First of all, I’d like to give my Maxell ‘digital’ headphones, which are right now piping Nico’s ‘Innocent and Vain’ into my brainpan, these headphones bought cheap at a pharmacy, I’d like to give these headphones of mine a bad review. The sound quality isn’t bad – I, who have had a lifetime career of listening to scratchy rock through shitty speakers, am not one to judge sound quality – but because they have only little padded speakers that sit on top of my ears and squish them all up. They squish the shit out of my ears. Failing grade. Next time – really really big earpieces that go right over the ears and don’t squish them.
It’s officially spring, and springlike outside, even if cold. Springlike sunlight sprinkling down upon us all like shy flower buds awakening slowly, sensing something …
I wanted to comment a bit on some live shows I’ve experienced in the past year or so … including some shows I took part in, most of which were literary. Most ridiculous, for me, was the Anarchist poetry reading last May at Quai des Brumes, where, after consuming about half a glass of draft beer, I tried to hop up onto the rather high stage and misjudged, causing all my weight to come down on one foot on the edge of the stage which then slipped off the stage and slammed back down onto the floor. I nearly broke my foot! Yet I managed to do my set, in a truly raging manner, and made a positive impression on the audience. Plenty of compliments as I limped down to the bar for my second complimentary drink. Host / organizer David Wormaker said, “But you shoulda wore combat boots!” A costly performance, in that I spent the next couple of weeks gimping around town wondering if I should maybe go to the hospital, or just wait it out. I waited it out. At one point I was cruising on my bike along Prince-Arthur, which as everyone knows is a pedestrian street that has been handed completely over to restauranteurs by the city government. Biking is NOT ALLOWED and so I was warned by a roving cop on patrol and forced to limp painfully along with my bike until I got to Carré St-Louis.
This set the tone for a summer that was decidely abject in flavour. I’m hoping this summer will be a lot less abject and a lot hotter too. Fuck this rainy summer shit. The only reason it’s raining so much, I reason, is because our polar ice cap is melting really fast, filling our skies all summer with excess moisture. Gaia weeps. (As Nico sings stentorianly into my squished ears, “Waiting for the summer rain!”)
Speaking of nature, I was staring out at the blue sky the other day and suddenly missed being able to see the full panoply of the night sky. You cannot see the night sky in Montreal, it is one of the suckiest things about this otherwise fine metropolis. You can see about six stars on a very good, clear night here. That was one of the best things about visiting my folks in Manitoba last spring, because they live in a small town and so you can wander around looking up at stars stars stars and the stardusting of the Milky Way. Daytime was pretty sweet there too – the town is overrun with birds. I saw hummingbirds, blue jays, red winged blackbirds, cardinals, and the skies were dominated by hawks and ravens. I even saw a hawk and a raven having an arial territorial dogfight like a couple of World War I aces. So my parents’ town gets a positive review in terms of its natural features.
The same month I almost broke my foot, I introduced a pot lid to the audience as featured poet at a Throw Collective slam at Cagibi, and told a story that ended up published in Four Minutes to Midnight later the same year. The Throw folks or some of them went to the Canadian Spoken Word Festival in Calgary last November, and they recorded a CD and launched it last January, and now their series is happening on Parc Avenue. Other performers I’ve seen as guests at the slam include the Ottawa Slam Collective members, some of whom are fire-breathingly-political slamsters; Moe Clark, who’s simply a phenomenal performer; and Spencer Butt from Toronto, who did blisteringly funny poems, but his style was really closely modelled on John Giorno’s. He also drew from the poetic styles of Karen Finley and Ann Waldman. I’d never seen something like that, where I could say, “Now he’s doing Giorno. Now that’s Finley.” I guess that tells you who I’m into.
