September 23, 2013

Nous sommes ici/We Are Here

By Steve Locke

It could have been the early sunset, or the blustery wind and proliferation of warm-wear amongst readers and audience members, including John K. Samson’s flannel shirt and vest. Or maybe it was the geese soaring in formation, south across the Assiniboine as John Weier delivered a line on bird watching. It could also just be the fact that the vernal equinox took place the day before, but something felt so perfectly “autumn” about the “Voices From Oodena” event on Sunday evening.

The heart of the city: an intersection of languages, stories and people. Photo by Leif Norman.

 In its ninth incarnation, the heart of the city was home to yet another diverse gathering of Winnipeggian (is that a term yet?) storytellers who explored their relationship to this place that will soon be ever so cold. And while the weather was still quite tolerable for this essential festival event, Thin Air provided a hearty line-up of voices to give us a fine sense of our community.

First to take the podium was improviser/performer, RobertMalo, who is also known in many classrooms and historical tours as the time-displaced voyageur, TiBert. Taking the microphone aside, Malo dove into performance poems that addressed issues of bilingualism. Alternating lines and phrases between French and English, a “lover’s quarrel” took place between the language identities, where each side asked the other, “How can I better understand you?” The poet ultimately concluded, “Je suis que je suis.”

From a yet-unpublished manuscript, John Weier shared part of a story in which a man returns to Winnipeg after fifty years. Upon visiting the banks of the Red River, he experiences vivid flashbacks of his family’s exodus from poverty just as southern Manitoba was about to begin macerating under the famous deluge. Where as the character’s childhood home was deconstructed to make money for food, Weier haunted us with visceral descriptions of a bullying river that destroyed homes and utterly changed the local landscape. In an unfortunate  end to the passage, the man recollects his family arriving at their new home in the Niagara region, their basement completely flooded.

McNally Robinson Book For Young People Award winner Colleen Nelson was next to read, selecting a passage from her latest YA novel, The Fall. With the skate park in walking distance of Oodena, Nelson made reference to the importance of such meeting places to youth who strive to gain independence from their parents, including the precocious skate-kids in her book.

And then some musician-guy read from his book of Lyrics and Poems.

The view of the prairies from a paper airplane.

Seriously, though, it was a truly special, surreal experience to hear John K.’s lyrics on their own. Where I would have sang along, I spoke instead, following along to the likes of Hospital Vespers and others from Weakerthans albums gone by, as well as his solo album, Provincial. It goes without saying that John K. has contributed to our sense of identity, and I sure as Salisbury House have seen The Weakerthans live enough times to run out of fingers on one hand. But to hear John K.’s gentle, empathetic voice utter “Before the nurses came to take you away/ I stood there on a chair and watched you pray,” made it feel like a cross between the Jets returning home and Christmas.

Where one might assume Samson to be the one to close the show, the evening still had one more reader who managed to take the audiences spirits up one notch higher. A strong and genial presence, Dave McLeod took us home with poetry selections from the well-celebrated anthology of aboriginal writing, Manitopawow. His pieces navigated the nooks and crannies of aboriginal identity in and the political act of writing, which he said, “puts a magnifying glass on the truth”. By the end of his reading, McLeod had us all chanting for the “equality of bannock rights” in the city, and answering the question, “are you full enough to know when you are full enough?”

After the event, we felt ever closer to the centre of our identity as we all drew away from the heart of our city, like floodwaters receding. As the wind died down, we unzipped our jackets a little bit and revealed a bit more of ourselves to the elements before the chill of the night set in. It was a perfect autumn evening. Perfectly Winnipeggian...Winnipegger-ish...You know what I mean.

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