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. I’ve struggled while in university trying to find a balance between theory and creativity. It’s a tiring thing — a rejection letter here, a crumpled up poem there. Sometimes I think I’m better off pursuing academia. I become self-conscious. Anxious. I talk a lot (if you haven’t yet noticed). I think far too much about Bourdieu, Benjamin, and Foucault — and quite frankly I’m 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-C’s, 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?”
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 Abel’s performances tonight. Barbeau, an anthropologist who once studied the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest in the 1920’s, 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. Abel’s 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.” Abel’s 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 Abel’s 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 Abel’s 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. Nicholson’s poems reminded me very much of Dionne Brand’s 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. Nicholson’s 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.”
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 tonight’s 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 I’ll leave you, my reader, on an inspirational note, as per Babstock, “It’s 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. “It’s never work when you’re working — only when you’re 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 year’s Poetry Bash. Until then, I’ll 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.”