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The Poetics of Heartmaking where Obsolescence Is Only the Beginning

By the time the evening ended, it was as if I were transported to my favourite museum in the world: Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Who else but McLuhan could inspire an evening of electronic mysticism and an elegant musical composition? I became more familiar with who McLuhan was, like many others I suspect, through his famous cameo in Annie Hall. Even more recently, Douglas Coupland’s biography of the man (how very apt!) as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series by Penguin was the only one (to my knowledge) which has been re-published in the U.S. under the title of the stinging rebuke delivered in Woody Allen’s movie, ‘You Know Nothing Of My Work!

 

2011 denotes the centenary of McLuhan’s birth and as such there have been events around the world to commemorate his unique legacy. We were very fortunate to have B.W. Powe, one of the fabled six students to whom McLuhan taught his last class, to expand and expound the vast implications and ramifications of McLuhan’s often obscure writings. It was great to have the Writer’s Fest play host to the centenary here in Ottawa as it’s frequently unfortunate that Canadians often are the last to acknowledge and celebrate greatness from their own. As Powe would later admit, it took the University of Toronto until this year to give a proper recognition for McLuhan as part of the legendary ‘Toronto School’ of thinkers, which included Northrop Frye, Harold Innis and Glenn Gould; people who remain indispensable to understanding contemporary media culture. It was only the emergence of the Internet and digital technology which revivified him to prominence and vindicated his early supporters.

 

There were many contemporaries of McLuhan who viewed him with suspicion and in some cases, outright hostility. His work is often littered with prose so delicate and dense that it mirrors the great Jewish sage Maimonides for being esoteric and demanding to parse. Indeed one can think of those like Powe, as faithful commentators akin to the Talmudic tradition. Even Douglas Coupland “found the material so difficult that every two to three pages, he had to take a break from reading.” One way the general and interested reader may dare to scale the walls may be through his many interviews, which consist many of his elaborate ideas succinctly captured.

 

Powe, who said the he found the Writer’s Fest in Ottawa to be a spark for many of his subsequent writing, seemed clearly poised to preach to a receptive audience. I honestly expected an brief summary of McLuhan’s life and influence, some music then mingling before heading home unscathed as I saw the program with Karsh's (who seems incapable of taking a bad picture) portrait of McLuhan stare back at me. What followed was a soaring incursion into the mystical elements of today’s technological advances when one follows McLuhan’s trails. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated that we “are spiritual beings having a human experience” rather than vice versa. De Chardin’s work would act in juxtaposition to McLuhan’s own work in many ways since de Chardin was also regarded as controversial with many of his work being denied publication by the Roman Catholic Church at that time (the church has since been very receptive to his work with Pope Benedict XVI praising some his ideas).

 

When McLuhan was asked to describe the 21st Century in only one word, his response was “apocalypse”. While that may conjure up images of annihilation and Armageddon, McLuhan’s derivation finds its etymology in D.H. Lawrence’s aphorism that it is a “new kind of consciousness”. In the mechanical age, technology was seen very much as an extension of the body (notice how the 70s and 80s featured impressive machines and robots à la Star Trek, The Jetsons and Robocop albeit without any inkling of digital prowess) but the advent of the digital and electronic age has ushered in the notion and reality that technology could be an extension of our mind and even our soul. The impact of digital technology has essentially rewired our brains and has brought us closer to each other (in theory at least) so that being part of a “global village” or “global theatre” (a later perhaps more accurate McLuhan terminology according to Powe) means that there is an immediate response to events happening around the world. Much of it is the cause of optimism and the foreboding of a new age of interdependence and openness. Witness the crumbling of dictatorships in the Arab world or that fact that China is ever uneasy with its increasingly bold citizenry or the instantaneous generosity of donations to disasters around the world.

 

McLuhan was in many aspects a very traditional man; a staunch Catholic who didn’t necessarily have a fondness for what he saw changing around him. As Coupland would propose in his biography, religion seems to be a great “spot to park his (McLuhan’s) overpowering need for a viewpoint that could explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world.” Yet, McLuhan had an uncanny and admirably quality of not casting judgement on his own pronouncements (the anti-Chomsky if you will) – in one instance, Powe demanded to know whether one of McLuhan’s observation was a good or a bad thing; McLuhan refused to comment on grounds that it was much bigger than could be fully grasped.

 

De Chardin really was after what he termed “the global heart of consciousness”. Powe posited that we may be in that era of opening where the gates (much as a Kabbalah tradition holds) of the garden would once again be open. But it may be hard to see or fathom that due to “our cracked natures” (hello Leonard Cohen!) Powe termed this new age “Neuroromanticism”. While, admittedly, Powe’s views extend deeper than can be captured in an article of this length, part of me remained sceptical regarding aspects of de Chardin and Powe’s bewitching ideas. I couldn’t help, mysticism aside, and recall the many negative downsides that technology in this new age has wrought: with the decline of learning and inter-personal relationships being a couple of key arenas.

