Last year I did a brief round-up of the best readings I caught in Ottawa, so as 2014 rounds to a close I’ve decided to do the same. In 2013 I was very new to the local scene, so I really gorged myself; I was a little more moderate this year, but I’m sure I still averaged about 3 readings a month, which is enough to rot anyone’s brain a little. With that said, here were the readings that for one reason or another stuck out in what not-rotted bits remained.
There’s a whimsy to Ruefle’s writing and thinking in the sense that it is fanciful and odd, but it’s whimsy that’s joined to a precise, clear intelligence. It was with whimsy and not irony that she spent two minutes folding a white cloth in front of an audience so attuned for any note of profundity that most did not realize what she was doing was funny until, having made the cloth into a square, she named the performance “Fitted Sheet #1”. Because it was whimsy and not irony, the audience didn’t feel stupid or tricked when that moment of realization came. The bit punctured the churchy seriousness of the typical reading, not to deflate it, but to let air in.
2. Lenelle Moïse, VERSeFest
I went back and forth between the top two performances on the list, and ultimately went with Ruefle because it has had more impact on my thinking about performance. But if you’d asked me right after I saw it, I likely would’ve chosen her fellow American Lenelle Moïse. Her reading, mostly of material from her debut Haiti Glass, was jagged as an EKG, all spiky highs and lows. It was as much acting as reading; fierce, righteous, alive. People walked out like she’d dropped a bomb on them. And perhaps I’ve thought more on Ruefle’s conceptual arguments and less about these cutting poems about Haiti, and about surviving America as an immigrant, because it’s a privilege I have not to live always at the pitch of emotional intensity Moïse inhabited on that stage.
Blonk, a Dutch sound poet and composer of idiosyncratic scores (yes, those are musical notations), performed a double-header for A/B Series in October. He began with a short lecture on the development of his own work and of sound poetry in general, focusing on its European roots and on the physical action of sound making, that was in itself enlightening and highlighted by a selection from Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate and even some vocal-sample based techno. It was followed by a performance of YappiScope, a multi-media show that saw Blonk “wander” through the a variety of his own pieces and those of his influences and contemporaries. Highlights included mashups of experimental films by Yoko Ono, Cage’s “4’33” segmented by bright solid colour projections, and a hypnotic, womb-like (if slightly overlong?) version of Brion Gysin’s “I Am That I Am.”
4. Kaie Kellough, VERSeFest
Everybody compares poetry to jazz and should shut up. But working with two mics and a variety of pedals, Kellough’s twenty minute set had the aerobic intensity and sonic violence of a good skronk session. His author profile photo is a six-armed motion blur; that works, and if written down his words looked like they sounded when he said them, they’d all have six arms too.
5. Michael Lista, Tree
I think it was said of Ben Jonson (by Dryden, possibly?), the great Elizabethan critic/playwright, that the public appraisal of the man’s art had suffered as only the art of a critic could suffer; that is, that by being bold in his opinions of others’ work, Jonson invited an extra dose of invective from his detractors, particularly when compared to his doe-like contemporary Shakespeare. Lista’s Tree reading, primarily of material from his then-forthcoming book The Scarborough, was delivered with blackened wit and an at times murderous intensity, that suggested he was well-prepared for slings and arrows. In other hands, the even rhymes and childhood tropes of a piece like “Radar” might’ve come to a more whimsical end; but, as Lista has noted in the past, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”
6. 2 Dope Boys in a Cadillac, VERSeFest
Poets Johnny MacRae and shayne avec i grec entered through the crowd like guerilla street preachers hijacking the subway, but all they wanted to talk about was waterbowling, tripping out and the end of all human life on earth. Like the group from whom they borrowed their name, each member of the duo is a distinctive performer in his own right but seems most at home complementing the other. Try putting your hands together with the thumbs linked. Then open your hands so they look like wings, or the Wu-Tang logo. Now curl the left hand into a fist and tuck it into the right palm, breaking the thumblink. Then roll the left over the right palm and open it so the pinkies are parallel and the thumbs now outstretched in opposite directions. They read poetry together like that. Heartily weird and worth a look if their Caddy breaks down near your town.