That was also around the time Annabelle Chvostek launched her new CD, Resilience, at Sala Rossa. It’s would be easy for me to take Annabelle for granted, because I’ve been watching her playing around town since 1997. She’s always blown me away, both for her musical imagination and her lyrical chops, but lately I can see she’s become a serious artist – it really shows these days when she’s onstage. Last time I saw her was at Casa, in February, with a trio that she’d toured Europe with, and it was cookin’. The launch was special, and I really loved the arrangments of the songs performed with members of Lake of Stew. That’s another local crew who are doing really well since they launched their first CD, Ain’t Tired of Loving. It’s part of this general rebirth of folk roots recently – it is no longer completely naff for me to play tracks by Donovan on the radio.
Another great local artist on the folkesque tip is Molly Sweeney. I first saw her at a Words and Music show at the Casa. She put on a show last summer with Sam Shalabi and Annabelle, where she played a Hammond B-3 for a few songs, and did a killer cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Story of Isaac’. Like most musicians in Montreal, her interests are really wide-ranging, but she certainly has a taste for noirish folk ballads. She appears (prominently) on Shalabi’s newest disc, Land of Kush. Sam’s set that night was one of his hypnotic oud pieces, always a joy to behold.
I saw a fine Bob Wiseman show during the June Suoni Il Per Popolo experimental music fest, the first time I’d seen him in years. He did it solo with a sort of powerpoint laptop projection, so every tune he did (mostly on acoustic guitar, or button accordian), he had either a little video running, or texts, sometimes backing tracks (four images of himself singing harmony on the song, for instance). That same evening I saw Mt. Eerie, which is another one-man band (on acoustic guitar). He did a whole lot of songs that seemed to be obsessed with the wind, while projecting beautiful video images he’d collected, of mountains, clouds, trees, and a metal recycling plant that he’d wandered into in – I think it was in Chicago. He just walked into the place and filmed them pouring molten metals and such, incredible visuals. I find having projections are a neat addition to the usual presentation, it really adds another dimension (like, duh). I like going to these small shows because the performer’s right there. It’s not that I want to rush up and manhandle them, but I like the intimacy of the atmosphere.
If you think I go to a lot of shows at Casa del Popolo, you’d be right. Other shows I’ve seen include Christian Richer rocking the cassette loop mixage meltdown, White Magic with openers Elfin Saddle, and the night MV&EE and The Golden Road played. The first opener was Swassum, who turned out to be this blonde woman with an axe who did a feedbacky intuitive dance with her amp for a while … it was totally genius, and I asked if she had any CDRs but after rummaging around in her knapsack all she had to offer me was a jar of tomato sauce. (Later, I learned that she’s also in the current line-up of HRSTA.) Whilst followed with a sort of electronic naoiiieeeeessse collage from a couple of analogue mixing decks, accompanying crazed cut-up video kitsch footage. MV&EE did a sort of rock boogie set with their band, with many fine long intertwining solos, but I have to admit I’m more into their droney folkish stuff, like the live stuff that’s on the two CDRs I bought (for $5 each) from EE, Snake’s Pass & Other Human Conditions (autumn 2006) and Psyracuse (summer 2006). Oh, and they also had their friend Valerie Webber up on stage reading some of her poems while they played. The vibe in the room, especially that night, is so warm and familial and mellow … So yes, as you can see, I do go to a lot of shows at Casa. Of course right now they’re having problems with their license so all live shows have been canned, which TOTALLY FUCKING SUCKS. Just my personal opinion.
I was published in the Invisible Publishing anthology called The Art of Trespassing last fall, edited by Anna Leventhal. I got to do a couple of readings, one for the Montreal launch at Redbird loft, and a couple of other readings in Kingston. I was all excited to perform at Red Bird Gallery because I’d never gone there before, and I got to hear a bunch of people read who I’d never heard read before … the next morning, before we drove to Kingston, I even got to help mop the floor of the loft with the grumpy Red Bird curator (whose name escapes me). Everybody was really burnt out in the car – big surprise – and we set off late, and there was a huge marathon race going on that tied up all the traffic on Montreal Island, so we ended up getting to Kingston late, and walked into this bookstore on Princess Street in downtown Kingston where a small crowd had been patiently waiting for our arrival for, well, I don’t know how long they were waiting. So we walked in and right away had to read, after our three- or four-hour drive. It was very rock n roll. And then we went for supper, and after supper we went down to the Wolfe Island Ferry, where Stephen Guy (one of the contributors to The Art of Trespassing) hosts a monthly reading. So we did a reading on the Wolfe Island Ferry. As Jesse Stanisforth put it so succinctly, “We’re on a boat!” Most exhilarating.
