Acknowledgements and Poems
Avonlea Fotheringham, 24 pages (+5 track CD)
“You said: surrender without weakness,
and I didn’t say (should’ve said): teach me.
You saw reinvention: not
submissiveness; not Ermine bound up in Wire.” – From Acknowledgements
Ottawa poetry is not, in general, large enough to be sectarian in the same way that Toronto or Vancouver is. In general though, people tend to gravitate towards either the city’s spoken word events or to its “page” communities without much crossover outside of summits like the yearly VERSeFest (where they might as well install turnstiles to accommodate the crowdswapping between events). This puts a writer like Avonlea Fotheringham in a somewhat uncommon position. A regular performer at the biweekly CapSlam spoken word series, she is also a strong supporter of Carleton’s page-oriented In/Words collective, and handed out this, her first publication, at the most recent Ottawa Zine Off!.
Fittingly, Fotheringham’s Acknowledgements and Poems is a neither fish-nor-fowl proposition, split platypus-like between sparse, evocative lyric poems and spoken word monologues, complete with a CD containing her performances of the latter.
In the best of the shorter (unspoken?) poems, Fotheringham words are just enough light to appreciate what goes unsaid, the way candlelight improves by suggesting details. “Acknowledgements” sets up an interesting dialogue/internal monologue structure to tug at the old saw that women are stronger than men because they can allow themselves to be weaker. She stages the interplay of submission and resistance as a recursive mirroring effect:
“If I could stand behind you, to look
through your eyes, I’d be better at this.
As it stands, standing behind you,
I only see you, behind me.
You said: just trust me on this one,
and I didn’t say (should’ve said): thanks.”
The ending impresses with its seemingly simultaneous sincerity and irony. Another standout poem is more minimalist still:
Launching from a review of Sebastian Lelio’s recent film Gloria, Fotheringham arranges phrases like inklings of discarded clothing, finding an ending that catches like breath. Reading the review (and I imagine, watching the film) lends the poem added resonances; the film’s Rodolfo is a sweet but questionably committed man, and their courtship is a grown-woman sort of burden. That the poem freezes on that moment of surrender to “girly” uncomplicated pleasure both amplifies that pleasure and contextualizes it.
These are probably the most fully-realized of the shorter poems, but there are enough well-turned lines (“consequences flow through you like shared blood”) and ideas in the others to suggest Fotheringham will be worth keeping an eye on as she continues to hone this element of her writing. The last poem in the first half of the book, “On Falling in Love with Dead White Guys” is a harmless pastiche of canonical English poets that leans a bit too heavily for its own good on “thine”s, but it seems like it was designed to lighten the mood before the reader turns to the recitations.
As is often the case with performance-oriented poetry, the experience of reading Fotheringham’s words on the page is quite different from hearing her recite them. In my experience, most printed poems originating as spoken word tend to be formatted with frequent linebreaks falling according to rhythm or rhyme. If an oral poem is five minutes long, you may end up with a very, very long column of text. In this case, though, indulging in that many linebreaks would make Fotheringham’s quarter-size zine something like 60 pages long. Instead the poems are formatted as paragraphs.
The paragraph format accentuates the almost novelistic attention to detail she brings to the narrative piece “Bad Advice“:
“Straight lines and geometric repetition: he liked reliable art. And you could see it in his apartment, in the careful composition, with all the starched simplicity of parquet floors and white walls; a dash of colour here to break the monotony, and later, there: me, sitting on the couch amidst strategically placed plants that never grew on me; after all they seemed to sigh so heavily whenever I walked in.”
You can see sometimes where she bends away from pure prose to enable a rhyme, but for the most part you don’t really notice that structure until you hear it aloud. That is no easy trick. On the CD “Bad Advice” comes across as tenser, tighter, the lines almost ping-ponging. The recitations all push themselves along on chains of association, though their material varies: “Bad Advice” narrates an external relationship; “Fragmentation” figure 8s around a thought; “Vocal Attraction” is pure sensation, a something about it voice “bursting holes through the plaster cast of my existence until I’m spilling outside of myself and then looking up in awe of you, as a puddle on the floor, speechless and a bit wet.”
The only suggestion I would give to Fotheringham as a reader is to slow down. Her breath control and enunciation are pinpoint precise, but it’s the kind of gymnastic precision many listeners might have to play at half-speed to really appreciate. On “Boa Constrictor,” an ode to the existential void, you sense her understanding of the material’s orality. The pauses are in the all the right places, the emphases land properly. But it still sounds hurried, the demands of the rhyme scheme or the slam timekeeper dragging you when you should be allowed to linger. A poem on emptiness requires silences that outlast the beat.
On the whole, the modestly-titled Acknowledgements and Poems is a generous and somewhat unexpected gift to those who attended the OZO!. The production quality is superb, fine paper stock bound in frayed cord, with a hand-stamped cover. Even the typesetting stands out. Fotheringham and her collaborator Stephen Watt deserve high praise here; I’d suggest reprinting them for the Small Press Fair and selling them for $5-$10 a pop. I think they’d move.
I also think based on this chapzinedisc that Fotheringham has a lot to offer Ottawa’s spoken word, page and zine communities. It’s fortunate to each that she’s willing to share herself so equitably.
JM’s JaM: Bill Evans – Come Rain or Come Shine