Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poetry NOW: Great Artists Compete at Harbourfront Centre

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At the end of March, 20 poets gathered at Harbourfront Centre to participate in Poetry NOW. Open Book reader and writer Patrick Connors spoke with many of the participating poets about the experience.

By Patrick Connors

Poetry NOW, presented jointly by Harbourfront Centre and NOW magazine, took place on Wednesday, March 30, in the Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room. At stake for the poets who were reading that evening was an invitation to read at the 32nd annual International Festival of Authors (October 19 to 29, 2011) and have their book advertised in NOW Magazine.

"We are proud to have presented this unique event for the third year on the eve of National Poetry Month. From the first year the event was extremely popular with both the participants and audience members. As a result, entries have grown significantly to more than 60 poets," said Geoffrey Taylor, Director of Authors at Harbourfront Centre, as well as one of the judges.

"The Poetry NOW night is an absolute blast, and serves as a great little taster platter of new poetry for the casual fan,” Jacob McArthur Mooney — winner of the first Poetry NOW and this years’ host — told me. “People likely hate some of it, like some of it and maybe really fall in love with a new poet or two. This year has a really strong field, lots of different kinds of voices. Though it's a competition, 'winning versus not winning' isn't something anyone really cares about. It's about sharing the stage, celebrating poetry and having a few drinks."

For Gloria Alvernaz-Mulcahy, performing at Poetry NOW means something else, as well.

“Reading at Harbourfront and participating in Poetry NOW is really such a great opportunity for poets and poetry, and, in my case, for Indigenous poets and our publisher Kegedonce press — one of three in Canada,” she told me. “So, the opportunity is to share another place with poets and to hear the oral tradition shared by so many and in a big venue such as this. Including Indigenous poetry is beautiful, as the culture is based in orality, and our lives are storied experiences unfolding.

“I am putting forward a manuscript on water poems, including rivers and seas as our stories flow through the water as a source of life. Without clean water we are unsustainable. Our indigenous tradition has ancient stories still living about the water serpent and the stories and water connect us all around mother earth.

“I thank the organizers of this event and the publishers for their support of the word; poetry is soundings in this storied world — listen up as they say!”

Participant Rocco de Giacomo said a little about the process of getting into this competition.

“My publisher (Quattro Books) sent in a copy of my most recent book, Ten Thousand Miles Between Us, and I got an email saying I was accepted,” he said. “It will be exciting! At the centre of the city, with a lot of people there, even non-poets. It’s always an honour to read with the people on the list and compete with them. Jill Battson is a very good presenter of her poetry.

“My poetry is usually written for the page. I consider these poems more or less a variety of styles, and what I am trying to express ranges from casual conversation to tension. From peace, to almost anxiety. I have a lot of travel pieces, reflective of my age; the battle of wanderlust versus settling down, different experiences I have. My book offers the best and worst of both worlds.

“This event creates interest, a fantastic contribution. Maybe the audience will become poets or read more poetry; either way, we are changing people with a new experience. People have no time for poets who don’t get on stage; there is a responsibility to engage the audience."

I asked Kathryn MacLean how a competition such as this contributes to a new poetics in Canada.
“Canadian poetics has many camps, many different branches. It's a wonderful sampling for audiences to experience so many poets in one night. I'm very grateful to Harbourfront Centre for showcasing us all. It's a fine Canadian platform, solid, with its own unique and special history. Harbourfront Centre has always been — at least for me — a place to discover new authors and new voices. This continues that tradition.

“I've been coming to Harboufront Centre since I was a teenager dreaming of being on its stage so this is like living the dream. Poetry is an oral form. Today to be read and to be noticed in a huge sea of books in all their current forms, one has to be able to present. The author has to have a presence now; no longer is the book enough no matter how brilliant. Poets are indeed performers.”

Robyn Sarah discussed the connection between written poetry and oral presentation. “I have always said I write with my ear. I spent my formative years studying classical music, and sound is a very important part of poetry for me. Even when I'm writing free verse, my ear makes constant demands regarding where the accents should fall in a line, how the vowel and consonant sounds should play off each other, and so on — I use a lot of iambics, internal rhyming, and irregular end rhyme even in free verse. You could say I 'compose' my poems. Sound-sensitive readers pick up on this when reading silently, but my intentions as a poet are best delivered when I can speak my poems aloud, so I enjoy presenting my poems orally.

“I have never thought of poetry as a competitive sport or a 'battle.' That idea is quite foreign to my own sense of poetics. I guess if having a competition is what it takes to get people interested in hearing a bunch of poets read their work, then that's what it takes.”

Well-known and seasoned poets, such as John Oughton, relish the experience Poetry NOW offers.

“I appreciate the opportunity to participate in Poetry NOW, as I've not been a terribly energetic promoter of my own poetry, and this should help my latest book get a wider readership,” he said. “At the same time, it's a bit bizarre to be reading for five minutes with 19 others in a competitive environment. Maybe this will be the dawning of yet another reality show (with a modest audience): Twenty Poets on a Desert Island?

