October 05, 2014

Big Ideas: Idle No More

by Juanita Klassen
Big Ideas: Idle No More, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Millenium Library, Carole Shields Auditorium
September 23, 2014

Before each reading during this festival, I’ve sampled the atmosphere that precedes it. The aura before A Pint of Bitter Murder was easy and low-key, the one preceding Big Ideas: Valour Road was quiet and respectful, and before Big Ideas: Idle No More the atmosphere was energetic, with lively conversation and laughter. I sat down and waited with anticipation.
Bruce Symaka began this event by introducing Leanne Simpson and her books: The Gift is in the Making, Islands of Decolonial Love, and the one that we’re hearing about today, The Winter We Danced, a collection of essays, poetry, songs and stories taken from the collective experience of the first burst of the Idle No More movement, during the winter of 2012-2013.
Simpson greeted us in a beautiful language – the rhythm of it reminded me of Cree but I forgot to ask – then introduced herself in English and revealed that she was a recovering academic, which sparked laughter. After expressing thanks to those who helped with this book, she then began telling the story of this complex and organic movement.
I found Simpson’s description of Idle No More fascinating i.e. that it is only the most recent flowering of a continuing protest that began when the Aniishnabe met their unpredictable new neighbours; you know, the ones who named themselves the landlords and began abusing them and exploiting the land. She said that her ancestors did what they could to protect the land and their children: they protested with words, they taught traditions and language to their children, and, they stayed alive, despite organized efforts to wipe them off the face of their earth. This protest has been ongoing for the entire length of that relationship; as in other abusive relationships, they are ignored by the government until there’s a flashpoint, like Oka, Ipperwash, The 1969 White Paper, and Idle No More, to name a few. The media focuses on these uncomfortable events and can’t report accurately because they generally fail to understand the enormity and nature of the ongoing historical narrative these singular events are part of.
As Simpson described, this particular flashpoint was an immediate reaction to Bill C-45, a scary piece of legislation that threatened to remove environmental protection of First Nations lands and communities with no consultation with, or consent of, the people who lived there. A small group of women started the appeal via social media and immediately began educating their communities about what was going on, using the hashtag #IdleNoMore. Before long, passionate leaders emerged representing a list of longstanding issues, such as fair legislation over land issues, justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women, pipeline protests out west, and the fight over fracking out east, to name a few.  I became inspired, then excited, as Simpson continued to describe these actions of true citizens, humans who are taking care of the land and their communities. We don’t even have to agree with each other all the time; in fact, it’s better when we figure out how to proceed with differences intact.
I thought Simpson’s story of the round dance was particularly beautiful within this context. The dance itself symbolizes letting go of grief and making a space to remember those who have gone before you, and when the circle is formed the ancestors dance with you. In the story of Idle No More, people threw together many flash mob round dances, particularly in malls as Christmas approached, to honour those who have gone before and to remind folks of what is really important. The energy she described was engaging and irresistible, sketching a movement that is a living organism, people within it focusing in an upward manner, and, even though we don’t see it in the media, most of it is still alive underground, people still working at the community level, working to protect the land and their rights.
Now I’m running out of time here, but there was so much more that Simpson talked about: like the push that Chief Theresa Spence gave the entire movement; about the fact that this movement is far from over even though it’s off the media radar at the moment; about the Walking With Our Sisters traveling art exhibit and how it’s becoming its own internal inquiry and healing process; about the exciting transformation of the Winnipeg community; about the important work of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network that receives all the profits from this book, and so on. I was so moved, inspired, and curious that I bought the book, The Winter We Danced, and highly recommend it. This is a beautiful and wildly diverse collection of work, all written from the hearts and minds of passionate citizens.  

