Amanda Earl–The Symbiotic Nature of Community and Poetry
Community: a social unit with common values OR a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment. (definitions paraphrased/cribbed from Wikipedia).
I have several communities: my apartment building; Chinatown, the neighbourhood in which I live; the city of Ottawa; its literary community; Canada; North America; the world; and within all those places, I am also in that literary community.
I imagine a series of globes nesting inside one another like Russian dolls. For me community is symbiotic: its members contribute to one another’s well-being and being in the community contributes to the well-being of its members. This is starting to sound like a palindrome or a Möbius strip.
For the purposes of this note, let’s consider the idea of community as the general public within my city. I am a member of the public, just as all poets are.
In this note, I don’t choose to address in detail a very important aspect of community because I’ve dealt with it elsewhere: that of people helping one another in times of crisis and how such actions bring a community closer together. In 2009 I became very ill. While I was in hospital and near death, members of Ottawa’s close-knit and caring literary community came to my and my husband’s assistance. For more on that experience, please refer to this post entitled “Community” in the “On Writing” series curated by rob mclennan.
How would you define the relationship between (your) poetry and (or poetry in general; as it does or should converge with) communities/the community?
I listen and I look. Wherever I go I am always in receiver mode. My poetry comes from the intersection between what I see and hear around me, interactions with others and my imagination, experiences, memory and knowledge of other literary works, music, art and other cultural works. I filter all this through my brain and somehow neurons fire up. Fortunately I don’t set the page on fire.
I read at readings which the general public can attend. It’s true that not everyone is interested in poetry or has a reason to go to a reading, just as not all of us are interested in hockey. A former lover of mine once said, “if everyone loved oatmeal, there would be a worldwide shortage of oatmeal.”
Audiences who have come to my readings or other readings I have attended are there because they are interested in my work or my fellow writers’ work; because they are friends or family, are also poets reading at the open mic or are enthusiasts of whatever type of literature is being featured. It is lovely when people come up to me after a reading to let me know that they were affected in some way by what I read. At one reading at Café Nostalgica at the University of Ottawa several years ago, a young student told me that my reading had inspired him to pick up a pen and write while I was reading. I thought this was a high compliment. Engaging with audience members is an essential part of my practice.
I run a site called Bywords.ca, which publishes poetry monthly by current and former Ottawa residents, students and workers. The main idea of the site is to foster and nurture community, to give back to the general public at large and to promote Ottawa writers in general and to publish poets. These writers and the visitors to the site are also part of my community, as are the selectors and other members of the Bywords.ca team.
One of the key features of the site is a calendar of literary and spoken word events which take place in Canada’s National Capital Region. Event organizers send me information about their readings, signings, slams, festivals, workshops etc and I post them on the calendar and also send out notices via social media (Twitter (@bywordsdotca) and FaceBook).
My mission is to ensure that nobody who is interested in Ottawa’s literary events misses an event because they don’t know about it. We have been very fortunate to have been funded for the last eleven years by the City of Ottawa so that we can pay contributing poets, musicians and artists. The City also funds other cultural organizations and individual artists to help ensure that the artistic community thrives and is able to provide the public with an enriched and culturally diverse experience. Without such a commitment it would be difficult for such organizations to offer services to the general public.
We also hold at least one fundraising activity a year for local causes, including Cornerstone Housing for Women, which provides emergency housing and support to downtown women and the AIDS/HIV Walk for Life Ottawa, which raises funds for several local organizations that provide care and support to people with AIDS/HIV and their families. I believe that it is one of the roles of any organization working within a community to give back to its residents since we are all part of the community. Poets can be homeless or afflicted with various health issues and financial difficulties too. We are all connected. We need one another.
In addition to the above activities, I run AngelHousePress, which publishes ragged edges, raw talent and rebels. The publishing activity takes the form of limited edition chapbooks, and two on-line magazines: Experiment-O.com and NationalPoetryMonth.ca. We also host an essay series on AngelHousePress.com. These essays are written by working contemporary writers and artists and serve to aid in the continuation of dialogue about creativity, literature and art. I am interested in inspiring dialogue between creative people, just as much as I am in inspiring responses from the reading public. I think both types of response are equally valid and interesting.
I consider AngelHousePress to be another avenue for fostering and nurturing community. Creative work from all over the world is showcased via AngelHouse and accessible to anyone who might be captivated by it. The Internet to me has shrank the world and enlarged the world: the former because now anyone in the world is able to connect with anyone else of similar interest and proclivities; the latter because the World Wide Web is a gargantuan digital repository much like a dump where one can find both treasures and junk. This is why it is helpful to have curators to find the treasure and alert people to it. I consider myself to be a curator.
I also have a literary blog where I let people know about my work, but also tell them about literaria I find interesting, whether it be poetry collections or chapbooks or online magazines or podcasts or even going a wee bit outside the range of literature and including music. I do this because I am always looking for connection, collaboration opportunities and intimacy with like-minded people… to create a community of kindreds.
How do collective energies find their voice in your verse and how do you think your poems (should) reach communal interests/relevance?
I like Margaret Atwood’s answer to Peter Gzowski in a 1968 CBC interview just after she’d won the Governor General’s Award when he asked her what her poems were about. She said that poetry, like any art form, is a form of expression, and that no one asked an artist what his painting was about. So I don’t think about specific interests or relevance, but we’re all human. My poems tend to have an emotional resonance that, all being well, is something readers can empathize with and relate to.
