Posted on 9/26/2007 by Sam Varteniuk
At the launch for the poetry festival Mayor Stephen Mandel put his foot in his mouth. He was in the middle of reading a poem that had been inscribed onto a commemorative plaque when he arrived at an image that disagreed with him. I don’t remember the poem, but I do remember that the thing he didn’t like was the simile ‘like a darn good road.’
“Who thought of the road analogy?” Mandel blurted in the middle of his reading, his distaste obvious. He kept reading, but interrupted himself to reflect on what an awful, common, and flat image was that ‘darn good road’.
As he finished his reading, outgoing poet laureate Alice Major whispered something in his ear.
“The road analogy was Alice’s” Mandel proclaimed, not missing a beat. “And it’s a darn fine one at that.”
I had to admire the seasoned politician’s ability to roll with the situation. I was even reminded of our once fearless leader Mr. Klein and his determination to speak his mind regardless of how poorly informed or disillusioned he was. People seemed to like it. I found myself wondering if Mandel had done it on purpose, knowing that Edmontonians like a certain brusque, blue-collar abrasiveness in their civic leaders.
But it also got me thinking about how subjective poetry can be, and how a poetic image can go from banal to darn fine depending on who wrote it.
So it was with that in mind that my wife and I made our way to the Axis Café on Jasper Avenue to take in the readings of four poets last Friday. One of the poets was my friend Karen who I know from the Schizophrenia Society. I had initially asked her to accompany me to a poetry reading event since she’s a poet and even got a grant for it once, so I was pleased to discover that she was actually involved in one of them.
The Axis Café is a trendy little joint near the corner of Jasper and 104. It’s got a balcony that spans half the length of the main floor, overlooking the rest of the café – it was up there that they’d decided the poetry reading would take place. When we arrived there were four or five other people on the balcony so we took a seat on a pair of cushioned leather chairs in the corner. Then a few more people showed up. Then some more. Then a couple of large groups. The café produced some folding chairs and we crammed in as best we could, but by the time the readings were scheduled to commence there was standing room only and we were packed in like sardines.
“Is there a weight restriction up here?” the man beside me asks.
“No no,” the poet emcee replies confidently. But there is. There has to be. And we’re definitely over it.
I remember Karen telling me once that she doesn’t like small or crowded places and wonder how she’s doing. I’m also becoming aware of the fact that there might actually be a danger here, crammed overweight into a small space. But it’s somehow fitting: dangerous poetry.
Karen uses a pen name when she writes – ky perraun. I ask her if I should call her that instead of Karen.
“Yeah,” she smiles. “Call me jelly.”
“Attention,” says a pretty young lady who’s stepped up to the microphone. “Downstairs there’s a nice little stage and, while it’s not as cozy as up here, there’s seating for everyone. Vote?”
Half of us raise our hands. Maybe less than half. But somehow that’s enough. We are in Canada after all. So we trundle off downstairs to discover a perfect little performance space all ready to go with a microphone and sound booth and mood lighting, and I’m thinking why the crap were we upstairs in the first place?
The first poet (the pretty one who’d arranged the move downstairs) isn’t a very good reader. She doesn’t enunciate and speaks in monotone. She rushes from one poem to the next, a series of images that wash over me. She pauses at one point to explain that the lack of pauses, descriptions, or titles is intentional, part of the stream-of-poetry consciousness she’s going for. I suppose she’s aware of an unspoken request from the audience for greater clarity.
The second poet is Karen. She’s a good reader, but then again I’m biased. Her poems are stories of being on the psych ward, of a person’s reality breaking down. I am thankful that I won’t have to lie to her afterward when I tell her she’s good.
The third poet reminds me of the first. Her reading is a bit more energetic, but her poems are a series of images, word pictures, written for the aesthete who wishes to savour each word, sucking on it like a Werther’s Original. I never went for that sort of candy. I prefer things I can chew on.
Which is why I like the last poet. Her poems are all about sex; dirty, zipless, lusty, torrid sex. I can connect to it. There’s a story there, and the images are serving it rather than fighting with it for centre stage.
And in the end I suppose poetry is like a darn good road. It’s best when it’s headed somewhere with clearly marked signage. Some poetry is like those roads in residential sub-divisions, the ones that bend all over in cul-de-sacs with speed bumps everywhere, never travelling very far in a straight line. They’re meant to serve the people who live there and to confuse everyone else, discouraging motorists from blasting through looking for shortcuts. Good roads take you somewhere interesting. The traffic on them moves. There are nice things to look at out the window, but the things whip by, forming a blurred backdrop to the journey which is the real thrill. If you stop too much to look at the sights you may not end up arriving where you were headed in the first place.