Last April, Edmonton Poetry Festival invited Poets Laureate from across Canada, and the Makar of Scotland, to Edmonton for a symposium and chance to play together.
Check out the video!
It was my privilege, as the then-Laureate of Edmonton, to arrange, direct, and co-produce a Gala performance evening. Over the winter, the Canadian Laureates sent me poetry, which i arranged into a suite. I worked with Edmonton composer Dave Wall (check out his work on Sound Cloud, too), who composed soundscapes for the suite.
It was key to my plan to hire actors. Our community of poets is pretty tight-knit. We know eachother. We have opinions about each other, some of them close to indelible. This is very true in Edmonton, and also holds on a national level, if a good deal more loosely. Words and poet are generally considered inseparable, if you know somebody – and it is easy to get to know somebody. It is emphatically Not easy to set up a coast-to-coast-to-coast rehearsal process.
So, in order to present the words fresh, and to have a hope of rehearsing something coherent, i called upon three very fine performers: Christine Frederick, Ryan Cunningham and the amazing Andrea House.
Christine and Ryan happen to work together, running Alberta Aboriginal Arts, home of the Rubaboo, one of the fastest growing new performance festivals around. Christine Frederick is also a key player in developing arts policy hereabouts, as Chair of the Edmonton Arts Council. (Should i also admit she and her family are long-time friends/colleagues of me and mine?). Ryan Cunningham is a TV star, and his shooting schedule for Blackstone was one of the major determinants of our rehearsal schedule. But i wanted to work with him, because the very first time i saw him, i was in the audience at Rubaboo 2009, and he was delivering a monologue (by Dawn Marie Dumont, if memory serves) with such power and connection that the entire audience was spellbound. The spell held despite the appalling crime against stagecraft committed by their event MC (an alleged professional), who walked through his spotlight, for no discernible reason, not once, not twice, but three times. I knew if he could handle something like that and keep his head, he could deal with the demanding craft of poetic oration. About Andrea, what can i say? Gorgeous singer, fine songwriter, comedic actor with exquisite timing, she is top of the list, too. Google her yourself, you’ll see what i mean.
Throughout the process, the undisputed king of Modern Dance hereabouts, Brian Webb served as my co-producer (sounding board, advisor, slayer of obstructive chandeliers). And of course, none of it would have happened had not Alice Major and Rayanne Doucet of Edmonton Poetry Festival put together a Poets Laureate gathering in the first place, and then agreed to my mad plan. Thanks, ladies, for all the support, and know you’d agree – if there is an unsung hero in this piece, it is John Mahon, then-ED of Edmonton Arts Council. Chi Megwetch, John; truly, without you, this would not have happened.
The Laureates brought me fine words to work with; as you’ll see, our Act 1 set went swingingly – a chance to show off our voices all together, and a chance to feature our Scottish Special Guest, Liz Lochhead (she took us all by storm). These are some terrific poets. It was fabulous to take my turn among them, laying out for the crowd our individual styles, the flavours that went into Act Two’s stew. You can see how well Poets Laureate perform. What you don’t see is how well we lined up backstage, after just one practice. Thanks to all the Laureates who came and played. And a bouquet to John Leppard, ever ready and more than competent to execute Plan B.
The video was made by Bob Chelmick – yes, that Bob Chelmick. Former TV new anchorman, artist responsible for the amazing Jumping for Joy project, and known far and wide as the host of The Road Home on the Mighty CKUA. Bob eagerly trekked in from his cabin in the woods, assembled a crack camera crew (hi Dave!), and recorded the evening. I hope you like it. It was ever so much fun to do. Here’s the link again, in case you read all this before clicking it above.
Here’s the order of performance from Act 2. The ever-perceptive Joanne Arnott has shown me how that might enhance vicwing. On the evening, as for a symphonic performance, i chose to move from piece to piece without breaking the flow, trusting the audience could read titles and authors from their programs. Now, you can, too complete with program notes (notes in quotes are direct from the authors; the rest, my summations):
Thank You – Anna Marie Sewell, Edmonton
In keeping with Aboriginal tradition, we give thanks in four directions, in four languages – Mi’gmaq, Ojibwe, Cree and Okanagan – from First Nations across our land.
Haligonian Market Cry – George Elliott Clarke, Toronto
This poem employs Nova Scotia’s Latin motto (“one defends and the other conquers”), a Spanish refrain from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (“Do you like this garden?), Italian from Verdi’s “a kiss … another kiss” and German from Berthold Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci “All men delight in sensual luxury.”
For Maxine Tynes, award winning poet, the first African-Canadian woman to sit on Dalhousie University Board of Governors.
