Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bashing the Poets

Just back from the Vancouver Writers Fest Poetry Bash, and what a Bash it was, with easily a couple hundred people in attendance.

The emcee was poet-cum-memoirist Ryan Knighton, and he did a fine job, very funny, very much at ease.

The first reader was Priscilla Uppal, whose Ontological Necessities was shortlisted for the last Griffin Prize. I scratched my head over it at the time and scratched my head anew tonight. The poems were prosy and laced with pseudo-philosophical semi-profundities and throwaway crowd-pleaser jokes, only a couple of which were actually funny. But she had a very nice hat, for which some exotic bird seems to have sacrificed its hindquarters.

Next up was American Richard Siken. He read one long poem, which was pretty decent. It had movements of crescendo and decrescendo, as longer works must have I guess, but it did make it drag a bit at times. By and large, I'm with Poe when he said that a long poem is a contradiction in terms. Still Siken read very well--almost well enough to make me want to pick up his book.

Barbara Nickel was up next and she read very well, in spite of being on heavy pain killers for a herniated disc. As I said in my recent post on the GG list, I think very highly of her book Domain. She also read a fine new poem, in which a fungal toenail infection metaphorically merged with the aurora borealis; I'm not sure how, but it worked beautifully. I also picked up a copy of her first book, The Gladys Elegies, which I've read before but never owned. Apparently, her publisher declared it out of print, but miraculously procured copies for the Writers' Fest. This is a sneaky game publishers play, holding on to just enough copies so that they can maintain copyright control without actually paying to reprint. Not cool.

Next up was Niels Hav from Denmark. He was very funny and unpretentiously casual. When he got to the podium, he said he was going to read some stuff from "this blue one," referring to his Canadian-published translation. In the middle of his reading, the mic stopped working. Rather than call for technical support, he just shrugged and kept reading, unamplified. In the middle of a longer poem, "In Defense of Poets," the audience started applauding spontaneously. A techie, presumably thinking the poem was done, rushed up to the stage with a backup mic. While he was setting it up in front of the podium, with the still non-functional mic flopping up and down in front of his face, Hav finished the poem. Then he and the techie looked at each other and both shrugged. It was a lovely live reading moment.

After Hav, a surprise guest was announced: American poet Heather McHugh. She wasn't on the bill, but she stole the show with rhythm and wit and finished with one of those poems that hits you like a spinal tap. I picked up her selected poems second hand some time ago and it sits unread in a box in my Halifax attic. Once my library and I are reunited, I'm going to have to spend some time with Ms. McHugh's work.

During the intermission, I tracked down Niels Hav. As I said in an earlier post, he'd emailed me saying he wanted to say hi at the reading. When I introduced myself, he said he was surprised I was so skinny and asked if I still worked with my hands. I told him I work more with my feet now. "That's good," he said, "too many poets in your country work on the campus. They are dull-ass, they need a kick in the pants." I told him I do my best. He told me I should come read in Copenhagen. I'd picked up a copy of We Are Here (the blue one) before the reading--and good thing I did, too, because they sold out in a hurry--, but before I could get him to sign it for me, someone butted in. I slipped him a copy of Unsettled and one of Sealift. He was nowhere to be found at the end of the night, so I never did get my blue thing signed, alas. Maybe in Copenhagen.

The second half wasn't nearly as good as the first. Agnes Walsh led off. She read a bunch of homey-folksy Newfie stuff. She's not a very good poet, but she seems like a nice person.

Tom Wayman was next. I hate Tom Wayman's work. I find it flat, didactically facile and self-congratulatory. Wayman reads with a great deal of energy and charisma, but I still found his work flat, didactically facile and self-congratulatory. He's been making hay on his few years of industrial work during a 25-year academic career. He needs a big-time kick in the pants. And he pronounced trajectory tragic-tory.

Marilyn Bowering, on the other hand, pronounced simulacrum as similla-crumb. She was probably the worst of the bunch. I tried not to listen to her because listening to her was making me snort and giggle and Rachel kept nudging me. Bowering was the quintessence of the lyrically self-absorbed, self-indulgent sensitive soul--the sort of persona that gives "lyric poetry" such a bad name.

Finally, Dennis Lee read. He started off with an older poem, "400: Coming Home." Not a bad poem and read very well. He moved on to some stuff from his book for early teens. Wasn't crazy about this stuff and, as Rachel later said, it doesn't seem like stuff the target audience would be much into either.

One poem, full of fast and furious tongue-twisting rhyme (cans and toucans and pecans), was pretty damn fun, tho. He finished off reading a selection of bits from Yesno, including "dixie," which is to my mind one of the handful of fully successful poems in the Un/Yesno sequence.

After getting some books signed, we headed home in the rain on the motorciccle. It's been raining for days. It'll be raining for months. Guess I'll get some reading and writing done.


Alex said...

So I guess Wayman's work didn't have more charm when read by the author?

Zachariah Wells said...

Oh no, it definitely did. He read in funny voices, such as when he pretended he had a mouth wadded full of cash, and he was generally very animated. But the writing still stank and his level of socio-political analysis was that of an undergrad who's just read Marx and Engels for the first time.

cyansonnet said...

I thought at first Wayman was joking with the political-ish stuff; it was so oversimplified, but then he wasn't, which was too bad.

I noticed we felt the same way about a comment about "the beautiful earth."

Doesn't it seem like "hmm" is the audience equivalent of "WTF???" It's what murmurs up from the room after a lot of nonsense.

Heather McHugh was very good.

Damian Rogers said...

Heather McHugh looks just like Thomas Lux!

Zachariah Wells said...

Okay, that's not the most flattering shot of McHugh, but I like it for all the graffiti carved in the tree trunks.

Yeah, Sonnet, I just love how the beautiful earth is green, don't you. Sigh, hmmmm, WTF??? Snortle, snortle. That bit about Cohen at Lorca's grave, too, oy vey. As for Wayman, he's been peddling that claptrap since '73 and it's put a lot of dollars in his mouth. And money's not neutral, ya know what I mean? Hmmmm.

Zachariah Wells said...

Hey, how 'bout that, the picture I had up WAS of Thomas Lux, not just a bad shot of Heather McHugh. I am a true dumbass. I got the picture from a google image search. It's from this site:

There is a certain similarity there, no? Anyway, apologies humble to Ms. McHugh, should she ever stumble on my bumble.