 

But I do appreciate the positive outlook of McLuhan who in the spirit of the Christian hope, believed that things would work out well and that one could in imitation of G.K. Chesterton’s exhortation be a “practical mystic” whose “religion is less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Powe graciously ended his lecture by stating that “all of this makes sense, even if I don’t.”

 

The talk was followed by a special fifteen minute concerto composition based on some of McLuhan’s quotes by the über-talented Ottawan Mike Dubue (on Vibraphone and Synth) and Paul Hogan (electric guitar) of Hilotrons fame, featuring the entrancing Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde from Montréal on cello.

 

No, I did not go home unscathed. Just as well.

 

Love of My Life

With David Gilmour, Kevin Chong, and Anne Enright, Hosted by Steven Hayward

 

One hesitates to write a review of an event where three writers spoke at length on their past experience of bad reviews.  Their opinions ranged from dismissive pity (“I wish that this aspiring writer could publish a book so that someone can misread him the way that he misread me”) and acknowledgement of subjectivity (“it’s up to the reader to choose which kind of book it is; reviewers brought their own personal morality, or lack of it”) to a rather more violent response (“have I ever smacked a reviewer?  Yes, and every time I look back on it, I feel good”).  David Gilmour, describing why he doesn’t read his reviews any longer, noted that as a lot of reviewers are failed writers, they unfortunately can make “a perfectly executed stabbing.” 

 

So…let’s get started.

 

Things did not begin well for monogamy, whatever the event’s title.  Anne Enright, who won the Booker Prize for The Gathering and has most recently published The Forgotten Waltz , opened the interview by stating that successful monogamous love is extremely difficult to write about.  “Writers,” she said, “are always drawn to the catastrophic and wonderful.”  Kevin Chong, who has recently published Beauty Plus Pity , added that such a relationship is hard enough to experience, let alone write about.  David Gilmour, whose recent The Perfect Order of Things recounts the suffering in his romantic forays, opined that in his early days he was mostly interested in sexual desire, “the most interesting and dangerous thing about love.”  

 

As the discussion ranged into love of family, there were some genuinely moving stories.  Chong referred to the “presentiment of loss” on considering his parents’ death, and how it came to challenge his identity at its roots.  Gilmour humorously narrated his conflicting affections on learning that his son thought that the Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night was awful, John Lennon being the worst of the lot.  Correct that: he sided entirely with his love for the band. 

 

At one point Hayward asked if the three writers had any love advice to give.  Gilmour feigned the guru, claiming it had taken him forty-five years to learn that while it’s not hard to get a great love, it’s very difficult not to wreck it.  Chong passed, soliciting the audience for their wisdom instead.  Enright, very loosely alluding to the biblical postures of faith and works, said that as a novelist she was more interested in faith—what people believed, where they go in their heads.  When it comes to her life, however, what mattered were the works of love. 

 

When asked if anyone sensed there to be an order or fated element in love, there was a movement towards what had been claimed as uninteresting at the opening of the session: the one right match.  Enright acknowledged a sense of momentousness in what we love, even through the seeming arbitrariness.  Gilmour, who acknowledged having a number of ex-wives, claimed that there is indeed such a thing as the right person.  In fact, he recently went so far as to tell his current wife of twelve years that if she were to leave him she should shoot him on her way out.  Tender words.  While there was no reference to fate, this seems a hard pattern to break.

 

What, though, of love looking back from the end of life?  Before the interview Gilmour had given a reading from the final chapter of The Perfect Order of Things.  In it, he narrated his realization that the memoir was really a process of preparation for his death.  “The goal of all philosophy,” he read, quoting Montaigne, “is to learn how to die properly.”  Then, with pronounced certainty—odd given his affirmation of being less sure of oneself through the wisdom of suffering—Gilmour read his declaration that there was no afterlife in the religious sense, “no God, no other plane of existence, just a slight delay in the drop into oblivion.  Thank you.”  With that bracing and conspicuously loveless conclusion, he was applauded.

 

Reflecting on that first reading in light of an exuberant session on the compelling force of love in human affairs, a seemingly settled acceptance of oblivion is hard to accept.  Does the experience of love not signify something greater, more lasting?  Thinking of love at its richest, I’ll conclude this review with a reflection from Gilmour’s book that wasn’t read:

 

How verblessly beautiful the world can be sometimes, I thought.  Almost enough to make you believe in God.

Stories about Storytellers

Having worked closely with many of the most significant and influential writers of the past half-century, Douglas Gibson is a literary treasure and a wealth of knowledge about Canadian literary and political figures. In his new book, Stories about Storytellers, Gibson recounts a hilarious and touching set of anecdotes about authors and literary figures whose work he has edited and published. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Can-lit: Harold Horwood, Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Jack Hodgins, Pierre Trudeau, Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, and many more. In fact, it seems there is hardly a Canadian literary icon in the past decade with whom he hasn’t had some form of professional connection.

 

Gibson is utterly at ease in front of a crowd and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious. He began the talk with a silly story about picking his grandson up from school. On the designated day each week when school gets out, Gibson raises his arms in a “V” of excitement to see his grandson. He welcomed the audience with the same gesture. It’s hard not to like him.