Future City: Thomas Smith, 18th Century Surveyor – Marty Gervais, Windsor
Unfortunately … we know very little about this man except what he faithfully recorded in his letters which reveal volumes about this man, the profession and its history. – Hugh Beaumont Goebelle, Backsights magazine.
Deerfoot – Kris Demeanor, Calgary
Google ‘deerfoot trail’ and the first three choices to go with it are ‘traffic,’ ‘accident’ and ‘closure.’ Google ‘deerfoot’ and you’ll get ‘mall,’ ‘trail,’ and ‘casino.’
English Bay – Evelyn Lau, Vancouver
This poem speaks a personal connection with place. A few more fascinating glimpses of personal encounters with that place are at http://www.englishbay.com/historyofeb.html
Diaspora Drift – Fred Wah, Canadian Parliament
This poem incorporates testimonials from various points of the Chinese Diaspora. It also uses Chinook Jargon, a trade language born in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century, when Asian and European people established themselves among the Chinook and other indigenous folk.
Lino y Lana – John B. Lee, Brantford, Norfolk County
This is a poem in honour of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai”the linsey-woolsey of our being together…” and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish – “… the poetry of Yehuda Amachai is a challenge to me, because we write about the same place…”
“You must not wear a garment woven from linen and wool” Deuteronomy
The Man Dying – Don Kerr, Saskatchewan
This poem takes place in Saskatoon, oncology ward, and on Highway Five three hours east to Fishing Lake. For Gerald.
She Walks with a Certain Pride – PJ Johnson, Yukon (unable to attend)
“I was formally invested as Canada’s first official poet laureate on Canada Day in 1994. I am indeed a proud Canadian.” She Walks With A Certain Pride speaks of the cultural journey of a Yukon Elder.
Nu(is)ance – George Elliott Clarke, Toronto
For Wayde Compton, whose works include editing the first comprehensive anthology of black writing from British Columbia.
Edmonton in Winter/This Pehonan – Anna Marie Sewell, Edmonton
The Edmonton Rossdale Flats area was once referred to as a ‘Pehonan’. Historically, the Edmonton Pehonan served as a gathering place where many Indigenous Nations would trade and participate in cultural activities. It was a spiritual and cultural location that followed protocols of peace, friendship, and harmony – Aboriginal Edmonton 2006
Song for Peace in Many Voices – Penn Kemp, London (unable to attend)
This piece was originally presented as Poem for Peace in Two Voices, in 2002. Since then, it has been translated 136 times. “A poem can transform people’s lives or contribute to a shift in consciousness and of ideals.” – Penn Kemp
My Sahara – Bruce Meyer, Barrie
Hugh Clapperton, a British naval officer turned explorer, made two expeditions to north Africa, riding the Sahara, where sand dunes can reach 180 metres (590 ft) in height. Barrie is on the southern edge of Ontario’s snowbelt, where lake-effect snow falls throughout the winter, averaging 238 centimetres (95 inches)annually.
Where Kingston Is – Eric Folsom, Kingston
Kingston’s largest immigrant group in the 19th Century was the Irish, and the Great Famine – an gorta mor – that caused their exodus became formative of Canadian identity through them. And yes, there is a street named Tragically Hip Way.
New Territory – Dianne Morrow, PEI (unable to attend)
“This poem is about my move from BC to PEI over forty years ago, and the following forty years — all in one short poem.”
Love and Protection – Janet Marie Rogers, Victoria
“This poem is inspired by a lecture given by a friend, Celeste Pedri, on beadwork and regalia making … the act of beading, in particular who she was beading for was an act of love. The protection is for the culture and to protect her family crests and symbols.”
Thank You Reprise (Sewell), All My Relations – Lakota Traditional
Lakota people traveled north during the Indian Wars in the USA; some established themselves in Alberta, where Lakota traditions continue.
I want to close with two last acknowledgements. First, to Amy Loewan, installation artist for peace. She works with rice paper, ink, and great heart, to create projects such as Illuminating Peace, and the O Canada project – for which she built the gorgeous flag that graced our gala stage. If you go to Edmonton Poetry Fest’s site, you can likely find archive photos of folks, after the performance, up on stage getting a closer look at the marvellous art. Amy’s way of working has informed and inspired my own. She works in 30+ languages, meditates upon human virtues, and draws people into her work. I’m so fortunate to know her, and to count her as a dear friend.
Finally, to the good folks in Owen Sound, Ontario, who set up a different sort of Poetry Map of Canada. I’m not sure that site still exists – it was down last time i checked – but their labour of love made an inspiring impression. It was great to see an online map where one could click up info on Poets Laureate. It was also greatly satisfying to build an onstage production that made something of a portrait of Canadian poetry.
Poetry is, first and last, sprung from the same source as bird song – we can’t likely document all the reasons why, but we do Have To Sing.
Happy Songs to You!