Local Scene: Bywords Springadelic

Poetry is DEAD!  How often has that dire, lugubrious statement been made?  And why is it accepted as true?  Well, I am here to proclaim that poetry is alive and well and living in Ottawa. 


On Sunday, April 18, 2004, Bywords, that steadfast repository for poetry and literary events in Ottawa, held an afternoon of music and poetry, Springadelic, to launch its quarterly journal.  The event took place smack dab in the poetry section of Chapters on Rideau Street, surrounded by the likes of Seamus Heaney’s new (and transcendental) translation of Beowulf, and complemented by a table decorated in fluorescent pink, green, orange and yellow, a pot of daffodils and a stuffed panda sporting a sunflower.  Spring was in the air . . .


The musician, Ilker, was the first performer.  He opened the afternoon with a self-penned piece for guitar “to warm up the fingers.  The music definitely created a contemplative atmosphere, with its Eastern, sitar-like tones.  Then, the tempo picked up substantially until the song was reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Ramble On.”  Ilker next played “Clandestino,” written by Manolo Ciao.  The performer’s plaintive, passionate singing alluded to life on the margins – “Africano . . . clandestino . . . marijuana . . . Babylon . . . Boliviano . . . illegal.”  Ilker then finished the set with the lovely “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” covered by the Fujis.  When he confessed to not knowing who originally recorded the song, I almost raised my hand to say “I remember, it was Roberta Flack,” but I didn’t.


Host Amanda Earl observed that Ilker’s music “Got us in a groovy mood.”  She then introduced published poet and writer, Jon Pierce, whose cheerful assessment that “Poetry is on the upswing” met with agreement from the audience.  Pierce then read  “The Thrift Store,” an episodic poem that charts the speaker’s movement into the predictable, exemplified by garments purchased at rock-bottom prices.  Featured among the sartorial items are the “twelve ties, six shirts and a tux” as well as “Snoopy ties and grey flannels.”  Although the speaker brags about the bargains, they do not come cheaply -- “When you get home, don’t forget to wash your hands.”  The next offering, “Connecticut Yankee,” appears in Bywords.  With its references to “shellfish and white Burgundy / cordovan wing-tip shoes,” the poem showcases the poet’s dazzling command of words and images.


Sarah Ruffolo, a member of Bywords’ Selection Committee, gave a effective reading of Adele Kearns Thomas’ “In the Stillness,” from the front cover of Bywords.  The poem is a reminder that although Spring has officially arrived, the season is mercurial – without warning “the moon switched off / stars went missing . . . I felt shivers of snow.” 


Ottawa poet and short fiction writer, J. Delacourt, followed next with “Mammoth,” a complex poem with varied layers of meaning, both religious and secular. The piece was followed by “Flowering in a Flat Country,” which chronicles the debasement of the majestic: in contemporary “places of refuge” there is “Nothing planted in the garden / except tulip bulbs” and “Dogs Looking out the windows / have replaced the sailors’ wives.”  And, the fantasy poem, “DeMan’s Weeping Opera House,” poses major questions about inspiration and art, leaving any answers for the listeners to sort out.


The intensity of Delacourt’s session was followed by a second musical interlude.  Ilker began with a lively rendition of “Siento,” originally recorded by The Gypsy Kings, then settled in to a wistful version of “De Separasito” by Manolo Ciao.


Next up was poet Robyn Jeffrey, who tantalized the audience (which, by this time, had grown substantially – attracted by the music and words) with the promise of a Spring theme.  Jeffrey’s reading was greatly enhanced by her voice, which has a somewhat hypnotic quality.   The three poems she presented were linked by visceral images of wounding; for example, the “Urban Gardner” contains the unsettling image of “a caustic tomato, bleeding fuel,” “After the Lightning Strike” has the speaker tending to the beloved who has been injured by nature, and “Earth Worm” witnesses the hermaphroditic lumbricus terrestris, the “perfect muscle,” squashed to a “weak stain.” 


Then, another member of the Bywords Team, Joe Goski, read “Snowshoeing” by University of Ottawa student Nicholas Lea.  The short poem packs some marvellous images into its four lines as does “A spruce,” by Ottawa poet and writer, Marie Clausén, which was read by Amanda.


The poetry section of the afternoon closed with three readings by published poet, and resident of Ottawa and Kingston, Jennifer Londry.  The first poem, “letter box,” (featured in Bywords) opens with the visually explicit “Starched corners next to grease / stains, a smudged teapot.”  “in her closet” chronicles the diminished mental capacity of a formerly vibrant parent --  the “Giver of Live / No longer fruitful,” and the poet’s painful recognition that “I am someone else’s daughter.”  “washing away” features the starkness of “a yellow single-bulb basement” contrasted with “ivory hands” and the displacement and alienation signified by “the dowries of other women in other homes.”


Following Londry’s reading, Ilker returned to the microphone.  He began with an instrumental piece featuring guitar work that was reminiscent of spring rain; the next selection, again by Manolo Ciao, showcased the artist’s strong, baritone voice.  And, finally, a cover version of Pearl Jam’s “Release” concluded the afternoon.


The talent and commitment of the artists who performed at Springadelic, as well as those who turned out to listen, invalidate any gloomy predictions of poetry’s demise.   For two hours on April 18, 2004, poetry was vibrant and relevant.  Any reports that indicate otherwise are greatly exaggerated.


© Catharine Carroll