Saturday Afternoon Youth Poetry Slam

by Jeannette Bodnar
The crowd at the Free Press Cafe
The Youth Poetry Slam is in its second year and it remains my favorite event. This year it was, once again, hosted by Winnipeg Slam Master Steve Locke and held at the Free Press Café.
Although the number of poet-performers was down from last year (it’s impossible to compete with thirty degree weather in September in Winnipeg), the audience packed the tables leaving standing room only by 3:00.
No one is born a writer. I don’t care what anyone tells you, this is the truth. Writing takes as much dedication and practice as learning an instrument. The difference being that there are seven basic notes in music and the average instrument covers a range of about 4 octaves (I’d guess). Compare that to the English language which, by conservative estimates, has anywhere from three quarters of a million to a million words and is constantly evolving, and you can understand how writing can be like learning a new instrument every day.
Slam Master Steve Locke
Now imagine performing for the first time. Not a song that has been written, published, and played a thousand times over, but your own song on an instrument that no one else in the world has ever played. This is what it is like to perform your work in front of an audience.
This is Slam Poetry.
On Saturday that energy was palpable and the poets that shared their work proved once again that contemporary youth have so much to contribute in the way of talent, awareness, and understanding.
Callahan Corner
Even though the afternoon was launched with a brilliant and quirky performance by established poet Callahan Conner, the young poets that followed were not outshone.

I think that is why I’m so drawn to open mics. The energy that accompanies performers, whether it’s their first walk on stage or their hundredth, permeates the air and compels everyone in the room to share in the intensity of the experience. For younger poet-performers it seems that the experience is heightened. Perhaps it is the deep, concentrated feelings only accessible in youth.
There was an even split of repeat performers and brand new poets on the stage. Although all the poets were young women there was still diversity in the style and substance of the performances. Beautiful imagery like, “walking down these saffron scented streets,” just speaks to the age of these poet’s souls and to the work and dedication they are already putting into their craft.
One of the performers
Another of the performers
Winnipeg has an outstanding poetry community and when I have the opportunity to hear magnificent up-and-coming poets like the ones who performed Saturday it makes me excited for what is still to come. If you are a young poet, if you know a young poet, or if you are interested in supporting gifted artists within an exceptionally talented and supportive community, please visit www.voicesink.org and help promote youth slam poetry in Winnipeg.

Youth Slam!

by Eva Rodrigues

The performers were few, but the crowd was excited as four poets under the age of 22 performed at Thin Air’s youth slam poetry open mic on Saturday.

Originally to be a competitive slam, Saturday’s event saw a 50-50 split between seasoned poets and newcomers. Eva and Amber, both of whom have been participating in Voices, Ink.’s events throughout the past year, were joined by Ashton and Hillary. The event marks an informal beginning to the 2014-15 slam season, to be followed up by Voices, Ink.’s official season opener on October 16th (http://www.voicesink.org). The youth slam community in Winnipeg is small but grows every year - helped along by events such as this open mic. Thank you to Steve Locke, slam master, for encouraging youth poets to find their voice at Thin Air.

Thank you.

September 28, 2014

Afterwords at the Jazz Club

by Kortnee Stevens

The wrap up for the Thin Air festival was held at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain, in a large open hall that made whispers into echoes. A multitude of fruit and vegetables were supplied (along with sprigs of what we suspected were rosemary and thyme) and the lights bore down on a stage set with an upright bass and a trumpet stand. Accompanying the 20-some poets who braved the stage (myself included) were Derrick Gardner and Steve Kirby, two of the best jazz musicians in Winnipeg. While it was nerve-wracking to stand under scalding stage lights, playing along with a jazz accompaniment was more than refreshing, and the evening offered quite the variety of poems. We had everything from walruses to birds to woodchucks going at the speed of light to dogs to a beautiful saxophone tune before our 10-minute break to toad...metaphors. The final act featured pure improvisation as the man played a Djembe drum, first performing with the inspiration of ‘forest fire’ and then to the word ‘harvest.’
Steve Kirby, Steve Locke and Derrick Gardner
The entire evening was a remarkable wrap up to a fantastic week, and I am so looking forward to doing this all again next year.

