Recently-moved-to-Hamilton writer Ryan Pratt reviews
March 2nd's LitLive reading where no Oscar results were mentioned.
Lit Live Reading Series
Featuring: Angie Abdou, Christine McNair, Jim Smith,
Lynn Davies, Andrew Faulkner and Marcus McCann.
Hosted by Jeff Mahoney
March 2, 2014.
If my first Lit Live encounter, during which I barely managed to get a chair, taught me the advantages of arriving early, Sunday’s stacked bill illustrated the drawback of planning too far ahead: I showed up before Homegrown Hamilton had even opened. Oops. Luckily, Christine McNair and rob mclennan (with baby Rose on shoulder) were just behind me, as well as a steady stream of enthusiasts looking for words and warmth. As it turned out, seats weren’t quite as hard to come by this time – I suspect the amount of Oscars’ chatter had something to do with it – but I counted at least thirty in attendance before Hamilton Spectator columnist and host Jeff Mahoney took the stage.
For her first time reading in Hamilton, Angie Abdou read a hallucinogenic excerpt from her ski-culture adventure The Canterbury Trail (Brindle & Glass). The book takes apart many west coast stereotypes while revealing, in Abdou’s words, the “debauchery behind a spiritual façade”. Exploring the divide between a seven-month-pregnant woman and her high-as-a-kite partner as they scale a wintry mountain, the British Columbia novelist was poignant and funny – looking at the enormity of relationships and wilderness through an increasingly narcotic lens.
As Ottawa’s Christine McNair followed, the extent of the evening’s variety slowly began to dawn on me. Picking selections from her Archibald Lampman-nominated Conflict (BookThug) and pleasantries and other misdemeanors (Apt 9 Press), McNair’s performance held the café enraptured. In the absence of any histrionics, the word “performance” may seem ill fitted but McNair’s velocity at the mic was exacting; a feverish mix of breathing technique and cadences that cleared hills of raw material. An assortment of hums and nods from the crowd greeted McNair’s final poems, which included “Mythology”, “This Is What I Meant” (evocative in its pigments, prisms and gasoline rainbows) as well as the memorably dysfunctional relationship of “Problem With Orchids.”
If you can imagine the next poet somehow meeting that level of professionalism while simultaneously subverting it with toilet humour, you’re probably familiar with Jim Smith. Believe me: by the time he’d read a list poem about nature expelling the Conservative elite and an entry from his work-in-process, A Thousand Fascinating Things About Me, I was wondering how I could’ve missed him. Smith was entirely at home at the microphone, selecting from Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra (Mansfield Press) and at one point exclaiming, “What the hell did that mean?” to his own poem. His cheerful irreverence even neutralized the stigma of politics, using the Criminal Code of Canada as inspiration for an erasure poetry project. By straining the superfluous filler from each law, Smith tantalized the audience with silly and scary facts about our legislature. “Everyone who is large is punishable,” is one example I managed to copy down.
Our second writer from out of province, New Brunswick native Lynn Davies, reinstated a sense of quiet with readings from How the gods pour tea (Goose Lane) that surveyed nature in its unapologetic instincts and hunger. Davies began with “a strawberry poem” that, in the midst of a protest against razing acres of strawberry fields, overhears fellow confessions and hardships of a community’s delicate stitches. Her gentle delivery and effective pauses gave added heft to “The Swan” and “How Much”, two poems that view death in the wild with an unblinking eye. (I snuck a peek at a few extra pages of How the gods pour tea during intermission and promptly added it to my wish-list. Great stuff.)
So far the evening had thrived on a seesawing rhythm of humour and depth but with the last two readers, humour would win out. Andrew Faulkner, suffering from a lost watch and a head cold, persevered with edgy readings from Need Machine (Coach House Books). “Rats”, a poem about living with the threat of vermin, embodied his obsessive approach to grinding many poetic avenues out of one focus. “Notes on a Theme” spun an assortment of potential party themes – utilizing pop-culture, political and sexual taboos into his tongue-in-cheek repetition – until the accumulation warranted no party at all. Faulkner’s work was biting, often weaving dark humour through darker circumstances, although his delivery did justice in separating Need Machine’s shades.
Those self-deprecating and sharp qualities apply just as well to fellow Torontonian Marcus McCann, representing The Hard Return (Insomnia Press), whose satirical views on the downfalls of modern life were playful and clever. Opening with faux enthusiasm on “Cover Letter” and closing with a “cement-mixer of restraint” for “Resignation Letter,” McCann’s inquiry into depressing jobs struck a jovial chord with the crowd. He pushed on with quirkier focuses, including receiving random penis photos from strangers, frustrations with the ‘chance of sun/rain/cloudiness’ pictogram – the sort of material comedians look for. The ultimate highlight for me was hearing McCann tackle some poems from Labradoodle, An Essay on David McGimpsey (above/ground press), one of my favourite chapbooks from last year.
As the program wrapped up, I didn’t hear a word about the Oscars. Who’d won, who’d lost – it could wait. The assortment of nearby and far-off writers who made the trip to Hamilton made for an unpredictable but thoroughly engaging night. And we can expect more of that energy next month when Lit Live Reading Series combines with Hamilton’s literary festival GritLit for a special line-up of events. Check here for details.