This Audio of the Week features Margaret Avison reading “Thaw” on Friday January 27, 1967, at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). “Thaw” is a poem that feels right for this spring day – when patches of snow are melting beside tulip buds sprouting up from the ground. But, this year, the arrival of spring feels bittersweet. At the time when we are usually released from the solitude of winter, we have been forced into self-isolation by the spread of the virus COVID-19. For now, we stay at home and stay apart.
A previous Audio of the Week featured one of Livesay’s most song-like poems “The Unquiet Bed” and this Audio of the Week features another musical poem by Livesay from that same reading in Montreal on January 14, 1971. The poem is “Bartok and the Geranium,” a poem that is often anthologized and, in fact, you may have studied it in a course on Canadian poetry. But do you know how Livesay wrote it? In this Audio of the Week, along with hearing the poem, you will hear Livesay telling her own story of how the poem began.
When listening to one recording from the SGW Poetry Series (1966-1974), it can be hard to hear its place amid the reading series as a whole. One can visualize its place on a list or on a calendar but it can be harder to sonically hear the seriality itself, except when someone on the recording, most often the host, refers to the previous or following reading. For this Audio of the Week, as we near the end of 2019, I have selected two clips from December readings in which there are announcements for the next readings in January.
As I listened to December readings from various years in the SGW Poetry Series – to mark the end of this year, 2019 – I started exploring the reading by Daryl Hine. At first, I considered selecting his reading of the final poem, “The Trout,” but then I noticed something else: a note for one timestamp (00:42:19) indicating that Hine introduced and read “an unknown poem.” As I listened to his introduction, I realized that he was preparing the audience for the now-famous poem “Point Grey,” which, at the time of this reading, was not published. In fact, the introducer of Hine at the start of the reading mentioned that Minutes, the collection that contained “Point Grey,” would be published in 1968.
Daphne Marlatt starts her reading with poems from Vancouver Poems (1972), a deeply local collection that she had not yet published when this reading took place at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal. She tells the audience that she will explain the local references as she goes along, starting with the first poem that refers to Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. What Marlatt could not have anticipated is that the poems would become pathways to revisit the city when republishing many of them years later in Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now (2013).
As the first Audio of the Week to be selected from The Words & Music Show collection, this clip features poet Kaie Kellough. Kellough’s voice has been recorded many times throughout the past twenty years of Montreal’s Words & Music Show, a monthly cabaret of spoken word, poetry, music, and dance, established and organized by poet and musician Ian Ferrier. The recordings of these shows have now been digitized and catalogued by SpokenWeb researchers at Concordia University. During the digitization process, student research assistant Ali Barillaro noticed that this performance by Kellough stood out from the rest. As Kellough starts to introduce his reading, a pre-recorded voice slowly mixes with his live words. Where, then, does the introduction end, and where does the reading begin?
After reading for about eleven minutes, Earle Birney pauses to ask if there is any water to drink. There is a glass and a pitcher (audibly present) but nearly empty, and thus the evening’s host George Bowering heads out into the hallway to find Birney a cold beverage. This interlude of extra-poetic speech reveals that, despite it being mid-February, the room temperature feels more like summer and, more importantly, the humourous nature of the extra-poetic speech attunes the listener to the sociality as well as to the poetry.
Dorothy Livesay’s poem “The Unquiet Bed” has appeared on the pages of many Canadian poetry anthologies, but what cannot be heard fully on the page is the sound of this poem as a ballad. It is an “unquiet” poem. The refrain – “The woman I am / is not what you see” – suggests that both the speaker and the poem are not what you see, though perhaps they are what you hear.
During her introductory remarks (featured in last week’s Audio of the Week), poet Muriel Rukeyser asks the audience not only to raise their hands if they’ve ever written a poem but also to reflect upon what drives people to attend poetry readings in the first place. She speculates that people come and listen to poems because of embodied elements – the breathing, the heartbeat, the rhythms – and because of something else that is created while sharing a poem together. In her reading, there are poems in which one is acutely aware of being together, listening, even while listening to the recording. This poem is one of them: “Anemone” (The Speed of Darkness, 1968) – a poem that enacts Rukeyser’s opening remarks by making the room at once oceanic and intimate, and by saying to the listener: “You are here.”
In her opening remarks, poet Muriel Rukeyser asks her audience to raise their hands if they have ever written a poem. We hear a murmur and bits of laughter and, presumably, hands are raised. She thanks them, explaining that she has begun asking every audience this question and that “there’s always the moment of silence, and looking around first, and generally, quite slowly, almost all the hands go up.” Before reading a single poem, she manages to create a community of listeners and of poets. As Jane Malcolm has argued, if Rukeyser’s goal is “to occupy the room with poetry,” then, even without knowing how many raised their hands, “we are now listening to a collective, to one mere poet in a room of poets.” We start to hear the room as collectively invested in the questions of what a poetry reading is and why poetry readings as live events are worth seeking out – questions that we may also ask ourselves while seeking out and listening to these recordings today.