“The event will help promote poets and poetry, as Harbourfront Centre is a high-profile venue, with an effective publicity staff."

Along with other poetry events, Oughton also has “Interrogating the World 2” coming up,
the Toronto version of his first solo photography show, which offers colour prints from digital shots. The new show runs until May 18th. The opening reception is Wednesday, May 4 at 5:30 p.m. at the Corridor Gallery, 2nd floor, Centennial College, 951 Carlaw Ave.

I asked Oughton which of the other poets he was most looking forward to hearing. “Jill Battson is a strong performer, so I'm sure she'll set an energy level for the rest of us to aspire to. Kildare Dobbs, as our senior poet and a WWII veteran, deserves a respectful ear. I also like Ronna Bloom's sensitive and perceptive work.”

“Although I'm excited, I'm also kind of nervous,” Bloom admitted. “It means getting a chance to read at Harbourfront Centre. For me, five minutes at Harbourfront Centre constitutes a reading at Harbourfront Centre.

“Writing is a very private act. But reading is taking something that has been mulled and shaped and fussed and readied, or has simply arrived ready, and bringing it to whoever is sitting there. I love that. I try to re-enter the feeling of the poem when I read to convey something of its wordless as well as its linguistic energy to the listener.

“I am working on my fifth book and will read at the Art Bar on July 5th. Also, I'm the Poet in Community at U of T (www.poet.utoronto.ca). This is a venture that uses poetry with students, staff and faculty as a way to explore aspects of their lives that may not be touched or integrated through the usual channels. It is very cool and growing.

“Some of the participants used to perform together at readings in the '90s, such as the Cafe May reading series in Toronto's west end, so this feels a bit like a fancy open mic, or a reunion — almost a party! I'm looking forward to hearing Kildare Dobbs, since I don't know him but have heard things.”

What she may have heard is that Dobbs is definitively post-conventional, at once charming and a rugged individualist.

“I hope everyone will enjoy my upcoming book, Casanova in Venice, a raunchy story told in a form that gives pleasure, that is, in the voice of an 18th century man about town.

“The event should be fun, and a chance to draw attention to my work. Since I don’t believe poets have careers, I just feel glad I’m not neglected. Aside from career, well, I am very old to be involved in this kind of scrum!

“I believe that the sound of poetry should be sensed, even on the printed page. Reading it aloud gives full expression to the music of its language, while rhyme and metre can make it memorable.

“In my view, poets are not in competition nor is there need for a new poetics — just for better poetry. It would be a good thing for poets to study the poetic tradition of our language. It is a fallacy that poetry advances and improves like science. The poet takes the tradition (which like the language is received) and in the words of Ezra Pound 'makes it new.' The tradition is always there.

“So I think that what this event does, though calling itself a competition, is to give many poets a moment to strut their stuff.

“I do want the audience to have enjoyed themselves and to feel that the art of poetry is still alive. They might also reflect on the whole idea of commercial empires, as represented in Venice and nearer home. And on the power of illusion.

“Come to think of it, there isn’t much to remember from five minutes of recital, except, I hope, laughter and a lighter view of life.”

It was a wonderful evening of poetry. Battson had everybody in the palm of her hand with her storytelling ability. Ruth Roach Pierson and Heather Cadsby marveled with their virtuosity. Jacquie Buncel read very touching poems of her family’s history. Jim Johnstone impressed as always with his presence and command. Souvankham Thammavongsa, with her soft voice and beautiful poetry, had me on the verge of tears.

Jacob Scheier, 2008 Governor-General’s Award winner for English poetry, summed the evening up.

“I think anyone who works in the craft is an expert. Everyone who performed here this evening certainly is. But poetry is so subjective. How can we decide who wrote the best poem or gave the best performance?

“The stakes are high with a reading at the International Festival of Authors. But poetry should be able to gather enough attention for an evening such as this to be about itself. Also, with so many great poets competing at this event, there could easily be more than one poet at the IFOA.”

On Thursday, the winners were announced, and Scheier got his wish. Gary Barwin and David Groulx have been crowned co-winners of the event as a result of their performances at Poetry NOW. Furthermore, Pierson, Thammavongsa and Zachariah Wells also have been invited to read at IFOA, bringing the total number of poets at that prestigious event to five.

Poetry NOW is a great event celebrating great poetry. As Mooney said to close this year's event, no one appearing was a loser. Furthermore, no one who was there will ever forget the remarkable evening put on at Harbourfront Centre.



Patrick Connors is the arts and mental health writer for newz4u.net, an online news service out of Toronto. He has had his poetry published in The Toronto Quarterly, Word Salad Poetry Magazine and, most recently, in Poet Plant Press. He was shortlisted for the 2010 Scarborough Writers Month award, and has had several of his poems featured on Phantom Billstickers, a New Zealand site. He has had several pieces appear on Open Book: Toronto, and looks forward to many more!

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