Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

“What is a Poem for? What is it to You?”: A Plan 99 Poetry Showcase

Plan 99 co-founder David O’Meara introduced the festival’s poetry showcase at The Manx Pub with a tongue-in-cheek warning about the potential raucous ahead: situated below and between several sports bars — and on a playoff game night, no less —   the readings  might very well be interrupted by the shouts and cheers of an audience other than their own. (And they were). Normally, one might  be tempted to extract a trite and lazy metaphor from the scene — something about poets  being consigned to the cultural margins by those who, like the speaker of Cassidy McFadzean’s “I’ll Be the Skipper, You Be the Sea,” only ever want to know “What is a poem for?” But the interruptions from above were curiously apropos for the likes of McFadzean, Aisha Sasha John, and Kevin Connolly: a disparate group of Canadian poets whose latest works are threaded together by a mutual appreciation for the uneventful, the fragmentary, and the anti-epiphanic.


Sharing excerpts from her award-winning debut Hacker Packer, a title which conjures images of drunken scrapbooking and haphazard collage, McFadzean led her audience through  a labyrinth of museums, myths, and surrealist landscapes, where the material and temporal boundaries between antiquities and their observers are magnificently distorted. For all the temples and tombstones, however, the speakers’ odysseys never seem to offer a final catharsis. “[W]e crawled inside [the Temple of Apollo], expecting to unearth / some prophesies,” the speaker of “The Charioteer” admits; instead, “We breathed in the ethelyne, / then left in a trance with dirt on our knees.” The poet, in this case, is no oracle or diviner, but a frustrated, iPhone-wielding scavenger of surface and symbol, who can “barely [make] it up Mount Parnassus / without stopping to pee next to some cows.” McFadzean’s poems were challenging to parse in the oral format, and even more difficult to speak: the poet herself had to pause for sips of beer after long, plosive-laden strings of Greek and Latinate syllables. But, like the tapestry described in  “Large Leaf Verdure with Animals and Birds,” the fact that the poems “[lack] a focal point upon which to rest the eyes” — or ears — make them no less gorgeous an achievement.


Poet/choreographer/visual artist/ all-around “multi-disciplinarian” Aisha Sasha John followed McFadzean with fragments from I have to live., a collection teeming with non-sequitur, misremembered conversation, and human excretion. After anointing the floor in an offering to her ancestors, John launched into observations of the myriad ways in which  human bodies stumble over themselves in their confused pursuits of existential cohesion. “Chicken/egg,” thinks the speaker of “Hi.,” before realizing that she “need[s] to take a dump.” Questions such as “Who are people? Who are anybody?” become hopelessly entangled  with concerns about breakfast choices and the minutia of English grammar, leading only to the muted confession: “I’m scared.” Elsewhere, markers of  identity and inheritance give way to a panicked and playful interrogation of the “line[s]”  — be they narrative or spatial, geopolitical or social — that trip up diasporic subjectivities at the same time as  they offer an “index,” an “idea of direction.” John’s ambivalent relationship with linearity was evident even at the level of poetic sequence. For the first time in recent memory, she decided to write the poems down for herself in the order in which she would read them. The result? “It feels. . .funky.” But no matter.  Therein lies the joy of I have to live.: Doing it again and doing it differently. And if we make mistakes. . . well, as John queried in her first piece of the evening, “Who gives a f*ck?”

For Kevin Connolly, the final reader of the showcase (and perhaps the best known), determining what does and doesn’t matter over the course of a life seems precisely as arbitary and  painstaking as determining what to include in a poetry collection, and what to leave out. Setting aside some lazy periods in Connolly’s career, when he considered publishing a book composed “entirely of titles,” Xiphoid Process is the culmination of nine years of writing, scrapping, and reconceiving an extensive archive of the poet’s material. Indeed, the way Connolly reads from his collection makes it sound as if it were unearthed from a dusty, disorganized box in the bowels of a local library. In one piece, a late-career Judd Nelson begs into the void of a film exec’s voicemail to be given his call-time. In another, Connolly dictates from the Point Reyes police blotter, where citizens’ news items range from the banal, to the heartbreaking, to the absurd. The most telling detail from Connolly’s reading, though, and perhaps the key to this year’s Plan 99 showcase,  did not come from his book at all; rather, it was the moment when he recalled the meandering and nonsensical way in which his personal library first took shape. Living in the small town of Maple, Ontario, the majority of his book buying took place not in a Chapters or a well-curated independent bookstore, but among the detritus of church rummage sales:


 “I would read The Count of Monte Cristo and then a book about UFOs,” he laughed. “All this stuff is in your head, and it is all equally a part of who you are as a person.”