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Amanda Earl's kicked me into action with a great short rant on her blog about the lack of coverage of literary events in Ottawa. How come a town that's so booming in very cool indie publications covering the arts, fashion, culture and theatre somehow manages to get less publicity for the literary side of things? Not no publicity, but somehow tangibly less. It's a little more lackluster.
I might argue that maybe the literary scene is more insular, but I don't really think that's the case. Maybe all the poets already know each other, and so don't think to promote? Or maybe, as Amanda suggests, people see the word 'poetry' and assume, well, that can't be cool? (and in this case I'm talking about page poetry, since the spoken word scene is booming, and 'cool' is pretty much the word everyone involved in it would use to describe poetry.)
Don't know. But Amanda said, get out there and blog. So, with my fire lit again (and sadly, just before I'm about to be eaten by the Writers Festival) I'm going to try to get back to blogging.
Although, the Festival is about to eat me. The first event is next Friday, and, coincidentally, I've been wanting to write about it. It's a book launch for John Vaillant's book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. It's usually pretty hard for me to read all or even most of the books that we feature at the Festival, but I've been giving it a try this season, and I lucked out with The Tiger. It took me only a few days to read. Can I use the word 'gripping' without sounding like a cheeseball?
The book follows a series of actual events in the far eastern corner of Russia, an area called Primorye, which is sandwiched in alongside Mongolia, and is a surprisingly alien place. His descriptions of the land make it sound like the Genesis planet: his coinage for it is 'boreal jungle,' the sort of place where it's 30 below but there are tigers and jaguars alongside the wolverines and caribou, and where the native population, who share a lot of physical traits with the Inuit, are sharing their space with emigrated ethnic Russians from the western end of the country.
The book starts with a hunter who is killed by a Siberian tiger, the world's biggest cat, and with a group of men who are, essentially forest rangers, although out here most of the forest rangers are ex-military, as are a lot of the poachers they deal with. It follows the tiger, which is not just hunting people, but destroying them, leaving virtually nothing behind, and even going after their cabins and destroying those as well, and it follows the men whose job it is to hunt the tiger down and kill it. Along the way it takes in the history and biology of the Siberian tiger, the way in which tigers and humans might once have shared the same ecosystem more or less peaceably, the economic and social dissolution of eastern Russia that forces the local people to poach tigers for the Chinese market, and the psychology of the sort of people who can live in a place as barren and forbidding as Primorye.
The landscape is a character. The cold is a character. The tiger - both the actual tiger and the mythical, mystical, psychological tiger - is definitely a character. And the way in which the story slowly follows the hunt for the tiger, with elegant, graceful side detours into the history of Russia, the lives of the people involved, the local ethnography and mythology, and the harsh realities of the landscape, kept making me stop with my jaw dropped. How did he do that? I'd think to myself, and then dive back in. It was like listening to a really good jazz musician improvising for ages while never really losing the arc of the whole tune.
Admittedly, I also have a certain fascination for survival, for the kinds of people who can accomplish the kinds of physical and mental and emotional feats that these people can, and I love reading about completely unfamiliar places. Score on all counts.
Can't wait to hear him read next Friday. (It's at Nicholas Hoare Books, at 7:00, and it's free! Wine and cheese, and blood freezing on the snow. Awesome.)
I get this daily email from Garrison Keillor (well, from the NPR "Prairie Home Companion" folks) called the Writer's Almanac. It has a poem each day, and some interesting facts about various authors and other major (mostly American) figures: birthdays, death dates, anniversaries of one kind and another.
I mention this because today it announced that it's the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Who wrote, among many other things, this:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
It strikes me, reading this again, that if there's one dead white guy I would instantly recommend to pretty much any spoken word or hip-hop poet, it's Manley Hopkins. Look at what he's doing with sound in this short bit! I've loved Hopkins since high school, really, but he doesn't get a whole lot of airplay. I sort of feel like the lone voice saying, "Hey, check this guy out!" But I feel like if a lot of the poets I know through the slam scene gave him a read, they'd recognize all sorts of things that they've been doing too. Internal rhyme, polysyllabic rhyme, assonance, consonance, rhythm. This guy was born in 1844, but I hear echoes of what he did on slam stages across the city in 2010.
Manley Hopkins is the man. Happy birthday, Gerard.