Friday Night Poetry Bash

By Jeannette Bodnar
Friday night was the final Mainstage event. The Poetry Bash is a favourite of seasoned veterans of the festival and always brings out a great crowd peppered with faces of local literary celebrities, especially those from the Winnipeg poetry community, one of the most supportive of the arts.
The night kicked off with local poet Alison Calder. Calder’s witty observations on her own obsessions are humorously relatable. A writer’s writer, Calder’s poems are as much about the process of writing as they are about the content of the poem. As she confessed Friday night, “tonight I’m going to read away my obsessions.” Calder’s readings were a perfect opening to the evening, as her poetry feels familiar and welcoming but with a cheeky freshness that makes you want to hear more. Winnipeg audiences expect a lot from their poets and Alison Calder did not disappoint.
Jordan Abel took the stage next.
Part poet, part performance artist, part visual artist and sculptor of words…
Abel had the audience captivated under the rhythmic enchantment of competing voices, as he demonstrated the deafening power of colonialism through his revelations on the works of archaeologist Maurice Barbeau. What stands out about Abel’s performance is that the multisensory presentation forces the audience to feel the effects of Barbeau’s work on a cellular level. The planning and care taken for Abel’s live performance can also be seen as a commentary on medium and the ethnocentric delivery of history, as there has been a traditional emphasis placed on written histories (such as Barbeau’s) over oral histories. Abel’s work is holistic and does not so much present history, as it presents the feeling of historical events and their legacies.   
Owain Nicholson and Charlene Diehl
Owain Nicholson wrapped up the first half of the evening, and although he no longer resides in Winnipeg we will proudly (if not entirely honestly) claim him as our own. Nicholson, who Charlene Diehl joked looks about 13, has a humble confidence on stage that challenges any notions about his age. As Owain read his work I felt as though he was holding my hand and leading me into the forest or walking me by the streams he so vividly details. Nicholson is exceptional at connecting his audience to nature. He also graciously accepted the Banff Centre Bliss Carman Award and replica ring for his poem “Hunter (II)” which is featured in Prairie Fire. 

After intermission Ken Babstock read his latest collection. When Babstock read from SIGNIT, I was at once transported inside the NSA surveillance station from which the work is set. I could feel the heaviness of the air as he read, “humans cannot take away the red sky once it is cooked.” Although his poetry feels masculine, I still felt I could embody the speaker and see the world through his eyes.

CR Avery and Scott Nolan
The evening ended on a high note with CR Avery. Avery has the kind of charm your mama warned you about. Backed by blues guitar, Avery boldly commanded the stage delivering poetry that is as sexy, fun, and adventurous as a gin soaked night in an after-hours club. When I sit down to read his collection from Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It, I imagine I will do so with a martini and cigarette (sorry Mom) in hand.
Poetry events are always my favourite during the festival. I think this is because poets, more so than other authors, are aware of the importance of live performance of their writing for contemporary audiences. Poets are forced to create a big picture with a lot detail on a small canvas and therefore there isn’t any room for bullshit. Thin Air is amazing for consistently delivering high calibre talent that showcases what is happening in contemporary circles and Friday night was no exception.

September 27, 2014

Who Am I Now?