 

Armed with a PowerPoint slideshow of caricatures of these authors, as drawn by Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail, (“The funny thing about Anthony Jenkins is that once he’s drawn you, you look more and more like the illustration every year”), Gibson told a series of short vignettes. For me, this was a fascinating look into the nuts and bolts of writing and editing, and the specific writing processes used by these famous authors. Alistair MacLeod for example, has a very deliberate style of composition – slow and diligent – which, as Gibson recounted, can be quite vexing for a publisher anxious to meet a press deadline.  Sometimes he told a story about how he had met an author, other times he spoke about a particular writing style, and other times he spoke about how they developed their rapport as writer and editor. A great many of these stories ended in hilarity, while others still were poignant or sad. In the case of Alice Munro, for example, Gibson claims his greatest literary feat: keeping her writing short stories. As he tells it, Munro’s debut book of short stories was brilliant and, before long, everyone was clamouring for her to follow it up with a novel. But, try as she might, she couldn’t do it. Gibson, recognizing the fact that writing novels wasn’t her thing, encouraged her to go back to short stories and forget about novels completely. He promised to keep publishing her short stories and never mention it again, and she has continued to churn out terrific collections and become one of Canada’s most acclaimed living writers, indeed a modern-day Chekhov.

 

Gibson also dove into some descriptions of his own editing process. Upon receiving a manuscript, he reads it through in its entirety without making a single mark. Upon completing it, he takes some time to think about it – the plot, the characters, the pacing, etc. Only then, once he feels that he has digested its minutiae, does he go back to the beginning with a pencil and begin making changes. It’s a technique that has served him well.

 

Much like the myriad authors he has edited, Gibson himself is a wonderful storyteller. It is clear from his own comfort recounting stories that he has made contributions to the work of many of these seminal figures. Gibson’s final story was one of goodbyes. W.O. Mitchell, another renowned Canadian author and inveterate joker, passed away in 1998. When Gibson went to visit him for a final time, they shared their time together and, as Gibson was readying himself to leave, Mitchell casually mentioned that his memory wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he found himself making mistakes. Finally, as they were saying goodbye, Mitchell sprung his punch line, the wrong name: “Goodbye, Bill” Gibson said. “Goodbye, Jimmy,” Mitchell replied. It was a fittingly memorable end to their long relationship. Gibson finished the story with a crack in his voice. His connection to these great and celebrated authors was touching, and his experience and contributions to the canon are invaluable. All in all the evening provided a brilliant portrait of Canadian literature, and Gibson made a compelling case for the wonderful power of storytelling.

In the Shadow of the Soviet Union

Hosted and curated by Mark Medley, book editor at the National Post, Saturday evening’s In the Shadow of the Soviet Union welcomed authors Andrew J. Borkowski and David Bezmozgis to the Knox Church.

 

After a short introduction to the evening by Medley, Borkowski led things off by reading a passage from his new book, Copernicus Avenue. Roughly based on his own family history, the collection of short stories chronicles the life events and assimilation into Canadian culture of an immigrant family from Poland. The particular story Borkowski chose to read, entitled “12 Versions of Lech,” is the story of an artist – Lech - told from the perspective of a young boy. Borkowski assumed a thick Polish accent at appropriate moments, his booming voice effectively channelling the voices of his characters. The author has a knack for anecdote, and his writing shines with tales of folly and the transplanted Polish culture of Toronto’s fictional, yet grounded in reality, Copernicus Avenue. One such tale describes Lech’s penchant for trickery, on display during an interaction with a couple visiting from America. Posturing as a Laplander, Lech claims to pay his income tax in bones, a story which is eagerly accepted by his woefully inept audience, the American couple.

 

Bezmozgis followed with a passage from his latest novel, The Free World. The book follows a family of Jewish Latvians who have escaped from the bleakness and despair of their homeland and spend a year in Italy en route to resettling in North America. As Bezmozgis would describe later on in the evening during the discussion period, this European transition zone was a unique cultural phenomenon – families were warmly, albeit temporarily, welcomed into the community as a sort of waystation on their longer journey. The novel is told from three different voices and spans many years; the passage Bezmozgis read is the narrative of a young man, who, upon having gained a reasonable command of the new language, is interviewing as a candidate for an entry-level position in an office. The story largely stays within the character’s own head, and Bezmozgis has brilliantly and deftly kept a running commentary of the situation’s intricacies – the barriers created by language, cultural differences, the sexual interplay between young people – with wry wit and a practiced hand. At one point, the awkward encounter is described thusly, “The sexual proposal was slapped down on the table like a fish.” Titillating indeed.

 

The wry humour of both authors was brought up once more during the discussion that followed, when Medley and the two authors convened on stage to further discuss the motivations and methods behind their writing. On humour, Bezmogis said, (roughly paraphrased) “When you’re in a bad situation and there’s no way out of it, there’s nothing you can do, you have to laugh.” There is a history of a very dry variety of humour from that part of the world that seems to endure today, perhaps borne of those hardships endured while under the shadow of the Soviet Union.

