my thoughts on “North of Invention: a Festival of Canadian Poetry”

My days here are so jam-packed, I haven’t had a spare moment to give you guys my thoughts on “North of Invention: a Festival of Canadian Poetry.”

As a recap of the last post, I will remind you that this event was really my first taste of how beneficial this trip can be for me as a poet and as a person.  I not only learned from what the poets were presenting, but what they were able to share with me behind the scenes, as well.  I decided to relay my musings at a later time because that post was becoming overwhelmingly long.  I promise, after this post, that I will start updating you guys more often.  Then maybe the word counts will be (somewhat) more manageable!

The first event of the New York leg of the festival (the poets were continuing on a kind of tour, having been in Philadelphia for two days prior to this festival) was a conversation between M. NourbeSe Philip, whose most recent work is entitled Zong!, and Fred Wah, whose most recent book is Is a Door.  They were an interesting coupling.  Both poets had an interest in culture and race in poetry, though Philip’s was more pronounced.  They offered a compelling discussion on race in Canada as opposed to race in the United States.  Wah relayed that race was not something he had thought about until he was older, being partially Caucasian and claiming that he always “looked white.”  Philips echoed a similar sentiment, saying that racism was often a difficult concept for her to pinpoint in Canada when she was younger, because “the language [to describe it] just wasn’t there.”  Philip also came to the conclusion that racism in America is, arguably, in a better state than racism in Canada, because we “at least admit [we] have a problem.”   Wah and Philip discussed the motivations behind their current work.  Wah relayed that his mother is experiencing Alzheimer’s, and that this process has spurred some question as to the idea of “home” for him.  His mother would often ask him if they were going home.  At first, he said, she had a particular place in mind when asking this question.  Later, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she began asking the question with no particular place in mind…but she still grasped the concept of home, and the longing for it.  This inspired the idea of “inside-edness,” a sense of home carried within ourselves, that Wah explained is driving his work at the current moment.  Philip also offered the audience a thread with which to understand her most recent motivations: silence.  “Sometimes the only response is silence–to talk about it is almost a second violence.  You have to do the work to understand what the silence means,” Philips claimed.  She explained that silence is often the only way to access certain human experience, and that much of her work deals with the challenge of using words to create silence.

The next event was a discussion with Christian Bok, author of Eunoia, the best selling Canadian book of poetry of all time, and Stephen Collis, whose most recent work is The Commons.  I did not get to see much of this portion, but, from what I saw, the poets discussed the role of the avant-garde and conceptual poetry.  Bok, in particular, is of interest to me because I don’t completely understand him.  Eunoia consists of five sections, each of which is comprised of words using only one vowel.  In order to create this book, Bok combed the dictionary and separated the words into their respective verb categories.  He then separated them into parts of speech in order to piece them together into stories.  From what I heard this weekend, most of his poetry tackles some sort of seemingly impossible task.  For instance, taking a French sonnet, leaving all the vowels in the same place, and coming up with a feasible English translation that also preserves meter and rhyme…and then taking that same sonnet and translating it without moving any of the consonants…and then taking that same sonnet and using only the letters involved in the original, only once each.  The man is really a genius, and, judging from his demeanor, is well aware of that.  I am all for forms and constriction in poetry–I think it can unlock a creativity with words that we ourselves didn’t know we had.  But I can’t totally relate, as a writer, to tackling such projects exclusively.  Bok seemed to convey that he does what he does because he felt that more personal poetry wouldn’t make the mark in the cannon that he wanted to make.  Maybe that’s true…but my own writing is so personal that that was hard to wrap my head around.  I have no doubt that Bok writes out of some obsessive need.  I mean, you have to be a little bit out of your mind to take on the kinds of things he does.  But I didn’t sense the urgency and desire and gut and…duende?…that I look for in poetry.  Frankly, he seemed more like a character than a man.  I wanted to know more, and I wanted it to be real.

That night there was a reading with Stephen Collis, Sarah Dowling, M. NourbeSe Philip, Angela Rawlings along with her artistic partner Maja Jantar (a Belgian artist interested in sound and poetry), and Fred Wah.  I didn’t see the whole reading, but of what I saw, two things caught my attention.  One was that Philip is a fantastic reader.  She didn’t just read the words on the page, she infused them with breath and conviction and emotion.  It highlighted the importance of being a good reader to an aspiring poet.  Second, I feel it would be a terrible injustice to write this blog without specifically commenting on the performance of Rawlings and Jantar—and performance it certainly was.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, something they called “sound poetry.”  To be honest, I can’t even really describe it.  I would strongly suggest you look them up.  I know for certain that Maja Jantar has videos on Myspace Music, and I’m sure there are clips of her and Rawlings up somewhere in the vast abyss of the internet.  Some parts were so bizarre they made me uncomfortable, but in the fascinating and compelling way that avant-garde art can create.  One notable section which ran as a thread through the piece was the repetition of the line “I will not ruin the environment.”  They started out saying it separately and honestly, like a person with intention behind the words might do.  Then, they fell into saying the line together, and it further devolved into each person saying the line in a different monotone, so their voices would have an unsettling choir-from-hell kind of effect.  The next day in their discussion, they explained that that line was inspired by the “green movement” fad.  It starts out with an honest inflection, then falls into the trap of the mainstream, where people repeat the words until they seem to be empty of all meaning.  What they were doing was definitely out of my poetic comfort zone, but in a way that I feel was beneficial and inspirational to me.