By Jeannette Bodnar
I was drawn to Wednesday night’s Mainstage, not only for the line-up of writers--Alexis, Lau, Robertson, Baillie, and Bergen--but also for its theme: Who Am I Now?
As I sat in my seat waiting for the evening to begin I looked around me and pondered the question at hand. I began blogging for Thin Air three years ago, and since then had experienced many revelations, awakenings, insights and changes, but had I grown? Can the essence of self every really change?
I looked around me. I noticed a fellow blogger two seats over from me. I knew she was a blogger because she sat ready, pen in hand, miniature notebook cupped in palm, also waiting for the events to begin. As I peered at my comrade I also noticed glaring similarities. We both had Samsung phones, both sported identical plastic hair clips parting our hair to the right, both shared an appreciation for the classic black cardigan. I was peering at a younger version of myself I wondered what her story was and what similarities she might have with the me of three years past.
After an insightful introduction by host Charlene Diehl, during which she explained, “our experience of self is often fluid and shifting,” the night began strong with a reading from André Alexis from his book Pastoral. Alexis’ voice has a James Earl Jones quality to it. I will never be able to read his books without hearing his voice. This is one of the beautiful nuances of hearing authors read their own work. It adds a dimension that is otherwise unseen, like ghost lines in a painting that are only revealed when the light hits it just the right way.
Doretta Lau was next. Her short story, “God Damn How Real is This?” from How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, features a world in which people can receive text messages from their future selves.
I can’t count the number of times I wish I could have the opportunity to communicate with my younger self.
However, as Lau demonstrates, communicative time travel may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Her protagonist Franny Siu, who regularly receives messages concerning her health from her future self, receives a diagnosis of “dormant Munchausen by proxy.” The story continues to follow Franny as she and her friends comically negotiate the reality of maintaining relationships with their future selves. Lau had me questioning my own quirks and neuroticisms, and realizing the horror of what it would be like to be in a relationship with myself, future or past.
The night shifted to a more serious note with David A. Robertson’s Evolution of Alice in which he read an excerpt that highlighted what is to be haunted by your past and what it takes to leave it behind and move forward.
Like Lau, Martha Baillie also plays with time travel in her novel The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. Her reading captured the dreamlike essence of the world she creates in her book.
The night ended with David Bergen reading from Leaving Tomorrow. The passage he chose highlights what it is to be young and out of place, misunderstood and struggling to find your way. I think a passage about facing fears, even when they seem insurmountable, is a perfect closing to night entitled Who Am I Now. We learn who we are not so much through our victories, but through the times we risked failing because staying where we were proved more painful than moving forward.
Every year that I share in this festival I learn a little bit more about who I am and about the parts of me I want to keep and the parts I want to leave behind. The festival stands as a way to reconnect to the essence of myself.
‘Who am I now?’ is the unanswerable question because in asking it of yourself you’ve already changed. The best we can wish for is to learn from the past, have hopes for the future, and most importantly, savour the present for all that it is.
Diehl, Lau, Alexis and Robertson

Perfect Mix of Poetry and Performance

by Louella Lester

Its become a tradition for me to attend the Mainstage Poetry Bash with some of my writing group friends. Over tea after the event (drinks didnt pan out) we discussed each poet and the evening in general, agreeing it was one of the best weve ever attended. Why? Because of the variety, not only in content, but in presentation. The evening wasnt just filled with readings, it was a perfect mix of poetry and performance.

I have a confession that I think many people could make: I dont always understand the meaning of a poem Ive read once, let alone listened to once without the text in my hand (and we wont mention the ones I dont get after ten readings). I like to re-read a poem, savour it, mull it over and then decide what its saying to me. You cant do this at a reading, where every poem is a one-off. You need to enter the room with a different attitude.

So, last night I decided to relax and go with the word flow, the drum beat and the harmonica wail. I decided to go with first impressions and lines that linger. I can read the books for deeper meaning next week.

Alison Calder (In the Tiger Park) started off in 1913, had us walk with blind children through museums, exploring and touching everything. To them the colour brown is as plush as a beaver pelt. The room becomes smaller and as deaf as a blanket. Later, a cowlick snaps into place like the piece of a puzzle in an open pasture. Then Calder admits that she is obsessed with elephants and moons. Fuck off moon, get out of my poems and take the elephants with you. She sounded determined, but I wonder if thats possible

I dont really know much about music technology, so Im going to guess that Jordan Abel (The Place of Scraps) was operating some type of soundboard attached to a computer. But it doesnt matter what its called, because I forgot about it as soon as he pulled that red bandana over his mouth, creating an illusion. Then the drum started beating, followed by an early ethnographers voice, songs of the past and some so ancient that they go back to Siberia…” The words, the ethnographers analysis of First Nation peoples, soon began to trip over each other, blend, turn into gibberish and the repetition of frontier became a tear.

It seemed fitting that the winner of the Banff Centre Bliss Carman Award, for his poem Hunter (II), should be an archaeologist as well as a poet. Owain Nicholson can surely appreciate the prize, a replica of Carmans 100 year old ring. Nicholson mixes raven shit, four-wheel drive trucks, hares and the spicy smell of muskeg in the most beautiful way. The shovel moans and you realize this is not everything, but you are here and this is not your room.