 

On stage, the authors shared a comfortable rapport, asking one another questions throughout in response to Medley’s prompts and finding much common ground in regard to their families’ respective pasts and relocation to Canada post WWII. Both Borkowski and Bezmozgis described in detail the histories that set the foundations for their work, with the various waves of immigration into Canada and the events that allowed for and compelled such large groups of people to travel so far around the world. Their writing is well informed by their own personal travels – Borkowski visited Poland with his family as a young man; Bezmozgis has traveled to both Latvia and Italy - as well as the influence of their respective cultures and families.

 

In traveling back through these historical events, particularly the hardships endured under Soviet rule, the authors became somewhat more introspective. The commodities available in Latvia for example, as described by Bezmogis, were essentially nil (vodka being a lone exception), which prompted whole families to uproot and travel halfway around the world for the sake of finding new opportunities. The extent of the difficulties foisted upon these people was made clear by both authors’ honest marvel for and appreciation of the freedoms those of us living in Canada and the United States have to express ourselves today. Although both Bezmozgis and Borkowski grew up in the West, they still, to a certain extent, live in the shadow of their ancestors’ experience, and reveled in the moment, genuinely appreciating the opportunity to sit, talk, learn and listen. As did we, the audience.

Lunch Laughs with Miriam Toews and Christian McPherson

It was great to be able to sneak away to a noon hour event, especially one featuring Miriam Toews (whom I had never previously considered a comic or “funny” writer) and Christian McPherson on a chilly yet brisk Monday afternoon. Titled ‘Is It Hard To Be Funny?’ the question rings rhetorically but as the ensuing discussion illumined, it’s rather more fecund for discourse (or banter at least) than at first glance.

 

Humour has often been a strange animal, which like live ones seem to die upon dissection with the supplementary insult to injury being that its anatomy still remains inscrutable. This was highlighted by the snail joke our gregarious host, Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Simpson, delivered in his opening remarks which elicited a mixed reaction. Doing stand-up comedy must be one of the difficult gigs in the world, if memoirs of comedians are to be believed. Writing comedy on the other hand, isn’t any easier (nor does it get easier as time goes along as Toews would later attest).

 

Toews read a passage from her latest offering, her novel Irma Voth which tells the story of a 19 year old Mennonite woman’s experience in meeting characters quite apart from her world. Her deadpan observations really give a form to the absurd incarnations of life which can latch on to our own sense of relating to them by extending our own experiences, transporting our empathy to the protagonist. Voth as a character instantly seems perspicacious and likeable.

 

McPherson read from his first novel The Cube People which chronicles, with very sly autobiographical allusions, the life of a public servant Colin MacDonald. MacDonald’s trip to the fertility clinic was sympathetic and hilarious. McPherson really owned his narration despite what seemed like early jitters and led the audience through what sounded like an entertaining SNL short skit.

 

Peter Simpson, in his interview, pointed out that the much beloved comic writer Eric Nicol called writing comedy a “low calling”. The one “doesn’t make a habit of it and doesn’t accept payment for performing it”. While this sounds like an obvious self-parodying jibe, Toews took exception to it in the sense that the notion of thinking of comedy as somehow less “smart or intellectual is completely false.” It was interesting to hear that both writers didn’t consciously try to be funny but rather deliver their observations in their own voice as honestly as possible. I had the impression that a novelist might have the luxury of not consciously trying, but someone writing for say The Colbert Report or This Hour Has 22 Minutes have a different reality as they need to produce funny material on a deadline. This then begged the question as to whether humour is innate or something you strive very hard to produce. This query also leads the subjective notion of humour itself, where Simpson noted that a very affable, educated friend of his didn’t much care for Monty Python whereas Simpson regarded it as the height of comedy.

 

As a social endowment, there is always a sense of envy with the funny types, because it seems that charisma and thus popularity seems to come to those who can induce the giggles. Scientific studies on the role of laughter in helping with social bonding and the increasing popularity of laughter yoga seem to indicate that comedy in our lives in not at all superfluous but necessary. The emergence and breakout of Novak Djokovic (nicknamed the ‘Djoker’) this year in men’s tennis lends evidence that even court clowns can indeed climb to the top of the proverbial mountain rather than being relegated to being side-shows. 

 

There is also a darker side to humour that goes beyond merely coping with the despair of life, the one that lies at the edge of madness and crosses it. One of the more sobering quotes was given by Rorschach of Watchmen fame about the depression of the fictional clown Pagliacci. Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker is also a very complex character whose crust of mirth hides a deep abiding cruelty. Due to time constraints, a discussion on the subversive nature of humour was missed and I’m sure that both Toews and McPherson would have had plenty to say on it.

 

It’s astounding to note the prolific presence of Canadian comedians working on-screen but also the presence, albeit sparser, in literature. From Stephen Leacock to Mordecai Richler to Will Ferguson and our two authors for the afternoon, there is much proof that shtick and subtle levity has a place alongside the solemn in and from Canada – and that is a very good thing.

Ukrainia was fantastic!