I got to hear Jason Camlot read at Erica Ruth Kelly’s chapbook launch, and really enjoyed a couple of his poems. One was about growing up in suburban Montreal, totally immersed in rock culture, rocking out in his basement jamming with friends on lunch break from high school; now he’s a poet, and they’ve named a street in his old neighbourhood after Irving Layton. He did another amazing piece that was a tribute to Artie Gold. I also saw Paula Belina at her farewell performance at Burritoville – she’s mad talented but more importantly, she’s really grappling with the realities of our times – like how do you live in a non-exploitive way in a consumer culture that’s killing the planet? While many of us sit on our asses wondering what to do, there are more and more people like her, who are going for it in a much more creative, proactive way. There’s a whole world being born, I’m sure, out there beyond the white picket facebook fences and the obsessive shopping behaviors. I’m looking forward to her being back in town this spring.
I went to the Depanneur Café up on Bernard to see Joe Blades read at the Noche Poesia series. He’s a poet I got to know in Halifax back in 1986. He used to publish a poetry magazine in Halifax and he published some of my stuff back in 1988. I wanted to give him my latest chapbook / CD – he does a poetry radio show in Fredericton, so it’s worth getting the audio stuff to him. I went to the reading with my friend Derek, an artist who’s originally from New Brunswick, and naturally he knew Joe from the days when they both studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). So it was a warm and friendly evening of hobnobbing. Hugh Hazelton came by. When I first got there I was sitting alone, waiting for Derek and his friend, and the waitress was running around the place with a grilled cheese sandwich that nobody would claim. So finally she asked if I wanted it for free! So I said sure – it was made with a quite sharp cheese – not quite blue cheese but in that range, it was yummy. Nothing like a free meal – I gave her a 2 dollar tip.
CKUT put on Art’s Birthday at L’Enver this January. It was Lisa Gamble wailing on a bicycle wheel (wired for sound) with a violin bow, mixed with the electronoise of GMACKRR … Exhaust going nutso … Michel F. Coté! with band, another group with a guy with a sax doing improv stuff … Each band played in a different part of the loft, which was a great way to do it because one could be setting up while another was playing, the audience just sort of sloshing around the room like a liquid drawn to the next happening thing. It was an audience where I literally knew half the room, from a long history of live art involvements …
Lady Katalyst is curating Spoken Unheard, a spoken word series up at Sablo Café, the same spot where the Kalmunity Vibe Collective happens every week. I went to the inaugural January show, and found Katalyst’s set was really intense, insightful and focused. She’s getting a CD together which should be coming out pretty soon, and I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy, just on the strength of what she did in her live set. I also developed a better appreciation of Chris Masson’s work, thanks to the mandate of Spoken Unheard, which is to give spoken word artists a chance to stretch out a bit, do a longer set.
I couldn’t go to a lot of the Zen Poetry Festival shows, but I went down to Concordia to see a couple of the Zen poets read. One of them was Seido Ray Ronci, a Zen monk with over 30 years of practice under his belt (and Zen practice is the Marine Corps of Buddhist practices) who is also a professor in Columbia, Missouri. He read from his collected poems, ranging from early stuff to his most recent, with really illuminating anecdotes and insights along the way … too bad if you missed it … there was also a Zen Poetry Festival fundraiser which featured poets who were not necessarily Zen. Among them the always astonishing Erin Mouré, reading short pieces involving ‘a dog of water’, and Sina Queyras, who read some pieces based on her study of Samuel Beckett’s plays.