Ken Babstock (On Malice) knows how to blend words in the most haunting way. These words echo from abandoned surveillance posts as elms and beeches scream into their own crowns. A
middle-sized giant wants to thump someone and someone sleeps under a desk dreaming, maybe of salmon. And humans cannot take away the red sky once it is cooked. Wow! Im not sure if I can copy absences but its interesting to think about it all.

A lone microphone, a small table, a glass of wine, a guitar and a harmonica. It could have been the 50s or the 60s or present day, it was timeless. CR Avery (Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It), backed up by Scott Nolans guitar, sure can set the mood and give a performance. Im happy when he tells us that its time to write again and time to awaken the savage because I know there will be more. The harmonica wails and kisses the blues. Avery speaks and sings, tells us poetic tales. He talks of a body brown and hot, just like desert sand. But there are also blue collar robots and Mozarts whip. Snap!

The evening is done.

The evening's poets, clockwise from top left: 
CR Avery, Alison Calder, Jordan Abel, Owain Nicholson & Ken Babstock.

A Cube of Sugar to Sweeten the Buds of a Dying Tongue

by Joshua Whitehead 
A creative writing professor once told me, Theory is the antithesis of creativity.  And having just switched my major from Creative Writing to English Honours at the University of Winnipeg, well, for lack of a better word, I was scared shitless.  For as much as I love being an academic, researching fascinating topics, writing witty essays, presenting at conferences, and living the great life of a poor, poor grad student, I love poetry more.  My greatest fear as a writer is losing my ability to write and write well.  Ive struggled while in university trying to find a balance between theory and creativity.  Its a tiring thing a rejection letter here, a crumpled up poem there.  Sometimes I think Im better off pursuing academia.  I become self-conscious.  Anxious.  I talk a lot (if you havent yet noticed).  I think far too much about Bourdieu, Benjamin, and Foucault and quite frankly Im getting far too inclined to say, Who the Fouc cares about Foucault!  And then I hear a great poem and that little cup of words within me fills with a whoosh of blood and adrenaline; with snippets of images, A-B-Cs, and baroque rhythms I, like a whirligig, spin with enzymes; a doped-up synapse.  I am reborn in a poem.  I am a poet.  Voila!
Tonight was just that for me.  Poetic resuscitation.
First to read was Alison Calder.  In the Tiger Park is an eclectic mixture of poems about blind children, elephants, cacti, moons, and the creative process that exists between these obsessions.  A starfish, in the cusp of a blind child, is a hand in the dark; an encyclopedia, in the mind of the child, is a series of emptied drawers.  Poetry is a benumbing thing, the nullification of senses.  Are we not fumbling around in the dark while entering a new poem?  Do we not use our hands to feel around for form, for shape, for images, for familiar footing from which to explore anew, for a little tool to grasp onto and say, Ahh.  In the dark, Calder asks, what will [your] fingers fashion? 
Jordan Abel
Second was Jordan Abel performing mixed media pieces of poetry, spoken word, and drumming.  Has anyone ever heard of Marius Barbeau? Abel asks.  Barbeau sits as the epitome of Abels performances tonight.  Barbeau, an anthropologist who once studied the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s, speaks in conversation with Abel tonight.  Readying his audio equipment, Abel ties a bandana around his face.  A bright red handkerchief with a bold, dark skull sitting atop his mouth.  His performances are polyphonic, multivocal, cacophonous, and yet harmonious.  Abels first poem is a looping drum beat followed by his own poetic remixing.  The voices culminate into a chorus of, seemingly, a hundred voices speaking at once.  A few strands of a sentence ooze out from the seeping breath in-between fragments, All that ought to be expected; the blight of reconstruction.  Abels voice skips, stutters, wavers in the shell of the machine: voice being a natural thing; voice being a digital thing; voice being an agent of de/re(construction).  As the performance concludes two words continually appear in the mishmashed madness, frontier and settler.  Abel, through his experimental poetics, becomes a surgeon of words.  Frontier and settler crumble beneath the heavy drumming and are reconstructed in our ears as fron(tear) and set(alert).  Barbeau begins Abels second performance by continually repeating the refrain, Death eventually came.  They cannot resist singing traditional songs of their own people.  Songs of the past some so ancient they go back to Siberia and China.  The endless loophole of refrains entranced me.  I snapped back to consciousness finding myself having been staring directly into the black skull on Abels mouth for a near minute.  It was magical.  It was transformative.  Language is born from the scraps of ninety year old mouths and the reverberation of a drum.  A language unlike ours.  There is beauty in what is thrown out, what is long since passed, what is dead.  Language is born in The Place of Scraps.  Make sure you check it out! 