How can you not attend an event when the performing band claims their sound as the edge of mania, vodka fuelled and drenched in old country passions? Seriously, that’s tempting. And so we (my husband and two girlfriends) found ourselves in the ARC lounge last Saturday night amongst writers and fans, catching a performance that blasted with story, excitement and fun. Ukrainina, how have we never met before? Oh, that’s right. I was out of the country these past five years. And thank goodness for that excuse, because otherwise I should feel ashamed in not knowing (and  loving) this unique Ottawa-based band.

 

Taking to the ‘stage’ in their eclectic outfits with each member adopting their own spin on looking good (suit vests, bell bottoms, cowboy shirts, platform heels; like a mixed salad, it all worked together), lead singer Damian Sawka spilled his words of thanks in Ukrainian, while funny guy and drummer Tom Werbowetski translated and told stories. Guitarist Paul Granger and Bassist Dave Martindale added into the mix with their constant laughter and ‘Hey! Hey! Heys!’ as the show took off.  

 

But I’m no music critic. Some people can competently dig into the style of playing, showmanship, synchronicity, technical skills, sound, etc. Here is what my two ears and tapping foot qualifies me to say: they were awesome.  

The whole time I was aching to dance, and promised myself I’d see these guys again in a venue that was more suited to vodka-fuelled-mania and up and down, spin around channelling of the music.

 

So that, from a musical perspective, is what I can say. They were “good times”.

 

Then the next day as I listened to their CD and remembered the ballots, the power chords, the clapping, the contagious excitement – I began to reflect upon this idea of Musical Language. Ukrainina’s music is set entirely in Ukraine. The lead singer (who was born in Canada) only speaks Ukrainian during the performance. There is, effectively and ostensibly a language barrier between their music and their English/French speaking audience. And yet, there isn’t.

 

A novel or poem presented in another language (an unknown language) simply remains unfamiliar letter combinations, or markings on a page. The essence, those feeling of history and life and place – they all fail to ‘be’ with a reader’s lack of understanding. In literature, the written form of storytelling, language is limiting.

 

But turn the story into music. Suddenly it no longer matters whether or not we grasp the details, everything boils down to the experience – we’re infused with hope, aching, celebration, joy . . . Of course this idea extends beyond music into art and performance, but focusing on last Saturday night, despite not catching the lyrics, we were deep in the high and lows of the experience. Music frees the ‘being’ of a narrative and gives it life away from language.

 

And that’s cool.

 

It was a great show, and a lovely topper to a festival gone well. I certainly will be keeping an eye out for the next performance of Ukrainia. After all, my husband is Hungarian and we’ve got some ‘old country’ dance moves I’m eager to try. Keep an eye on their performance list – this pulsing Ukrainian phenomenon is worth a night out on the town.

Hell is Other People

Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, Hosted by Michael Blouin

Sunday, October 23, 2011

 

The crowd was near capacity in the church’s main hall—an ominous sign given the title of the evening’s event.  Helen Oyeyemi didn’t help matters by beginning her reading with a grisly Old English fairy tale involving a stack of bloodied bodies, leaving audience members exchanging nervous glances.  As the reader-writers went on, however, their accounts of communication braved in spite of obstacles—from the fallout from severed relations to the barrier of language—took us away from tortured images of isolation. 

 

Oyeyemi moved from the fairy tale, a source narrative for her recent novel Mr. Fox , to a feisty epistolary exchange between writers that had showed their tender awkwardness.  Miriam Toews vigorously read a portion of Irma Voth where a passage is negotiated from an airport layover to the beach, revealing the vulnerability and resilience of her characters with touches of wicked humour.  Johanna Skibsrud then read an entire short story from her recent collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain where two characters persist in confronting “a mutual understanding of the perfect falsity of language.”

 

Michael Blouin was the host, and he kept his questions both thoughtful and crisp.  While interviewers who also happen to be writers can be obtrusive in speaking of their own work, Blouin showed humility and skill in how he kept the feature on the evening’s guests.  A few questions were somewhat predictable, although they had the virtue of allowing the writers maximal freedom in their response.  In other instances he nicely sidestepped the usual suspect to take an unexpected angle on a familiar question.  Rather than ask why they each became a writer, for instance, he asked instead why they continued writing.  The question surprised Oyeyemi such that she told him he’d have to come back to her as she really didn’t know.

 

Blouin was not the only one asking questions tonight, though.  After Toews responded to the first question on planning conflict between her characters, Oyeyemi quickly followed up by asking her, “do you like writing fights?”  Her vivacious curiosity extended to the interviewer himself at one point when she asked him if he missed his characters when he was done with them.  Blouin’s grace as an interviewer and Oyeyemi’s unpretentious eagerness to learn her fellow writers went a long way in leaving behind Sartre’s dark observation on the company of others. 

 

Later, Blouin observed the obvious commonality of the three writers’ recent works: they had each written about the process of telling stories.  Skibsrud referenced her collection’s title, stating that they shared an interest in what it took to overcome the limits of communication.  Her act of writing was itself a way “to confront that limit and overcome it through text.”  Proving her desire, she took a step back and confessed to sounding too “academic” just then.  Although having used an extended Roland Barthes quote in her reading’s epigraph and having been introduced as currently pursuing a PhD along with her next creative project, she clearly sought to speak with broad intelligibility herself. 

