Local Scene: Bywords' Busy October
The evening of October 15, 2007, saw an extraordinary turnout for the John Newlove Award for Poetry, during the Ottawa International Writers Festival. The judge, poet, novelist, playwright, performance artist and professor, Dr. George Elliot Clarke, had the tough task of selecting (from 60 submitted poems) four poems for honourable mention and one winner. But, before the honourable mentions and the winner were announced, Dusty Owl editor, and Newlove Award contestant Kathryn Hunt, led friends and fans in a hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” and presented host Amanda Earl with a book-shaped birthday cake. Earl’s surprise and delight at being serenaded made it clear that she could not have wished for a better place to celebrate her birthday. And, even though this is not a fashion article, I want to let you know that Earl looked smashing in a décolleté black and red dress.
Musician John Carroll then literally leapt onto the stage and gave a scorching performance of
“Down at the Lafayette”––a composition perfectly suited to the audience, the venue and the event. As per avid blues fan (and poet) Mike Heenan, this song features a “hammering on and hammering off” guitar technique, which was complemented by Carroll’s gravelly voice. When introducing the slide-guitar number that followed, Carroll mused that blues songs are usually associated with drinking and women . . . but, he occasionally writes a song about the devil: “They say the devil come quick when you call his name . . . . She got bad intentions, but she sure look fine.” Hey, he managed to combine two out of three in this one.
Our feet were still tapping when Roland Prévost, winner of the Newlove Award for 2006, took Carroll’s place on the stage. After reading Newlove’s “Roger’s Pass,” he introduced MetaFizz, the third chapbook published as part of the Newlove Award. Prevost’s works contain carefully constructed fragments of images within a stream of consciousness framework. So, when he suggested that the audience “let the words wash over you . . . pretend you’re dreaming” I got it. Taking his advice, I relaxed and listened to “Precedence,” and “at the pizzeria: 100% real juice,” (the winning poem for 2006). And, having been born and raised in Ottawa, I was particularly drawn to “Rotoscope,” a series of snapshots of familiar Ottawa locations, including Elgin Street (“barstools speak volumes”), the National Library and Archives (“black and white foreign film . . . . obsolete celluloid. . . eco-drama”) and the Royal Oak Pub (“nosferatu again––show a twisted jugular”). Prévost then followed up with the very personal “Blister,” which explores the pain and eventual acceptance of an old friendship ended: “blistered ghosts / on streets without / blame left to point.”
The first poet to receive honourable mention in the 2007 Newlove Award, world-traveller Gregory Myers, was unable to attend the ceremony, which is unfortunate as two of his poems received honourable mention. Instead, our host ably read the bittersweet “Getting On” and “Wanderjahre [Years of Travel]” two pieces inspired by journeys overseas. I was particularly impressed by the latter’s ability to evoke (in a few short lines) the dislocation felt by the speaker
––a stranger sojourning in a foreign land.
Next, after reading Newland’s “40 Degrees,” journalist and editor cb forrest read the honourably mentioned “i’m just saying,” a short piece that unflinchingly addresses the issue of ego-driven, mediocre writing so ubiquitous these days. The poem’s acerbic tone reminded me of the joke about the brain surgeon and the writer: the former says “When I retire, I’m going to become a writer,” and then the writer responds “When I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.” Most writers (and poets) will tell you it’s not that easy, folks. Then, forrest finished by reading “The Junkies of Cordova Street,” “After the Accident,” and “Bachelor Party for Reprobates,” compositions that highlight his ability to glean compelling material from varied sources.
Kathryn Hunt’s delightful “Kitchen” also received honourable mention in the Newlove Award (her second poem to be honourably mentioned, by the way). After a heartfelt presentation of Newlove’s “God Bless the Bear,” her lively reading of “Kitchen” reminded listeners that as well as being morally edifying and culturally significant, poetry can also be fun! I can remember being charmed when I heard Hunt present the poem at the Bywords reading in February 2007. And, on a completely separate note, her next offering, “The Farewell,” could easily be a rebuttal to that famous love poem by Robert Browning (“Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be”).
Finally, the time came to reveal the identity of the Newlove Award winner for 2007. The winner, post-graduate student Sean Moreland, has been described by Dr. Clarke as “fearless.” And, for my part, I agree that Moreland’s winning poem, “Pygmalion & Galatea” (a reference to the myth in which an artist is enamored of his sculpture, which eventually comes alive), is confident and innovative—a work brimming with texture and sensuous imagery. But, because Moreland chose to set the poem seconds before Galatea is animated (“her body of the verge of yes, tender flesh . . .”), the speaker is provided with an opportunity to explore possibilities, especially the tension between stasis and dynamism.