I know I've been a bad blog mommy again. In part, I think it's because I see so many fantastic blogs out there that I get an inferiority complex, and in part, I have been spending a lot more of my blogging time over at The Incidental Cyclist. (Now, of course, my poetry-writing side and my bike enthusiast side have merged in a strange confluence: the Kymeras have a feature this Sunday at The Spoken Word Plot in Almonte (temporarily rechristened the Spoke 'n' Word Plot for Mississippi Mills Bike Month) which will be all about bikes. Should be fun!)
And I've also been massively busy with many other things. So, that would be why I've been away. I'm going to try and stick with this, but no promises.
Lately I'm on a reading binge, too. Sometimes you have these, right? Where you get up on a Saturday, grab a book, settle in on the couch, and a few hours later put that book down, finished, and pick up another one? I've had a couple of days like that, especially during the heat wave. Reading a lot of YA fiction because of the Festival children's program means I wind up reading a lot of books very fast, because YA is usually a quick read.
A off-the-top-of-my-head list of books I've devoured in the last, say, week and a half:
Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde. What is there to say about Jasper Fforde except that he's a virtuoso of random? He's like the unholy love child of Will Self and Douglas Adams. Shades of Grey is surreal, funny dystopian satire/SF/spoof/fantasy set in a world where your social status is determined by what colours you can see. And there are giant carnivorous swans. And strange chunks of floating metal that pop up out of the earth with erosion and drift off downhill.
Brigands MC, a YA spy book the author of which escapes me. Part of a series called CHERUB, the extremely silly premise of which is that there's a division of the British Secret Service that recruits kids and turns them into superspies. Could be just terrible (James Patterson's Maximum Ride and Daniel X series come to mind as cautionary examples) but in fact it was a really fun read.
(Speaking of Patterson, did you know John Grisham has a kids' book coming out this fall? I read the first chapter. Terrible. Terrible, terrible.)
blueeyedboy, by Joanne Harris. Funny, I only knew Chocolat and thought of her as a slightly fluffy chicklit writer. Then I met her and found out she's one of those cool geeks (no, it's not a contradiction in terms.) blueeyedboy was hipper than I expected, a lovely beautiful read but with a lot of darkness. The ending gave me the willies.
Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens: a gift from fellow Kymera Ruthanne who found it in a used book store. What can I say? It's got lots of Boudicca, and other kickass ladies of history. Yawmp.
Enchanted Glass, by Diane Wynne Jones. I'm actually in the middle of this one at the moment. Mm, British fantasy. Non-dumbed-down, non-formulaic writing for young audiences. Hooray! What I love about this one is that there are all kinds of things that are NOT explained. They just are. No exposition, no sitting-down-to-tell-our-protagonist-how-things-are - you just go straight into the story as though the mechanics of magic, the teminology, and what people do and do not take for granted in this world, are already established. Hooray.
Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston. Again, hooray: this is a novel for kids in rhyme in which the rhyme is not used as an excuse to be sloppy. I have read kids' poetry where lines were clearly, obviously, painfully thrown in there in order to have a word that rhymes at the end. It's not good. Zorgamazoo rattles along in gosh-darn-near perfect anapests, and not only do the lines all need to be there, but sometimes the rhymes will make me laugh out loud with how neat and clever they are. Plus, the clever, creative typography rocks in a way that lots of kids' books try to do and fail (I'm looking at you, How To Train Your Dragon).
I think there are others but that's what comes to mind at the moment. Looking forward to clearing out the to-do pile over the next couple of days so I can tackle Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which is something you don't do lightly. (Those who know Stephenson know what I'm talking about.)
I've been trying to do more memorixing of my stuff for the Kymeras: this is from the last show, at the Laurier Royal Oak, down in the basement at our steampunk-themed Fireborn show. It's dark, and kinda grainy, but I still like the poem. And it's been interesting learning to put the paper down and work without it.
It's been a pretty busy weekend so far. In part I suppose I can blame the newly warmed-up weather that means not only can I bike downtown, but I sorta want to.
Friday night I got to see CR Avery at the NAC Fourth Stage. The first time I ever saw CR Avery he was featuring at Capital Slam, and I knew then that I had never heard anything like this guy before. Or, actually, that's not quite true, I had, but not in that combination. He's like a bizarre, perfectly balanced alloy of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave. Oh, and he beatboxes like a god, occasionally through a harmonica into the mike. It has to be heard to be believed. This show also featured a backup group with three violins, a cello, and an electric guitar, and if he's fun onstage by himself, you really have to see him with a band. (This, in fact, is where the Nick Cave similarities surfaced for me - the way he moved onstage around and through the other musicians and the mike.) They were good, too - two violins tended to take the solo lines and had marvellously different voices - one raw fiddle, the other full-throated Gypsy.