 

Oyeyemi next filled in the vivid background to her recent novel, speaking about the accumulation of news stories of women who had been murdered.  She recounted that she’d turned to fairy tales, reading them concurrently to try to find a way of responding to this harrowing reality.  It was the political interest of the Old English fairy tell she read at the outset, with its chilling depiction of Mr. Fox, that drew her to explore how language can be used to overwhelm and control another’s experience.  Hell indeed.

 

The authors were winsome and generously open about their writing processes—from preferred tools to eBook contracts.  When asked if writing required a touch of craziness, they nicely built on their colleagues’ answers.  Skibsrud began by talking about how “not being able to shut up” showed a certain delusion of the effectiveness of the craft in bringing about change.  Toews responded that a writer couldn’t really be crazy with the tremendous discipline involved, to which Oyeyemi suggested that the discipline itself could be a kind of mania.  Yes and no, in other words.

 

While the exchange was generally warm and open, Blouin himself met the limits of communication when he started angling for a preview of upcoming work.  Oyeyemi only revealed that hers was “a novel about disappointment.”  Toews: “about three women.” 

 

It took until the penultimate question from the crowd that a woman finally asked about Sartre’s statement on the infernal character of relationships.  At this point I, and I suspect the better part of the room, had forgotten the event’s stark title in relation to this friendly exchange.  Toews linked it to a question of Dorothy Parker’s—“what fresh hell is this?”—that she recalls being particularly useful in having kids around.  Skibsrud admitted the difficulty in people coming together, but affirmed the potential for “intense and meaningful understanding.”  Oyeyemi spoke about her novel as essentially a love story for the socially awkward, a call to arms that the attempt is worth it.  With that, these three skilled authors affirmed our deep-seated and persistent relational nature, consequent pains be damned. 

 

In A World Gone Mad: Writing the Canadian film

This past Friday afternoon at the Knox Presbyterian Church, a hungry lunchtime audience gathered, paper bags and sandwiches in hand, as Tony Burgess , Kenneth J. Harvey and host Martin Levin took to the stage. What happened next left me fascinated as these two writers presented different pictures of the screen writing experience, and yet concluded on a shared idea that calls out for more Canadian content in our national theatres.

 

Tony Burgess is the author of several works including The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Caesarea, while Kenneth J. Harvey lists his bestsellers as Blackstrap’s Hawco, Inside, and The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, and has been promoting his latest work Reinventing the Rose. They are both men of significant novel-writing success, yet have had strikingly different experiences while writing for the screen.

 

Tony Burgess, chewing gum and cracking jokes, launched into a brief 101 course on battling your way through a filming process. When approached to write the script for Pontypool , Burgess grabbed the opportunity despite his lack of knowledge in the film business. Suddenly he found himself transported to the world of commercial films, a place full of clashing egos and unwanted opinions. It was, in Burgess’ own words, “siege warfare.” He realized quite quickly that if he were to maintain any control over his own script (and remember, it’s a script deriving from his own novel too), it was necessary to fight.

 

“Never say I don’t know,” urges Burgess. Instead say, “No” to other people’s ideas as a first defence against the power plays. As he continues to reflect, it feels as though we, the audience, are being given fighting tactics. Forget your quiet writing habits, if you want to write for the movies, you need to become a warrior. Bull-headedness appears essential when dealing with movie-making egos. It’s enough to ruin any writer’s appetite. (As I sit in the audience and peel into my tangerines, squirting juice across the chairs.)

 

Contrast this discussion with Kenneth J. Harvey, who arrives on stage and kicks off his portion of the event with a few Zen jokes: “If you lend someone $20 dollars and you never hear from them again, then it was probably worth the money.” Clearly, he’s setting a different tone for the audience.

 

Recently, Kenneth Harvey wrote a screenplay so his daughter would have the opportunity to act. I’m 14 and I hate the world is an international success. Unlike Burgess, Harvey pursued the independent film route with his screen-writing, applying for the First Time Film Makers grant and winning $45,000 toward the project. While he needed to arrange everything in terms of logistics and money, he maintained “absolute control of this film.” With his family and crew on set, everyone keen to give support, his impression of film-making collaboration is truly positive. For Harvey, stepping beyond the novel into screen writing was refreshing.

 

While these two men presented different pictures of what it’s like to write for the screen, they both agreed upon one vital point: The Canadian film industry if floundering. With all content pouring over from the USA, Canadian ‘blockbuster’ films (think Men with Brooms) are missing the mark. We shouldn’t be focusing on presenting our culture, but instead, we should focus on presenting an entertaining, universal story. But even further than this, even when a zombie movie is made that can certainly appeal to a wide audience, the screens aren’t available (theatres won’t play it) and the money can’t be gathered. Without the ‘screens’, say both Burgess and Harvey, investors simply aren’t interested in giving funds.