I know this section is supposed to be all about live stuff, but I just read Queyras’ new book, Expressway, and I’m excited about it for a number of reasons. For one thing, I’m always hungering after poetry and other creative work that engages with issues, and Expressway certainly does that, grappling with themes of modernity, car culture, the environmental and psychic impact of consumerism and our culture of speed.
Expressway has great depth, the depth of the poet-scholar who has read broadly and who has a questing mind, bringing all that to bear on what is probably the biggest problem facing all of us today. So there’s stylistic and explicit and implicit references to the Romantics, Modernist poetry, LANGUAGE poetry, écriture féminine, even the Beats – but more the Zen clarity of the San Francisco Renaissance poet Gary Snyder, say (think Earth House Hold), rather than the brawling exuberance of Kerouac or Ginsberg. Expressway is written in a very clean and spare style, even the outbursts are controlled explosions. And there’s the inevitable references to the internet, cellphones, all the accoutrements of our enforced daily amnesia are brought into focus and their full significance considered. This depth of perception is something I find myself responding to on various levels, simply because there’s such a lack of insight in much of what passes for artistic output today – in all disciplines.
I could go on for paragraphs pretending to know what I’m talking about, which I don’t, but really what grabs me is the poetry. Lines like these:
… All those bodies being shuffled to the furnace. All those acres of rain, forest, all those rivers, frogs, pigs, feathers. All those skins being shed … all those containers. The partitions, the tags, the inevitability of embodiment. A voice chastised her for thinking so darkly. You are what you think, it said, and you think very dark thoughts.
I am seeing, she yelled. I am tired of the tyranny of the optimistic! I want a revolution of the optimist! I want a sincerity that sees!
At which point I said, “Right on!” This kind of recognition or identification happens to me over and over with this book – as it confronts the insanity of our society with some species of truth, it yields a knowledge that is necessarily dark – the future is dark – so let’s all deal with it!
Occasionally there is anger. Occasionally she takes her one good foot and applies it to surfaces otherwise flat and safe, the expressway progressing itself through her, expressly.
(I live here because the country I once lived in is now a corporate washroom, where there were once gardens now oil refineries turn night into day and farmers into militiamen – you won’t even understand this, and your teeth gleam!)
This is impassioned poetry. Sometimes it’s angry, and that’s something a lot of people are afraid of, but like John Lydon once sang, “Anger is an energy.” We need it to make things happen.
In conversation, Queyras expressed frustration that more artists weren’t speaking out loud and clear – more famous artists, for example, artists with an audience and clout. On reflection, I think maybe it’s starting to happen. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was clearly an environmental parable; and just last night I started reading Jeannette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods, an angry and hilarious science fiction fantasy in the tradition of Vonnegut, on the topic of out-of-control consumer culture and where it is leading us. Perhaps these are the first few pebbles of an impending avalanche of artistic output on the topic of – what exactly does the future hold, and how are we going to respond to it?
I was also tickled to read the straightforwardly anti-corporate novel Stripmalling, Jon Paul Fioretino’s comedic pantsing of Walmart and its tendency to liquidate the economic life of small towns. It’s mostly funny – I mean laugh-out-loud-outrageous funny – and certainly the author is going for the laughs – but the more you think about it, the more darkly funny it becomes. My favourite bits are certainly where the pathos bleeds through, like the chapter where the incipient alcoholic protagonist’s infant son refers to a can of beer as ‘Daddy’s medicine’. That mingling of comedy and tragedy gets me every time.
Both of these writers seem kind of shy about reading in public – Queyras’ set was too brief at the Coach House launch event (as were all the sets – read more poetry I say!) – they should get over their fears and read these works as often as possible, because the public has a right to a little literature with substance.
Next time, some movies.