Taking it to the streets

Satie’s Sad Piano

Published on July 1, 2006

For the past decade or so, I’ve been sharing my deep, dark secret with students across the country: I hated poetry when I was a kid. I hated it from the time I was in high school right through my undergraduate days in English Literature at McGill. Poetry, it seemed, was written by a bunch of dead white guys. It was an animal you had to dissect for marks. Poetry was a tough nut to crack, if you’ll pardon the gratuitous mixing of metaphors. And you had to get it right.

This confession seems to have made me a hit among students, even in classrooms where teachers have taken a more enlightened approach to poetry. It has bought me complicity and the attentive ear of some of the most unmotivated, unenthusiastic students. By the time the bell rings, I have somehow managed to convince them that poetry, like graffiti, is slightly subversive. Before they are out the door and back in iPod heaven, they have bought into the idea that they are allowed to enjoy a poem without necessarily being able to articulate why, in the same way I can appreciate Gustav Mahler or John Coltrane without fully processing the subtleties of their music.

I won’t flatter myself by saying that these kids will become poetry junkies anytime soon. The grim truth is that once school is behind us, we adults barely touch it again save for the rare occasions when we want the eloquence to speak our pain or our joy – at a wedding or a funeral, say. But at least the myth has been shattered.

In the last two or three years, I have taken to the streets on a similar quest, trying to renew public interest in a genre that is almost unanimously dismissed, if not feared. These feelings, of course, stem from a schoolkid reticence much like my own, feelings which are subtly reinforced and propagated through public discourse. It continues to irk me that poetry is considered the poor distant cousin of fiction, even in so-called literary circles. Until the advent of the Griffin Prize, few prestigious poetry awards even existed in this country. The media’s tendency to glamourize the amply hyped fiction awards doesn’t help, either. Publisher wonder when their poets are “finally going to write that novel.” And I have rarely heard of a book club studying someone’s thin volume of verse.

Many critics believe that a poet is one of two breeds. Either he is a “people’s poet” (often branded “accessible” in a patronizing sort of way) or he is a “serious poet,” whose sweat and toil to ensure that only an exclusive group of people can break the code ultimately translates into a plea for posterity. But this is a simplistic view, one that would make it easy to blame the latter group for scaring the bejesus out of students like me. It would also seem to explain why I decided to align myself with the guy on the street, in spite of the stigma attached to penning works that are deemed relevant to the masses. I don’t believe it is as black-or-white as all that. Some poets have played in both fields at different points in their careers.

In fact, I am a firm believer that one can take poetry off the page and into public spaces without compromising the form. It is more about broadening the audience base through innovative and exciting projects, and inviting people to rise to the challenge. It is finally about returning poetry to the public, where it began and still belongs.

How I ended up here is purely accidental. In the summer of 2003, after the provincial arts council rejected my grant proposal, I ended up in such a funk that I found myself frantically flipping through my address book, searching for someone who might offer me the right combination of empathy and indignation. I barely knew Endre Farkas except for the two or three times I had run into him at the International Poetry Festival in Trois-Rivières, and he seemed agreeable enough. Basically, his email was one-quarter consolation and three-quarters kick in the pants. He wanted help with a project he was trying to get off the ground for spring 2004 – a rekindling of the Poetry on the Buses project, something he had worked on back in the 70s when he ran with Montreal’s own “Group of Seven,” known as the Véhicule Poets. Eager to put the grant fiasco behind me, I jumped on board.

The result of our collaboration was a moving anthology of the work of 20 contemporary Canadian poets representing both official languages. For the entire month of April, National Poetry Month, 800 Montreal buses crisscrossed the city carrying poems – one French, one English – to commuters. For me, what was most exciting was the concept of the single ride to work becoming a venue for colliding worlds – the poet’s world intersecting with the traveller’s world for a brief moment in time. The thought that poetry could simultaneously be an intimate conversation between writer and reader, and a dynamic and kinetic experience, also intrigued me. Recalling Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry as “that which helps us live,” it was my hope that this project would afford Montrealers an opportunity to pause, reflect, take in a little food for the soul. On a small scale, these bus poems would help them “live.” And I believe it worked. Public support for the project was so overwhelming that the tour was extended beyond April and into May.

Endre and I were efficient collaborators and it didn’t take long to dream up our next gig. This one would build on the notion of parachuting the poem into the public arena; it would showcase the very theatricality of poetry. We called it Circus of Words / Cirque des mots and worked our tails off to produce what would become a multilingual extravaganza of performance poetry. The idea was to explode the concept of spoken word, currently considered cutting-edge in poetry, and take it one step beyond. Each featured artist was invited to create a 15-minute piece for the show, using poetry as the focal point, but heightening it with music, dance, movement, lighting, visuals, and sound. We billed it as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and carried our audience to the place “where language leaps off the page and walks along the tracks of solitude, flies through the air with the greatest of ease, becomes poetry in motion and breaks the speed and syntax of sound.” For two years in a row, we filled the house at Montreal’s trendy Sala Rossa with exciting performances by the acclaimed Hélène Dorion and Jean-Paul Daoust, both winners of the Governor General’s Award, maudit-poet Lucien Francoeur, and the politically engaged Chilean poet Elias Letelier, among others. What is most remarkable about what we accomplished relates to demographics. The show managed to attract people of all ages and backgrounds, and all of them – paying customers – were there for poetry, of all things.

One of the most off-beat, in-your-face experiences I have had delivering poetry on public turf is called Random Acts of Poetry, the brainchild of Victoria poet Wendy Morton, who recognized the restorative powers of poetry after she was stopped for speeding and managed to persuade the cop to rip up her ticket by reading him a poem. In October 2004, after Wendy found sponsors in Abebooks and the Victoria Read Society, and talked up an anonymous donor for funding, 27 Canadian poets, including me, hit the streets of our respective cities for a week-long love-in with the public, during which time we read our poetry to complete strangers and gave away free copies of our books. The project cleverly combined poetry and the element of surprise, and proved to be a good blood-rush way to meet and connect with readers. Public displays of lunacy! Admittedly, some of the people I encountered reacted as though I were the female clone of Arthur Rimbaud, a raving mad poet lost in her crazy illuminations. A bewildered few shook their heads, uninterested in “buying anything.” But most were more than willing to give up a minute or two of their busy day. It seemed they wanted an excuse to find their way back to the imagination.

I could go on, except none of this really answers the one burning question I’m sure is in your mind – how someone like me went from hating poetry to loving it to publishing four books of it. And how, exactly, I’m able to convince the most tight-lipped, sceptical adolescent that a poem is not a stodgy impenetrable beast but an “act of mischief,” as Theodore Roethke once argued. Alas, to answer this would be divulging the biggest secret of all, something akin to removing the surprise toy from the Crackerjacks box.

I’ll give you a hint, though. It has a little something to do with distilling the pure joy of living – even in its darkest, bleakest moments. mRb

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