 

At this point, the tone became dark within the room. My stomach was rumbling (two tangerines does not make a lunch) and the future of Canadian entertainment seemed doomed. But then light broke forth as Kenneth Harvey suggested a solution. “If 10% of screens had to be Canadian films, so many jobs would be created. The government could pull financing, the industry would boom.” Much like Canadian content regulations, the same concept could be applied to theatres. But first policies would need change, and how is that going to happen in our commercial, power-playing world of big money entertainment?

 

It was a woman from the audience who suggested (urged, actually) a way to make change happen. She stood in her black and white tweed jacket, red leather gloves, and raised her hand as she shared her thoughts: “Write letters to the editor. You’ll get heard. Believe me, the government pays attention to that sort of thing.” She used to be a media analyst for Justice Canada, and last Friday repeatedly insisted that writing letters to the editor (not bothering with the MPs) is how change can happen.

 

And suddenly the obligation was turned upon us, the audience, and on you too, the reader. So what comes next? Well, if you’re so inclined, write a letter to your editor. And if you’d rather stick with less regulations, then don’t bother writing anything.

 

Last Friday was fascinating and insightful. From two contrasting opinions derived a corresponding problem about Canadian films, and with the help of an audience member, a possible course of action was presented. Who knows, maybe it was the start of a Canadian film-making revolution? Or maybe it was just the end of a good conversation. Either way, it was certainly worth my skipping lunch.  

 

Air Farce with Don Ferguson

Imagine you had a friend for most of your life-some 50 years and for 40 of those years you worked closely with the same friend. Your careers were largely on radio, television and stage. You decide, the two of you, to write the story of your time together but before it can be completed your friend becomes gravely ill and dies. Such is story behind the story of the recently published Air Farce, 40 Years of Flying By the Seat of our Pants. The friends are Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott , who were members of Air Farce, the comedy troupe that was a success on radio and then television in Canada for almost four decades.

 

Barbara Budd introduced Ferguson. Barbara is no stranger to those of us who listened to As It Happens on CBC Radio One during the 17 years she worked there. Barbara read a testimonial by Rick Mercer about the Air Farce. Barbara had been a guest star with Air Farce over the years and was able to add ‘colour commentary’ as well as interview Ferguson at the end of the reading.

 

Before Ferguson read from the book he told us of the saying “there is no better place to have fun on a rainy day than in a bookstore” and by extension, in Ottawa on a rainy day, there’s likely no better place to have fun than a Presbyterian Church (the location of the reading).

 

Ferguson and Abbott signed the contract to write the book in November 2010 and delivered the first “batch” in March 2011 just before Roger Abbott went to the hospital. Roger Abbott died later that month. Ferguson spoke about Abbott with great fondness and respect. Ultimately Ferguson had to finish the book and he said he decided to do it sooner rather than later and in some way felt that the writing helped in his grieving.

 

Ferguson read excerpts from the book to an appreciative audience. He knit the segments together starting from the earliest days of the Jest Society, through Air Farce on radio, Air Farce on television and up to the eventual loss of original members and replacement with new members. There are contributions from friends and collaborators in the book as well as from Ferguson and Abbott. When reading a segment contributed by his friend Roger Abbott, Ferguson’s emotions were close to the surface. It was a testimony to their partnership and friendship and the fact the book’s success belongs to them both.

The initial members of Air Farce were Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy and Dave Broadfoot. We heard about the early years when times were lean and John Morgan became a partner in a pub back home in Wales. He made the investment as he thought the work at Air Farce would not provide a sustainable income. Abbott and Ferguson spent time at the pub. Abbott worked at the pub on occasion, waiting tables. And from that experience came the character, Pierre, waiter at the House of Commons.

 

Equally enjoyable were the stories of talented Luba Goy who was “lovely and late, always late”. She always had reasons-one was an account of how her cat ate her bird and all that was left was the head. The story goes on….you need to read the book to get the whole picture. On a personal note, Luba Goy was on the same train as me a number of years ago. She worked the car for most of the trip Ottawa to Toronto much to everyone’s delight. She may possess the best Donald Duck voice!

 

And finally Ferguson gave us the history of the TV segment known at The Chicken Cannon. It started as a casual conversation with the special effects people at CBC where they said they shot a rubber chicken across the shop every once in a while when they felt like letting off steam. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

The interview portion of the reading was interesting. Budd asked how the troupe, with its very different characters and backgrounds and age differences was able to work together so well. Ferguson talked about how there were differences and someone was “always in the doghouse” but they worked through things and moved on.

 

Ferguson talked about the successes, the challenges, the good and not so good of working in the Air Farce collaboration for those many decades. That is what you will find in the book-along with a lot of great pictures. His presentation at the book reading was sincere; the interview with Budd was friendly and engaging. Ferguson was hoping to take questions from the audience but time ran out as another Writers Festival Event was setting up.

 

If you want an opportunity to get up close to people who have written or performed on the Canadian scene, the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the place to do it. A great venue and in this case to hear about the inner workings of the Air Farce that Ferguson said was once described as “brilliant political satire followed by a fart joke”.   

