Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Poetry Cabaret with Don McKay, Marie Annharte Baker and Marilyn Dumont

­­As National Poetry Month draws to a close, it seems only fitting that I be attending the Ottawa Writers Festival’s Poetry Cabaret. Now, I must confess; I am not usually a reader of poetry. My literary genre of choice is fiction; in particular, short stories. As he introduces this evening’s event, Neil Wilson comments that he has heard many short story writers aspire to the poetic in their work, and he believes that poetry is the very essence of literature.


Ottawa-based poet Stephen Brockwell is tasked with facilitating the discussion between three very different, but nonetheless all wonderfully talented, poets. He wants to try a different tack this evening; he wants the discussion to be organic, loose, and natural. Rather than reading at the lectern, the poets will sit in a circle and read poems at Brockwell’s suggestion, or of their own choosing.

To introduce Marilyn Dumont, Brockwell uses words such as polyphony and hybridisation to describe the way in which she brings languages together in her work. This is apparent when she reads her poem “these are wintering words”; which describes a person of mixed race, someone of “double genetic origin”. In the poem, Dumont states that though they are of two races, they are not half and not lacking.


Marie Annharte Baker – styled by Brockwell 'the punk rock poet' – provides a comedic tone to the evening’s readings. To amused laughter she revolts against Brockwell’s suggestion of what to read and chooses her own poem – “Squaw Pussy”. This visceral and crude language depicts the speaker’s refusal to be labeled by any homogenous identity. Another of Baker’s poems, “Toulouse” uses erotic and evocative language and conjures up French imagery, like the Moulin Rouge. The last line, “my concealed weapon will be my fat”, has the audience laughing out loud raucously and applauding.


Acclaimed poet Don McKay further explores the subversion of language within poetry as he recounts growing up in a bilingual school and learning French/English obscenities in the playground. The duality of language is present in all of their work and, as McKay notes, is representative of Canada itself. My favourite poem that McKay reads is entitled “Snowball Earth”, in which he describes the past and future of the earth as a molten centre covered in ice and snow. The poem is both comical – he describes the frozen earth as “a cosmic disco ball” – and melancholy, with the “winter pre-echoing the infinite”. As I listen to McKay read, I feel that he physically embodies his poetry; the words resonating stronger through his voice than they would to be read from a page.  To listen to a poet read their own work is a magical experience, the inflections in their voice heighten the musicality of the words. Dumont, who is a creative writing teacher, comments that she encourages her students to read their poetry aloud. It truly emphasises the message of the poem and brings the words to life.


The concept of comedy within poetry is addressed by a member of the audience, who asks if the poets consciously put jokes in their work. Dumont believes that comedy and silliness is all part of being human; that we are imperfect beings who need to be able to laugh at ourselves. Baker believes that the comedy within her work is rooted in her indigenous culture; that her language incorporates the whole spectrum of human emotion so that she can’t help but write that way. After listening to a few of her readings, which are both crude and hilarious in equal measure, I have likened her to a modern-day Geoffrey Chaucer.


As the evening draws to a close, I have discovered a new-found love and respect for poetry; it encompasses the full height and breadth of human experience, it is pure emotion in word form. Neil Wilson’s words come back to me – poetry is the lifeblood of literature – and I am likened to agree.