Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

BookTour 2010: Kingston

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Driving through Toronto early Sunday morning, I hit no traffic which left me with an abundance of time. I got off the highway at Brighton and carried on Highway 2 the rest of the way. You notice a switch at Belleville as the towns get filled with limestone. Around I guess Shannonville you start seeing rock groupings in the farmer’s fields – as if the shield itself were emerging from beneath the earth to protect itself from us. Lots of military, of course, and one heartfelt handmade sign in front of a barely better than derelict building saying "Haiti needs our help -- give what you can."

Today’s event was at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery. Adam Lauder has guest-curated an exhibition of Bertram Brooker’s canvases (and had even managed to dig up one of his movies from 1913). The brilliant collection of works is intended to highlight Brooker’s association with Vitalism proper, the philosophical movement. I didn’t see too much specific evidence of that claim, but certainly lots of proof of Brooker’s interest in vitality – and the principles of dynamic symmetry (which a Canadian in America made into a philosophy for some of the early cosmic Canucks like Brooker). The exhibition does an excellent job combining ephemeral works from Brooker’s life – photos, advertising books, and even vibrant examples of some of the advertisements that Brooker designed. It's on until March, so definitely check it out if possible.

There was even a sketch of “the Ultrahomo” – Brooker’s illustration of a fantasy, mystical figure that would arise from his projected Ultimatist movement. Eric Folsom, my most gracious host for the Kingston jaunt, remarked that the Ultrahomo resembled a giant blackfly. A strange heroic figure for a Manitoban to celebrate.

My talk on Brooker did not focus on my claim that he be recognized as our first avant-gardist. Instead, I concentrated on the themes of stasis and volition in his work, and how he used various mediums in completely different manner to highlight different implications of stasis and volition in relation to contemporary life. Reducing my point to paraphrase: the sculptures focus on stasis and permanence abstractly; the poems rush towards volatility in the moment even in his use of neologisms and eruptive language; the short fiction presents characters who are unable to change fast enough for the rapidly evolving world; the paintings present pure vitality; and so on. His multidisciplinary approach revolves around the Kantian sublime and the overwhelmed senses.

The Q&A that followed was excellent, with a range of really engaged questions about Brooker’s relationship to continental art movements, reading habits, and advertising theories. Only Brooker’s descendents noticed that my slide of one abstract painting was upside down, but they had the good grace to say nothing about it until we were at dinner at The Pig after the event. All three of Brooker’s grandchildren came from Toronto for the talks. The giftshop seemed to sell lots of copies of my Brooker book, judging by how many I signed, but I didn’t sell anything.

The next day, Carolyn Smart picked me up from Eric’s Folsom and ushered me to John Watson Hall on Queen’s campus (John Watson being the foremost scholar on Kantian sublime perhaps ever). The students slowly warmed to the idea of plunderverse in the appropriative writing workshop, and a few very creative texts emerged (including one that inverted a Cuban politically revolutionary poem into a moment of personal revelation). We talked a little about why they make the choices they do as writers – how even the choice of putting ink on paper invokes and relies upon a long tradition of previous literatures doing the same.

The reading on the fifth floor had about 25 folks out and seemed to get to somewhere new. Remembering the student who had written about Cuban, I read one of my more politically charged works that wrestles with America’s attempt to destroy Cuba’s social experiment. A great discussion followed, with ideas about the implications of anagrams on speech, the need for the destruction of sense, destruction as creative act and vice-versa, and other topics of similar relevance. I was asked what kind of a sport metaphor would work for plunderverse. My guess was “The loonie beneath the ice, scratching to get out.” I only sold one book to the lovely Rose and Richard DeShaw. Just before we left, one of Carolyn’s students handed me a poem she had written for me on a tangerine. What a happy homecoming it was.

Carolyn took Eric and I out for lunch to the old grad club, which was a real treat. The last time I was there was for the launch of an anthology I helped edit back in the 90s. Though I've distanced myself from that project, it had one short story by an author named Dave Bidini, which was later republished in a book of hockey erotica, and then later turned into a play. Kingston can be inspiring, I remember.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page