 

The Business of Invention

Poetry Cabaret with Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, Hosted by Stephen Brockwell

Saturday, October 22 nd , 4 pm

 

Even at this stage in the careers of accomplished Canadian poets Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, invention is no bare fiat. Their observations, both of our world’s brutalities and its finer gestures, must first be painstakingly gathered. Once their poems have been written, published, and set on the podium for a public reading; the process of observation continues. This was shown in Dionne Brand’s opening reading, where her introduction was tentative: “What can I tell you about this book? I really don’t know; I’m learning about this book.” After a long pause, she read the title of the poem she would be reading next—to herself as much as to us.

 

While she claimed to be about “the business of invention,” Brand made clear that this task set her in opposition to the general producer-consumer culture and its effects on language. “Ordinary speech is so collapsed,” she remarked, and a poem must take the opportunity to open language out, “undoing” it from imposed constraints. This was amply shown in her homage to four favourite jazz musicians and her regular unsettling of clichés, such as when she spoke of having “lived and loved” as a “common oxymoron.” Such liberating work required long and careful attention to both experience and the words we use. Describing herself as a “note-taker,” she spoke of her rapt attention to the world’s moment, even naming her own culpability in it.

 

Brand’s goal of “undoing” language was well matched in Lane’s own reading, beginning as it had with his well-known line that “a bird is a poem / that talks of the end of cages.” He introduced a later piece with a playful excursus on the unacknowledged pleasures of language. After several feigned attempts to mouth the next title, he imagined the first invention of the word “moth,” a term which in its primal nomination proved so obviously and joyfully apt.

 

Host and interviewer Stephen Brockwell contributed his characteristic enthusiasm for the craft as well as for these practitioners. There was certainly a good deal to engage here—selections from Lane’s prodigious output had been gathered in the recent publication of Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010, and Toronto Poet Laureate Brand’s Ossuaries was recently awarded the Griffin Prize. Brockwell’s introductions made clear his appreciation for their work, and his questions always showed thoughtful familiarity, both as a fan and a fellow writer.

 

While Brockwell’s observations about the poets’ work were well informed, I thought that occasionally his opinions about the trajectory of their work led his questions too much. His instigating characterizations of the “smoothing” of Lane’s later voice or Brand’s growing “coolness” would, I feel, be better left to the poet’s own descriptions or displayed in the works themselves. While the tone of both poets may have changed, it became clear that their earlier “rage” was still readily externalized. As one example among many, Lane ended the session with reference to “one last anger”—in this case, the lack of mention of the toll on non-human life in Japan’s tsunami. That being said, I very much appreciated Brockwell’s agility as an interviewer, such as when a comment of Lane’s evoked his skillful recounting of a Robert Pinsky improvisation at the last festival. He also had several memorable phrasings, such as when he reflected back the poets’ comments about how they navigated between intention and invention.

 

One significant highlight from the interview came when the poets were asked about how they related to their personal and cultural “demons.” Lane began by describing the blessing and curse of growing up in the Interior (of British Columbia, a reference coupled with a call for easterners to visit the west of their country rather than opting for New York or Europe) and the violent men he’d observed. He went on to speak of how difficult stories stay with us, such as those carried by an acquaintance who had come from the Horn of Africa having witnessed ten thousand people die. With that, he broke into this disturbing verse:

 

Because I never learned how

to be gentle and the country

I live in was hard with dead

animals and men I didn’t question

my father when he told me

to step on the kitten’s head

after the bus had run over its hindquarters.

 

When he ended the ensuing stanza with a glimpse of “the small of Dad’s back / as he walked tall away,” he’d left the audience transfixed. It was a powerful turn, and as they returned to conversation I wondered from then on why the interview segment wasn’t interspersed with more poetry. The readings are properly set apart to open these cabarets, which was made clear by the powerful extended reading Lane had given on memories of the war, compelling a spontaneous eruption of applause from the crowd. Still, what would it look like to intersperse the interview itself with readings—or, better, impromptu recitals—related to certain questions? There clearly were ample references to other poets or to Lane and Brand’s own bodies of work to warrant it.

 

In their descriptions, both poets showed the elaboration, the sheer work, that their writing required. Lane vividly rendered his early attempt as a wordsmith when he tried to get some thirty-five words to “obey” him (as they seemed to obey Shelley or Keats) only to find them acting as “unruly servants.” His life’s memories proved no more tractable, it turned out, when in his sixties he turned to the work of his autobiography. Although he had earlier described poets as a culture’s memory-keepers (or computer “memory sticks” in his crude analogy), he found his own life’s events elusive. Committed to recalling one event for each of his sixty years, he realized that there were some years where he couldn’t, incredulously, remember a single event. So, true to form, he invented something.

 

Asked about the interrogating element of his creative process, Lane commented that it didn’t extend to struggle with his work’s meaning. “Words will find their way,” he said with the confidence of a veteran craftsman, however ordinary or ridiculous their object. With that, he took an imaginative excursion to another originary moment. Previously he had recalled the Adamic coinage of a creature’s name, but here Lane recalled when the most common of kitchen implements was first fashioned. As he enthusiastically recounted how it must have taken place it was clear that in both poets’ work the business of invention continues in fine form.