Impure: Reinventing The Word
Victoria Stanton and Vincent Tinguely
More than reading a poem out loud, but not exactly theatre, spoken word figures heavily in Montreal culture, and sometimes does get a bad rap. But Stanton and Tinguely have compiled a compelling case for the defence in this collection of interviews with various Montreal performance poets and scenesters. Both French and English artists discuss their medium, painting a vivid picture of the oral tradition of storytelling that has evolved into an edgy art form.
Spoken word in Montreal essentially began in the ’60s, as part of the counter-culture taking hold of the youth of North America, and as part of the rise of nationalism in Quebec. Michel Garneau, a poet and radio host, recounts his time in prison after being arrested for his participation in Poèmes et chansons de la résistance, an ongoing reading series supporting Quebec independence. From their separate cells, the imprisoned intellectuals would tell stories, play mind-chess and discuss their situation.
“And there I started writing, I’d managed to get some paper and a pencil. ‘AGN24’ was both the title of my poem and my I.D. number,” says Garneau. After completing the poem, he read it to his fellow prisoners. “When I finished there was a long silence. Inside I sort of fell apart. I thought everybody was embarrassed for me, that I’d just made a fool of myself and should never have read my poem. These were the thoughts going through my mind when a voice said: ‘Read it again.'”
Garneau’s poem went on to be published, and he recalls the importance of being able to speak for a people at a particular time. Anglo poets of that time were following the lead of America’s beat poets and Canadian luminaries Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen. Impure features interviews with John Giorno, who has performed with Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Giorno is based in New York but performs often in Montreal; his presence helps broaden the book’s perspective. He describes the climate of the era as one full of energy and excitement, a time when a poem like Ginsberg’s “Howl” could change a generation.
This energy gave rise to the Véhicule poets of the ’70s. Based in a gallery on the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine, the group supported its writers by running its own press, which is still in existence. In the early ’80s, spoken word rode the coattails of punk rock in a scene centred at Foufoune Electrique, then lay dormant in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The current era has witnessed a resurgence in popularity which Impure celebrates.
While Impure is full of rich anecdotes about the practice and motivation of spoken word, sections dealing with its theory are less engaging. Artists such as Jean-Paul Daoust, Geneviève LeTarte, Debbie Young, Jake Brown, and Todd Swift sound off on their raison d’être, but without the poetry itself their musings can take on a navel- gazing aspect. Perhaps because the form is oral, it is difficult to contextualize discussions without a grounding in the driving substance.
For all its interest, Impure’s flaw is that it is aimed at people who already have a concept of spoken word; those without the proper background will be baffled by some of the theoretical ramblings. Much of the book is inspiring, but reining in some of the more abstract sections and structuring things more concisely would have made Impure less of an artists’ yearbook and more of an effective overview of a powerful form, and of one of its liveliest scenes. mRb