7. Messagio Galore XIV
Avant-gardist, publisher and sound poet jwcurry has been doing his Messagio Galore series for a number of years with a rotating cast of collaborators (this time the “Quatour Gualuor” included Rachel Lindsey, Georgia Mathewson, Brian Pirie & Robert Rosen), but the fourteenth edition in Ottawa was my first. Working from John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, the tightly-rehearsed but apparently randomly sequenced show segued between speaking singing and screaming; sense and nonsense; poetry and music and pure sound, the words slingshot from one mouth to the next in mid-sentence. The highlight for me was probably an English rendition of Jaap Blonk’s Der Minister (seen in text form here) performed as a duet between Pirie and curry, in this context coming off as a Pythonesque “apology” for prior inappropriateness that degrades into stuttering absurdity, a glitch in the political machine.
8. Ivan Coyote, A/B
It occurs to me as I get eight deep here that I could simply say instead “Don’t listen to me, just listen to them!” ten times in a row and you, dream reader, would be just as well off, probably. So maybe I’ll just say it of Coyote (my first time seeing them), who is as riotously funny, inspiring, tough and heartfelt as you have heard they are, and who is as gifted an in-person storyteller as you’re ever likely to come across.
9. Phil Hall, Sawdust
Hall whom, unlike Coyote, I have seen a number of times but, like Coyote, has a tremendous personal presence that comes from his utter lack of pretension and generous soul. What’s particularly impressive about Hall as a performer is that, given how knotted and fractured his poetry appears on the page, it comes across as naturally as speech when he performs it. And this is because, in the spirit of poets like Olson and Blaser who wrote so intriguingly of a poetic line and compositional energy that conforms to the poet’s physical dimensions and body-in-the-world, Hall has developed a poetry that simply fits him, such that his choice to end the night with a hangdog a capella folk tune felt equally of a piece.
Derkson is easily the least well-known poet on this list, being as he is doing the slimy thing they call emerging from the great nutsack that is obscurity, but he knows already that the secret to being a good performer is giving a damn that there are other people in the room. There seem to be few good poets these days working the Purdy-esque “sensitive man” vein that Derkson is finding success in, perhaps because it’s a trope that was at one time thoroughly stripmined by poseurs and thinly veiled misogynists; but Derkson comes by his voice honestly, and in his work there’s a critique of the way that masculinity can be used to justify downright shitty behaviour that feels refreshing to audiences. And audience is a big part of why this reading by Derkson (actually, two equally successful outings at In/Words in 2014) makes the list over those of some better-established poets I saw last year: he got to read in front of a true home crowd that received his poems as those of a conquering hero, and the energy pushed him to be better. That’s something that can in some quarters be considered a crutch, but it’s an element of localism that is worth celebrating. As a fan of music, I’d rather go see a rough performance that drives the crowd nuts than a technically immaculate but emotionally distancing demonstration.
The most fun I had at any reading last year, if self-servingly, was also at the In/Words Reading Series in January when I was a special guest of headliner Dave Currie. Collaborating closely with Dave on a semi-autobiographical mixed form performance was a uniquely rewarding experience in its own right and I’m proud of how well it went over, but it was the overall energy of the night, as with Derkson’s, that made it stick out even more for me. Even though the series is constantly turning over its hosting duties as editors graduate or just get fed up, it retains a distinctive atmosphere and an element of randomness that no other series in the city can match. The open mic that night had people you just know (or think, at that particular instant, that you know) are going to really make something of their work, and people you’ll never see again after the night, established poets staying up a little late to share their work with a younger audience and engineers writing surprisingly deft first-time poetry to their girlfriends. It doesn’t get the names the other series’ can draw (though Jon-Paul Fiorentino and Sandra Ridley are its next two features), but it remains the Ottawa series I’m least likely to miss in 2015.
Others: Dave Currie (Factory), Shane Rhodes (A/B), Paul Vermeersch (Arc/Tree), Jeff Blackman (Pirie “Salon” Reading), Andrew Faulkner (VERSeFest), Sue Goyette (VERSeFest), Jenna Jarvis (ottawater #10 launch), Rob Winger (Writers’ Fest), Vincent Colistro (VERSeFest), Souvankham Thammavongsa (VERSeFest)
Upset I Missed: An Accord of Poets, Christian Bök/Sharon Harris, bill bissett
JM’s JaM: listen to just one of the audio clips/YouTube vids embedded above