On Saturday, Kate and I were able to sit in on all the events, having volunteered to stay late both nights (and due to the fact that there was an overwhelming excess of interns).  The day kicked off with a discussion between Jeff Derkson, whose recent work includes Transnational Muscle Cars and Dwell, and Lisa Robertson author of  Occasional Work and 7 Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture and R’s Boat, among many others.  The two found a mutual point of entry in their discussion of poetry in the city, and its temporality.  In the city, as in text, they argued, there is a coexistence of past, present, and future.  Robertson expressed a concern for the present, that we as a society are losing it to concerns of past mistakes and a future that seems hazy.  Instead, she offered a different definition of the future: that the future is contained within the ever-unfolding agency of the present.  Derksen seemed to be in agreement, relaying that he is always searching for a mode of thinking “through the present in a way that [he hadn’t] already thought towards the endpoint.”  One of the ways in which the two go about this dedication to the present is through research.  Derksen praised research as a means of discovering “clusters of concepts [he] might not have been capable of thinking together.”  He stressed research as a means of engagement, rather than of simplification.  Through this process, we can arrive at “other ways of grasping and understanding the present.”  This conversation took me back to my philosophy and literature class my freshman year at K…specifically in terms of temporality and agency.  Though I think the poetry of Robertson and Derksen must go beyond intellectualism (which can often be creatively suffocating), it was an interesting connection the two had as artists and as thinkers, and definitely unique among the “conversation” portions of the festival.

Next was a discussion with Angela Rawlings and Maja Jantar, the fascinating sound poets from the reading the night before,  and Jordan Scott, whose most recent work is Blert, an extremely successful exploration in the poetics of stuttering.  I was excited to hear what Scott, specifically, had to say, having talked with him extensively the night before (with no small amount of swooning going on).  I thought the association of these poets was extremely well-done.  Of course, each is interested in sound…but, on a deeper level, all the poets were also concerned with the body.  Scott spoke of his recent fascination with interrogation, and the fact that stuttering is viewed as a sign of dishonesty.  Beyond that, he relayed other perceived flaws within the system: the idea that thoughts can only be linear, the fact that interrogators are looking for specific answers in order to allow the confession to fit into a nice category, and the notion that interrogators should be able to impose their own narrative upon another person.  In the realm of performance, Jantar also had an interesting point about stumbling speech.  She pointed out that, when a performer makes a mistake, the moment jolts both the audience and the performer awake into a higher awareness.  This was such a fresh observation that it really stuck in my mind.  The trio ended the talk with the words of Rawlings, expressing a sentiment shared among the three poets: a concern with bringing the inside out and the outside in, or, as she eloquently put it, “exformation instead of information.”

That night, Bok, Derksen, Robertson, and Scott all read from their books.  There were certain lines of Derksen’s work that stood out for me.  But, mostly I was a little turned off by the blatant political references.  That isn’t to say that everyone would be…activism definitely has a place in art, but that isn’t why I, personally, read and write.  I want poetry to feed my soul and my hunger.  That being said, I was absolutely enthralled by Robertson’s work.  She read a lengthy poem called “Face” from her book R’s Boat that was particularly inspiring.  It consisted of a series of gutsy lines such as “I conceived of an organ slightly larger than skin,” and “I stole butter and I studied love.”  Every once in a while a line would repeat, sometimes in a modified form, but mostly intact.  The result was a kind of woven tapestry that seemed jumbled in the beginning but began to form into something larger by the end of the poem.  When I picked up the book after the reading I was pleased to find that the form of the poem was just as I had pictured it: double spaced, long lines, and every other line italicized (okay, so I didn’t see that last one coming…but it’s a beautiful choice).  I ended up buying the book and writing my own version of “Face,” entitle “I wrapped my fingers around my wrist four times and that’s how many babies I’ll have.”

Bok’s reading was not lacking in shock value or gigantic personality (big surprise there).  He started out by doing what I perceived to be his own version of sound poetry, something that he claimed to be an aria from an opera in which he played some kind of demon.  And demonic it was.  All I wrote in my notebook for that opening piece was “frankly I’m a little concerned…” because the guy honestly looked like he was going to spontaneously combust behind the podium.  He also read the impressive sonnets that I was describing earlier, as well as a poem about some strange kind of organism/bacteria thing.  I’m not so sure what he was talking about.  What I did catch was the fact that he feels he doesn’t know what to do next, considering Eunoia was such a success.  It struck me that such acclaim can almost be even more debilitating than a colossal failure.  At the reception after the reading I heard him telling someone that that organism/bacteria/whatever it is really does exist, though most people don’t believe him.  What he doesn’t know is that it’s not the bacteria that people don’t believe…it’s him.

Scott wrapped up the reading with some poems from Blert. His poetry is truly unique, but not in an annoying I’m-trying-so-hard kind of way that is so common in poetry today.  I could tell he had a fascination with the music of words, and the art of combining them.  I don’t feel like excerpting any one line would do the poems justice, because their overall cohesiveness was important to the experience of the poem.  You know what you should just do instead?  Buy his book!  Or borrow it from me.  But if you don’t give it back I will murder you in your sleep because he signed it.  0:)

So, there you go.  If you stuck with me for all 2,500 words of this post, congratulations.  It wouldn’t have done the event justice if I had abridged this any further.  It was one of my first few experiences in New York City, and will probably prove to be an important turning point in my career (and my life).  It got me thinking about the paths that poets decide to take within their interests and their research, and how they come to name the subjects with which they are most concerned.  And, I must say…Lisa Robertson (who is extremely successful) proved to me that the “I” is not something to be feared anymore.  Look out, world, confessionalism is making a comeback!  Suck on that, Christian Bok.

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