duties. MillAr’s poem ended with a sense of equitable hope for his contemplative issues in proclaiming that, “The water will continue to break those imagined shores.” 

Today’s Afternoon Book Chat offered a wide array of emotional responses. I laughed with MillAr, I cried with Thammavongsa, and I contemplated the complicated process of artistry and vision with both. In leaving, I felt it only necessary to purchase both Light and Timely Irreverence and take with me for future reading the wonders of their vibrant poetry. 

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