Watch this video of CR doing his poem "The Birdcage" in Arizona. I just found it, and it's mesmerizing. He did that one Friday night too.
I think what I really love about him is the originality. I've never heard anyone else do this before. His poems/lyrics are surreal and gripping. And I wish I knew, in poems like 'The Birdcage' or the one about the cat, how and when he decides to throw in that explosive beatbox. What's going on in his head, what's the process? It's startling and unintuitive: it's not like he uses it as a 'hook' or refrain, or even in the places you would expect. And it's just about perfect where it is.
Anyway, this show was just off the hook. I haven't been as transported in a long time. And as an extra bonus, there was an opening set with pieces from Nathanael Larochette, Marcus Jameel, Festrell & Danielle Gregoire, PrufRock, Kevin Matthews and John Akpata.
And then, there was Saturday night. I wish I had been able to make it to the Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament lauch, but somehow that didn't happen. I did, however, get to the Mercury Lounge for a show that Nathanael Larochette referred to, when I talked to him about it on Friday, as "the night I forget to take my schizophrenia drugs and just turn into three people."
I know Nathanael as a spoken word poet. He hosts Capital Slam, which is where I met him back when he first started slamming (and I was sitting at the sidelines keeping score or time or something.) This show was billed as "One Man, Three Sets" - a set of poetry, followed by a set with Nathanael's neo-folk/classical group Musk Ox, followed by a set with his heavy metal band, The Night Watch.
I've heard Musk Ox before on the radio (they get some play on CBC) but I had only heard the general rumours that Nathanael was a heavy metal musician as well. And admittedly, the usual reaction to that is, "Nathanael? Really? But he's so... quiet." But then, sometimes the biggest metalheads don't really look like metalheads, right?
Musk Ox was Nathanael on classical guitar with a violin and a cello played by a guy in a metal shirt who (to be honest) looked like he had to be about eighteen. I'm never all that good at describing music, but their stuff was minor-keyed, trans-cultural sort of stuff. Nathanael kept using the phrase "epic journey" and I suppose that does fit. Rafael, the cello player, in particular blew me away. And there is something about an instrumental band where you can hear the players inhaling together before phrases. It was meditative, soundscapey stuff. Beautiful. Completely mellow, relaxed me enough that I was no longer as grumpy and shy as I had been going in (I had found a chair in the corner in the dark and, to be honest, avoided the eyes of people I recognized: I wasn't feeling much like being out, but had really wanted to see this particular show. By the time Musk Ox was done with me, I was feeling much, much better.
And then Night Watch came out. In this group Nathanael plays electric guitar: there's also a drummer, who was absolutely hilarious to watch, and a guy who looked like he might be a third grade teacher, but who completely wailed on the electric violin. "Metal" is such a wide-ranging term that I didn't really know what to expect out of this group. But I was really impressed. They're tight, which is really important in any band, but which, given the speed you sometimes have to play, is pretty much crucial for a good metal band. And they're fun, and smart. They play with rhythms and time signatures, they mess around with quoting beats and lines from other styles of music. They had a song that threw in bossa nova beats, they had the requisite medieval song (ah, medieval metal!), they opened with a tune from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. The violinist improvises all of his solos on the spot - wow - and was versatile and fun. And the drummer was - delicate where he needed to be, jazzy almost, and clowned around with a set of windchimes and with the silences as much as he blistered it on the fast chunks.
Plus, their last piece completely blew off the roof. Complex, epic, trading between quiet and loud, with chunks of machine-gunning speed and delicate beautiful lines in empty spaces. It was awesome.
I do hope Nathanael does another one of these: part of what I enjoyed about it was getting to watch his versatility, but it was also fun to think that maybe someone had come for the metal and been surprised by the poetry, and vice versa. He said something about wanting to blow the stereotypes off poetry, folk, and metal, which I think he managed to do - all in one show.
So, it's been a pretty good weekend so far! And a friend's got a spare ticket to a comedy show tonight, so I might actually go for the weekend trifecta. We'll see!
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