But first, singer/pianist Sharon Bee entertained arrivals with her own compositions. The classically-trained pianist has a very beautiful voice and a huge talent. Later in the evening she told me that she is adapting some of a friend’s poems to music, turning them into songs. Her friend just happens to be one of our upcoming featured poets, Monika Lee, due to read June 4th! So we decided that Sharon and Monika will do a mixed performance. Can’t wait!
When Sharon Bee finished her set, our featured poet, M. NourbeSe Philip, read poems from her latest book Zong!, which is based on a legal decision at the end of the eighteenth century that related to the notorious murder of many Africans on board a slave ship. Slaves were dumped overboard like excess cargo in order to lighten the ship. Philip’s poems don’t limit themselves to the situation, its horror and its legal aftermath, but deal with slavery itself and the social and personal effects of slavery, and with death, survival, and memory...the dwindling memory of the murdered. And the sadness of that. She used the court document and other historical details as ‘found’ material to inspire deeper, wider feelings and poetic content.
After her twenty-minute reading, Ms. Philip answered questions, several of which dealt with these periods of silence. She said that as the spaces became more and more common in her writing, she began to realize they were as important as the words themselves. She said only bits and pieces of information survived about the ship and the individuals on board, about their lives and what happened to them and why. Those bits and pieces were separated by space and time, as were the slaves from their communities, and as were the memories of them by survivors. And by further generations of survivors. The same thing happens to all of us individually, to our own lives, she said. Space takes over. What we do with the space is as important as the actual memories.
With this perspective in mind, we decided not to go directly to the open mic section of the event but instead asked Philip to read a couple more poems first. For many in the audience, it was a deeply affecting experience.
Every full slate of open mic readers includes familiar faces along with some new ones. As this one did. And every open mic has its share of surprises.
Big Kevin Austin brought immediate applause as he moved to the mic. I actually heard people around me say, “Hey,” and “Look, that’s...” ....yes, our videographer. Hopefully he kept the camera running because he proved to be a masterful speaker. None of us cared that he didn’t have a poem of his own to read, as his presentation and reading from a favourite book of anonymous poems was so memorable. In fact, I think Kevin’s hard work on our videos, combined with his reading ability, has earned him the right to break our norm and read to us any poems he wants to.
Kevin Austin’s friend Andrew Iwaniw, who helps him set up, was so inspired by our previous open mic, the first one either man had attended, that he then wrote his first-ever poem and read it at this one! That took courage, I would think. In fact, I heard the word ‘dare’ mentioned. Not sure who dared whom, but in any case I hope Andrew keeps getting inspired. Maybe one day we’ll be able to say we launched his career!
David Simpson, a notable local guitarist, read the lyrics to a song he had just written. As he went to his chair I asked if he could sing it for us. He said not now, meaning, I think, that he didn’t have his guitar along to sing it with. But last year one gentleman did sing acapela for us, which was marvelous. I’m looking forward to the next time that happens.
One of our most enthusiastic attendees, Joan Clayton, mentioned to me at the beginning of the event that she hadn’t brought a poem to read this time. I was a bit disappointed but then remembered noticing her, at one of our events last season, intensely scribbling on a napkin while the other people read, and then getting up when her name was called and reading a masterful poem from that same napkin. So I said, “Joan, why don’t you just sit down and write one right now? You’re probably one of the very few people here who could do that.” So she did. With focus and intensity in the middle of all that hubbub. And then read it.
I emailed her later to see if she had actually dug up an old one and read that instead. No: “The first three lines I had already thought of, plus I memorize poetry and am currently memorizing Hallelujah (lyrics my Leonard Cohen), so I wove them together with some Christmas imagery like 'a swollen woman breads her hair the mucus plug shoots a hole through the eye of heaven'.” Hmmm.
Well, anyway, when Kevin Austin gets his video out, you can listen once again to that one and all the others as well.
BIOGRAPHY OF M. NOURBESE PHILIP
INTERVIEW/POEMS: M. NOURBESE PHILIP