After Moreland’s presentation, the evening drew to a close. As I started packing up my gear, Carroll began another exuberant musical set of bluesy numbers. At the same time, above the music, I could hear expressions of congratulations and appreciation for the talent and presentations that we had been treated to . . . and, I suspect that the birthday cake was a great hit too!
On October 28, 2007, two weeks after the John Newlove Award evening, Bywords held its Fall reading at Chapters on Rideau, hosted by Amanda Earl. After reading a letter (with the memorable line “the emptiness of space . . . will never crumble away because it was never born”) from Jack Kerouac to his wife, Edie, Earl introduced the guest musician, singer-songwriter and guitarist John Gillies.
I’m not sure where Bywords gets its musical talent, but the featured artists are always first rate. And, the classically-trained Gillies maintained the tradition. Seated on a small stool, with song lyrics balanced on one knee, Gillies kept to the afternoon’s autumnal theme when he sang “They’re nailing scarecrows to the fences / with the names of great poets,” followed by an “autumn romance” tune:
You’ve got your fictions for who you are
Where you go, what you do.
Oh, the seasons turn like a four-leaf clover
You just win me over.
After several more tunes by Gillies, Cameron Anstee, for his second reading at Bywords, presented “city love poem” (Bywords, Fall 2007) a delightful piece that describes the speaker’s trepidation at being separated from the beloved:
and I’m truly horribly scared
of such ineffably large things
as seconds and tiny dyings.
But, thankfully, the speaker’s apprehension wanes with thoughts of the beloved (as it should). Anstee then followed with several works from his August 2007 chapbook “Ever the night goes beautiful,” including the meditative “Three Variations on Sunset” (my favourite) which chronicles the movement from sunset to twilight to night––how about these lovely lines:
O these skies are staggering
That generously offer stars
To soften time.
What can I say except that Anstee is committed to poetry; and, I don’t think that he can help it.
Then, Laura Clarke, who enjoys “collar bones, rain and dessert” read “Market Cold” (Bywords, Fall 2007) and “Nurses Sing the Mermaid Blues.” Next, “Hymn to Concord Ave,” is an intriguing piece that alternates images of decay and fecundity, Christianity and paganism, to chronicle the debasement of the earth. Curiously, the swamp (“O Holy Swamp”) is the locus for redemption in a world that debases and pollutes Mother Earth. Still, amid the sewage treatment plant and the gratuitous use of pesticides, nature miraculously triumphs:
Up on a hill one sunny afternoon, hundreds of snakes poured
Out of one hole in the ground, hissed at us to kneel down and pray to their soft
bellies and fertility.
Ironically, the reviled snake, emblem of the “Green-Grass-and-Saw-Dust-Tire-Junk-Heap-Goddess,” flourishes, while the deity herself has been degraded. But, the creature not only thrives, but it reveals the hidden Mysteries: “Between old rocks hundreds of antique metal tokens were unearthed / mysterious ritualistic objects from a black and white era.”
The final literary presenter was the Managing Director of the Tree Reading Series, Dean Steadman, who recently attended a poetry session in Banff. I have heard Steadman read at Bywords several times and I am always impressed by his meticulously crafted poems and his professional presentation. The first poem, “all fall down” (Bywords, Fall 2007) was inspired by the nursery rhyme and playground game Ring Around the Rosie. But, the refrain “husha, husha, we all” within the poem heralds death’s presence and stimulates memories in the speaker of a dying grandparent. Then, the powerful and disturbing “Wolf’s Passion” chronicles the lethal relationship between the wolf and the crow, two totemic animals. The wolf’s tortuous death in a trap is conflated with the sacrifice of the Mass, where the bread and wine become the body and blood of the crucified God––and, while the wolf dies, the crow raucously blasphemes the Sanctus from the Roman rite:
Caw, caw, caw, holy, holy, holy
Caw, caw, caw, Lord God of Hosts
Caw, caw, caw, Heaven and Earth are filled with your glory
Caw, caw, caw, Hosanna in the highest.
To close off the afternoon after Steadman’s intense presentation, Gillies played a selection of blues, bossa nova and flamenco compositions that showcased his versatility and virtuosity. From the set, “Innkeeper” was particularly fine:
Pour me another delirium . . . .
make me higher than helium . . . .
Innkeeper, innkeeper, pour me a song as thick as the hole in the gullet
so that all who have drowned there dare to sing along.
Now, I can’t be certain, but I suspect that “Innkeeper” inspired Bywords attendees to carry on the celebration of poetry and song at D’Arcy Magee’s Pub, where they bid farewell to Bywords 2007 and looked forward to another great year with Bywords 2008
Catharine Carroll, Diwali 2007