This dream, this precious life

Stormy weather and animal dreams. I was in a slaughterhouse, looking at a hole in the wall. A mouse hole? A hand reached out to stroke the snout of a hippo. To soothe it? Are they related to swine or do they just look like they are? Then many hands emerged from the hole, not exactly waving. Next night, with a guinea pig on my shoulder, I watched as a woman in a window frolicked with four little lap dogs, all different breeds, housed within a kind of four-plex cage. So I don’t know what’s up with that but perhaps such bizarreness was triggered by news of an incident in North Carolina, a sheriffs’ department using stray dogs for target practice, which made me think of the sled dogs that were euthanized in Whistler post-Olympics, after they lost their usefulness. Ah, human cruelty knows no bounds. We treat each other like garbage too.

Word on the Street Festival endured more weather challenges than usual, tents on Hamilton Street blown down by high winds. I was astounded, thought they’d cancelled or something. That would be a first. Then we endured a colossal downpour. An hour later, rainbows and sunshine, me cursing. I always travel with sunglasses and an umbrella but that morning couldn’t imagine the sun emerging. I should know better after all these years of Vancouver weather. Highlights, Elizabeth Bachinksy’s Event Magazine writers/readers Wayde ComptonCharles Demers and Amber Dawn. They’re celebrating 40 years, as is Talonbooks. As usual I ran into many fellow maniacs, happy to see the majority. (Some) people will treat you like garbage, if you let them. One perk of maturity; I know life is precious. Ditto time.

And we are not dogs. Dinner with precious friends. Does wine tastes better in a restaurant or is it just me I asked? Laughter. It’s just you Heather. True enough. It’s just me.

Recovering from an intense weekend of Visible Verse Festival programming. Whew! It really has grown, this festival and I was forced to make some very tough decisions. There were more than a few submissions in the Maybe pile that I wanted to screen but ran out of time. I announced the program Monday, making quite a few artists very happy in the process. Guess it’s all worth it.

I’m posting the essay I wrote for Sheri-D’s Spoken Word Workbook earlier this year. She’ll be in town to perform at the Vancouver International Writers Festival next month and will facilitate a master class in spoken word as well. I’ve been asked how collaborating in music and video affects my practice, thought this answered the question:

S I D E W A Y S

By Any Medium Necessary

Subversive, sub rosasidewayslike a snake in the grass is often how an artist must move and technology can help us cover more ground. I address social issues in my work but I dread dogma as much as cliché. I believe that being an artist is a political statement.

Though founder of the Edgewise ElectroLit Centre, I am not a technocrat. I felt strongly it was vital for poets and artists to have a presence on the World Wide Web, so published—or Web authored as it was referred to—the Edgewise Café—one of Canada’s first electronic literary zines. I’m not a technophobe either, just a poet struggling to be heard, by “any medium necessary,” as my Telepoetics friend and colleague Merilene Murphy used to say.

I employ myriad media to advance my art including the Internet. Democratic, even anarchistic, the Internet provides a powerful alternative to print, as publication in print becomes more difficult, but also less critical. Musicians have adapted well, learning to cultivate an audience online though social networking. Adapt or die. Brutal. Darwinian. Natural. Some writers, dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming, are beginning to think outside the book, beyond text and adopting the DIY—Do It Yourself—edict. Be your own agent, publicist, and publisher.

I for one will be relieved when we are free of the gatekeepers. Then we will do it our way, according to our own individual circumstances, style and vision. Opportunity abounds.

I must confess. Though I’m a well-adapted digital immigrant, I am still a page baby at heart. It is safe to say that when I was a child my dogs and my books saved my life. I am thrilled each time I manage to get published and still consider the book to be a valid technology. At the end of a long, hard day I am only too happy to abandon the screen and curl up in bed with a good novel. Recall too, that the demise of painting was predicted when photography came along and then movies with television. There is much fevered talk of the book’s extinction but I’ve been noticing a backlash, not unlike the slow food movement. Popular lately are elaborate volumes replete with illuminated text much like the books of yore. In any case, I try to think beyond media, because what is most fundamental is voice.

One of the most useful aspects of the Internet is the personal website or blog. A website is an effective showcase and more versatile than ever before. Images, video and music players, podcasts and Internet radio stations can be incorporated without much difficulty. I’ve had a web site for a long time and was reluctant to begin blogging. I instinctively resist trends, but eventually I overcame my trepidation. My blog, One Life, has forced me to be more productive and helps to keep my writing chops up. I was afraid of the pressure, the unspoken law that dictates daily entries, but I have found there is no giant hammer that drops from the sky onto my head when I don’t, or can’t. It’s a journal and I often post poetry or prose as well. I like to include photographs and graphics and provide as many links as possible, because of course the more links, the more traffic is driven to the site. I use WordPress but Blogger and LiveJournal are popular and user friendly as well. I promote my blog primarily through Twitter, Networked Blogs and Facebook.