Owain Nicholson with Josh Whitehead
Next to read was Owain Nicholson.  I must say, as a young emerging poet, I was more than looking forward to hearing Nicholson read since he was announced.  Nicholson, the recipient of the 2013 Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award, is a native of Winnipeg having lived here until he was twelve.  I will admit, as much as I wanted to devote a thorough, and introspective, reading of Nicholson, I was far too consumed in his poetics.  What an amazingly talented young man!  His words were soft as lacquer, as gentle as a stilled lake, smooth as milk but heavy, heavy with the weight of water and ink.  His poems are of vivid sights wherein nature is filled with trees, wildlife, tractor imprints in wet mud, leather boots stained with runoff, black ants, and lonely thoughts.  These natural sites are monumentally abandoned they are isolated, quiet, barren.  Nicholsons poems reminded me very much of Dionne Brands Inventory in which she writes about manifold substances of stillness, in which the wreckage of streets [is] unimportant.  Think that but in the natural space.  Nicholsons poems seem, to me, to be a means of portraiture, of jubilation, of reverence, and meditation but most importantly, they are curatorial, memorial, encapsculating.  Each poem is a wondrously constructed piece of amber in which sits a perfectly intact image a moment frozen in time.  Life.  Though I agree with Nicholson, who states, Sometimes I am wrong.  Maybe I am too.  For, as Nicholson so eloquently writes (and which has to be my favourite quote of this whole festival), Beauty is a mouth that has nothing else to say. 
C.R. Avery
Next was Ken Babstock who read from his book of poems entitled On Malice.  His poems were produced in Berlin where he worked as a writer-in-residence.  The book contains 4 long poems in total a new medium for Babstock.  Each stanza was meticulously crafted.  I lost myself in his rhythms, in the cobblestones of Berlin.  I copy absences, Babstock writes.  What a beautiful line, one that I believe highlights the entangling knot that ties tonights writers together.  Absence and the beautiful poems that hide therein; these all produced, as Babstock states, Because you involved me.  Touching.  I see Berlin; I see you Babstock, because you involved me.  Thank you.  Now Ill leave you, my reader, on an inspirational note, as per Babstock, Its in your mouth now so take it for a walk. 
Our last poet for this evening was C.R. Avery who read us several poems from his book Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It in a multi-instrumental burst of energy.  He wailed dangerous, seductive bluesy rhythms from his harmonica while his partner-in-crime plucked accompanying tunes on his guitar.  Sweating beneath the spotlight with an infection passion and a flimflamming tongue Avery laid it all bare, raw, and imbued with a vivacious kinetic energy.  Its never work when youre working only when youre fat and old and thinking.  In his poems cockroaches flutter about on the floor, a girl named Cassandra sleeps on a mattress nearby, Steve Martin recites E.E. Cummings, and books take off all their clothes.  Abjections has never been so sexy.  Inspiration is for amateurs, Avery projects, the rest of us show up and get to work. 
Whitehead's Thin Air 2014 Poetry Purchases

And that concluded the final Main Stage event of our annual festival and also my volunteer blogging with Thin Air 2014.  A great evening indeed; a cube of sugar to sweeten the buds of a dying tongue.  I am already counting down the days until next years Poetry Bash.  Until then, Ill read the multitude of books I purchased, giggling boyishly at the signatures I worked up the nerve to ask for, and continue finding the balance between theory and creativity, between life and poetry.  If you are reading this, my dear reader, I hope you are rejuvenated and feeling fine.  I hope you take the time to write in between bouts of work.  For, as Margaret Laurence once wrote, When I say work I only mean writing.  Everything else is just odd jobs.