Voice and Heart, and Giants Among Us

“These poets who are so arrogant as to learn their own work by heart!” It was pointed at me, in the sort of insider-voice just loud enough to be overheard, but not so bold as to invite direct response. I didn’t need to respond anyhow, i’d said my piece. Out loud. Full voice. The way i was taught was respectful of my work and my audience.

I wasn’t the one reduced to stuffy sniping, snubbing us  ‘performance poets,’ as if the mark of serious artistry was to mumble inarticulately when forced (forced?) to read one’s own work. I had no interest in becoming a shuffling, pinch-faced, faux-humble caricature of ‘the serious poet.’

Still, being snubbed by them hurt.  You can see that, clearly, because i’m calling them names. I don’t do it to be mean. Bear with me. I didn’t know why they were acting like that. I honestly thought, well, maybe if i show them how much fun it can be, they’ll loosen up and play, too, and we’ll all be friends.

This was way back last century, I was much younger then; but even then, i’d had long experience in being openly ‘other’ in Canada, so i had enough of a rhino hide to look unaffected. Still, it stung. Because, like any writer, i write to connect. Like any human, i want to belong. I was willing to let them belong with me, but they were signalling that their circle was closed to me and my ilk. Another place where i’d have to keep my guard up and understand, i had to work for every inch of acceptance. I had to be so good as to be undeniable. And even then, i’d be denied if there was a chance to do it.

That sneering was a gift. It showed me how much i wanted my craft, how much i belonged to the vision of my own place in life and the words given me to express that. It showed me that i wasn’t doing this to ‘be cool’ or to fit in with some clique. It’s a weird thing to be born to, perhaps, but i came to accept, i was born to the role of poet.

But i couldn’t have endured the sneering, were it not for people who encouraged me, all along the way; my family, first of all. And then good friends in poetry whose way resonated with my own, and who opened their circle to me. Turns out this post is for those friends, all of you, and one in particular, as we’ll see.We’ve walked some strange roads together.

Good roads, all in all, and i’ve done alright.

As 50 looms nearer, i can list some reasonable accomplishments as a poet. None of them happened without my having connected to others who supported, embraced, welcomed me. Some of them, of course, bear my signature – i wrote that, i performed that there, i composed, directed, coordinated, inspired that. Perhaps, though, the biggest accomplishment comes from the realisation that i was part of a moment of opening, and i did my part to roll the rock, to unblock the road. My part only, and it is a small one, it took the work of many to roll the rock.

Those ‘serious poets,’ those mumbling eye-rollers, they weren’t taught any better. Those were the times when ‘real culture’ was still posited to reside in Europe somewhere, and we ‘out here’ could at best kneel at its knee.

We’re standing now. Some of us are dancing. Some have been dancing all along. I’m looking at you, Ivan.

Most recently, i was onstage at CBC Centre Stage, our public broadcaster’s public presentation space in the middle of downtown’s City Centre Mall. I was one of 14 poets invited by the current Poet Laureate, Mary Pinkoski, to present a sort of ‘holiday season feast’ of poets. We were also, without great fanfare, supporting the annual Turkey Drive – though none of us were in any way compelled to use that as a theme. Theme was wide open, left to our own discretion as poets as to what we felt to bring. So, if you heard it you know, and if not, you can imagine, the poetry ran a wide gamut in terms of topic, theme, point of view and intent.

What was consistent was that we presented our work as if we meant it.

That seems so obvious a thing to do in a public performance, now doesn’t it?

Fun to see the bounty of young poets now, for whom the idea that poetry is for performance out loud is a given.

But i sat there, watching and listening to a whole generation of poets who strive explicitly to give strong voice, embodied voice, personal connection and conviction to every performance, and i felt… mixed.

I have been rewarded for my work. My nomination, initiated by artists beyond the poetry community, and my selection, from a very distinguished field of candidates, as Edmonton’s 4th Poet Laureate, was a hugely satisfying vindication of hanging in there with my weird craft. There are so many others, though, who deserve to be honoured, who deserve distinction.

I felt mixed, because i was sitting there beside one such, an unsung giant of our Edmonton poetry community.

Ivan Sundal was the first person i ever met, who greeted me without the slightest reservation as a kindred artist. Ivan has had his shoulder to the stone for ever, it seems, pushing the way open. Nobody has done it with a much true humility and selflessness. He has refused to take himself too seriously for decades now; instead, he has remained seriously dedicated to the holy path of laughter and playfulness.  And that is no small gift to a community.

I knew that the young Spoken Word poets in the bleachers across from us knew who i was. I don’t do it their way, my craft was formed before the ‘slam’ came along; but they can see the connection between us. And i have that residual public profile. But i had to wonder, did they know about Ivan? Did they know how much he’s done to open up this community of poets?

I wish i’d been faster on my feet that day. I only had 4 minutes for performance, but i found time to do two poems, one pre-written and one whose frame came to me while i was walking to the venue, to show off my style. That poem had space in it for Ivan. That poem was Ivan all over. I wove that poem with assurance and confidence – yes, because i’ve been doing this a while and improvisation is what i do, my stock in trade. But that confidence also owes a lot to knowing, Ivan was there, listening. Ivan was willing to connect, not just with me, but with everyone on that stage. I only realised when i was about halfway through this blog post, i couldn’t have written out loud like that, without Ivan.

Hey Ivan. Thanks.

And yes, of course, thanks to Mary for being a fine Live Performance Laureate and keeping that aspect of our work a priority by giving space to a whole crop of mighty voices. Well done, Ms. P.

And yes, thanks, all the rest of you Usual Suspects, you sung and unsung community, you tribe of poets. Ivan would be the first to rattle off a list of way finders, stone pushers, community builders longer than this blog. He’d do it in style. He’d make sure i included even the stuffiest, because he always treated them with acceptance, too. What other mastery is there?

It takes so many shoulders to roll the rock, unblock the way. So much depends on forces beyond us, too. We are, as poets, simple reporters, making word portraits of our time and place. So, this openness to performance, this centrality of Spoken Word, is the product of many different influences, and is subject to many different influences.

I am thrilled that performing out loud is a given for young poets. It’s an optimistic sign of a vigourous culture.

However,  am at best cautiously optimistic. It is one thing to be able now to speak truth to and among ourselves. And, to the  public, such as passes at noon in a mall.

But, who listens to poets? Who listens to CBC, for that matter?  (but that’s another blog about preaching to the choir)

And to what end are we singing out loud? To whom and what do we devote our attention? For whom are we raising our voice? And what of worth do we have to say?

What will it take, i wonder, for all our voices, now that we’re accepting to raise them, to shift some larger rocks in the road? I hope we won’t just become the next set of insiders, scoffing at some other style of writers, thinkers, reporters.

I hope we are truly opening, in meaningful ways, and that we harness our open voices to the service of a sane, nuanced, living culture. Let it be one in which, whether working out loud, or working in silence, we are dedicated to something worthwhile, something deep and healthy and human. And then, that whether sung or unsung among humans, we are content to know ourselves as a beloved part of the song of all that is.

One Comment Add yours

  1. robert okaji says:

    Wonderful piece! Keeps those rocks rolling…


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