Another vital medium is video. I believe Jean Cocteau was the first poet to employ film. In 1930 he produced Blood of a Poet, usually categorized as surrealist art. Then there were the “film poets” from the West Coast abstract school, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson and Hy Hirsh, the latter two collaborating with John Cage, in 1947. In 1978 Tom Konyves of Montreal’s Vehicule Poets coined the term “videopoetry,” to describe his multimedia work. Rather than get bogged down in semantics, I’d like to point out that I think in terms of moving images, and don’t make a huge distinction between film and video. I work with digital video because it is accessible and affordable, important considerations for most poets. A high definition camera can now be acquired for approximately $500. I don’t have to settle for a lower quality image either.

Though most of us in the West are visually literate, it is brave—foolish some say—to adapt the oral tradition to a medium where image is metaphor. I’m drawn to video because of its populist nature. It lends itself to hybridization and its history of experimentation is a fundamental aspect of the medium. Video is a natural fit for me, having grown up with television and cinema. According to my mother, I was enthralled with movies and always viewed them with my mouth gaping in awe. It’s a powerful medium and I still can’t resist its lure. In 1999, as one of the curators of the Vancouver Videopoem Festival, I defined videopoem for a journalist as “a wedding of word and image.” Achieving that level of integration is difficult and rare however. In my experience the greatest challenge of this hybrid genre is fusing voice and vision, aligning ear with eye. Some poets like to see words on the screen. The effect can be exquisite but I find that film/video doesn’t accommodate text well. We are busy listening to the poem with our eyes, assimilating it through our ears. I prefer spoken word. Voice is the critical element, medium and venue secondary considerations. Unlike a music video—the inevitable and ubiquitous comparison—a videopoem stars the poem rather than the poet, the voice seen as well as heard.

As for criteria, the words must have true literary merit. Approaches to production are as diverse as the poets, but in terms of execution, I prefer to take a cinematic approach. Using the poem as script, I start with a shot list and storyboard. I see it as an adaptation process, adapting voice and text to video. Preparation is crucial. Choose your crew wisely. Get everything in writing. I pay artists half their fee up front and the remainder when the work is completed. Invariably videopoems are produced despite zero budgets; one must be inventive and resourceful.

Speaking of voice, it’s the other thing that saved me. Singing. Performance. I grew up listening to folk and country music and sang in choirs at school and church, the only reason I attended. I would get very excited donning our robes and making our “entrance,” only to drift off to sleep during mass.

In my book, poetry evolved from the oral tradition. Long before Gutenberg, people gathered together to share stories. Verse was devised as a way to preserve myth, to pass it down generation to generation. By breaking the story into lines and stanzas people were better able to recall them. Rhythm and rhyme are powerful mnemonic devices, as is melody, song evolving for the same reason.

And speaking of song, music can be a powerful vehicle. It’s entirely possible to find and develop a rapport with a guitarist, cellist, accordion or banjo player—according to your own bent—to accompany you and your words. In my AURAL Heather work, which I call “spoken word song,” I collaborate with musicians in several ways. They might compose melody to accompany my words, or I will write poetry to go with their music, improvising and experimenting along the way, a “fusion” of spoken word and song our goal.

Advice I wish I’d received along with Read and Learn your craft: Find your voice. Be true to it.

As for the future, I can imagine a growing awareness of spoken word and video poetry, more cross-pollination between disciplines, genres and media, currently manifesting in media and music as the mashup. With nearly universal access to the necessary tools, I envision rampant experimentation and innovation certainly. I can see, and hear, a melding of poem and music, a blurring of the distinctions between song and verse, music video and videopoem. Perhaps a renaissance in poetry is inevitable. I’d like to think so, but I’m an incurable optimist, daring to imagine a utopia where everyone is a creator.

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2 thoughts on “This dream, this precious life

  1. Though I cannot remember your voice I attribute one to your words. Do not do that usually, not even when I have heard an authour’s distinctive voice – like Cohen’s or Bukowski’s. Your voice, the one I hear in my head, by the way, is sweet as a pack of Maynard’s Swedish Fish.

    The internet has been a gift for this writer. My audience small, yet growing. Some of them must hear a voice in my words. I hope they think I sound like Gordie Howe.

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