And faced with the onslaught of cases of social injustice, violence, poverty, natural disaster and disease, the illnesses and deaths of those I hold dear, I am as affected as anyone by tragedy and I find that there’s an echo of this in my work. I always hope that what I write resonates with someone, a fellow lonely person or a whimsical person, someone who can identify with my work. I am a misfit in conventional society, as many of us are. Writing and reading are ways in which I try to find and connect with my fellow misfits. I should point out that many of my long poems or poem series are written in the voice of a historical or imaginary character. I think that such a form can have universal resonance and create empathy in a reader.
Sometimes I will write a poem in support of a cause, such as “The Enpipe Line: 70,000+ kilometres of poetry written in resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal,” (Creekstone Press, March, 2012) or “Air Out/Air In: 21 Poets for the Guatemala Stove Project” (Phafours, 2011).
At various rallies on Parliament Hill, I have encountered a number of my fellow poets protesting or supporting a cause. I believe that poets can be and are often engaged members of a community, as is this case, here in Ottawa. Whether they choose to refer directly to this in their poetry or whether such activism plays a more subtle role is up to them. My priority is always to serve the poem and do whatever is necessary to achieve what is called for within the work.
In this age of globalization and transnational poetries (Jahan Ramazani’s term, but not only) what do you think is the ‘community’ the poet addresses, if any, and what do you think are or may be the premises for emerging virtual and/or trans-national readerships (the “coming community” of theory again—G. Agamben—if you want)?
Here I’d like to give a specific example of a global community I belong to: the visual poetry community. We find out about one another through on-line and print magazines and blogs that publish our work, through FaceBook groups, through sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter where people share links and post work from various visual poets. Through AngelHousePress I have published visual poets from Hungary, Italy, Germany, France, England, Canada, the USA and probably other places. Visual poetry lends itself very well to globalization because it works outside of the context of languages in that you don’t have to understand a particular language to appreciate the work as a piece of art or a form of communication.
When discussing the community the poet addresses, I have to refer to the main thesis of this note: that poets are part of the community. At least that’s how I see myself. I’m writing for myself but also for other misfits and unconventional kindreds. I’m writing for anyone who has ever felt an emotion. This doesn’t change because poetry is able to be read or heard on line throughout the world. In fact, it only makes me more determined to publish online in order to share my work as widely as possible and to connect with other like-minded readers and writers. The question is mainly one of dissemination. I am grateful to translators who make it possible for me to read the works of poets who are writing in languages other than English.
Is there anything nowadays such as communities/schools of poets, in any way relevant to the life of communities around the poets?
Academia continues to attract poets to its programs. I have a number of poetry pals who have worked toward their MFAs in Creative Writing in Canada of late. This is fairly new in Canada, but has been a big part of poetry in the USA. I’m not sure if other countries have such programs. The general public consists of students and family of students and their friends. Do parents encourage their children to take MFAs in Creative Writing? Can students afford to do so without having to incur debts the size of a mortgage before they graduate? These programs lead to more poetry books available to be read by the general public and more instructors to teach the general public’s children. It seems like a healthy contribution to me, except for the debt.
I think in Canada there are certain schools, but it isn’t cut in stone. For example, I would say that Cobourg poet, Stuart Ross, a long-time former resident of Toronto, is a mentor for contemporary surrealism and the small press in Canada. He offers poetry boot camps, manuscript editing and has recently published a book called Our Days in Vaudeville through Mansfield Press, that is a collaboration with 29 other poets, which is a terrific example of reaching out to others in the literary community. He was a writer-in-residence at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario a few years ago and mentored several emerging writers, including Michael E. Casteels, who is a small press owner through his chapbook press, Puddles of Sky, in Kingston.
In Ottawa, rob mclennan is an active promoter and publisher of poetry with his small press above/ground press which publishes chapbooks and broadsides he distributes en masse throughout the world. He also curates a series of on line magazines and is co-publisher of Chaudiere Books, with his wife, fellow poet, Christine McNair. Through these presses and publications, he has introduced numerous writers from around the world to each other and has put Ottawa on the map as a happening literary centre. His 12 or 20 questions series with writers and small press publishers is a great initiative that allows readers to learn about the writers and their works in greater detail.
He has also offered workshops and if he’s the mentor for any particular school, I’d call it the contemporary poetry playbox. He introduces budding poets to the works of contemporary poets they might never have heard of and encourages them to play and experiment. I myself took numerous workshops from him and have learned of/been inspired by the works of Nathanël, Erín Moure, Dennis Cooley, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Cole Swensen, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Kate Greenstreet and more, thanks to rob’s efforts at fostering community.
What are the “actual” or fictional/utopian/dystopic communities in your poetry/in poetries you enjoy or are familiar with?
I’m fascinated with the idea of fictional/utopian and dystopic communities. My poetry lives in the world of my whacky imagination. And I can’t help but be influenced by the creative works of others, both living and dead.
When I first began to draft this piece, I was working on (and probably still am) a poetry manuscript which centres around a woman’s belief that she is Saint Ursula. I am fascinated with saints and historical figures, but not so much with what actually happened to them. The fun for me is in extrapolation. The work concerns a homeless woman who has visions. Through it, I’d like to explore the issues of homelessness here in Ottawa and also chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia etc. When I was in hospital in 2009, I had ICU psychosis, causing terrifying delusions that I believed to be real. It made me worry for those who have to experience such delusions in their daily lives. I’ve written of hell based on Dante’s Inferno via these delusions and the pain I endured during my health crisis.
I also write fiction and my characters are generally bad-asses, who don’t really fit in very well with convention. I have written a few stories set in the period leading up to and after an apocalypse where characters are fighting to survive in draconian circumstances. I find it satisfying to write out my fears and as a reader, I find dystopic texts compelling. I guess it’s a bit like being a rubber-necker at an accident: we don’t want to look at scenes of grisly death, but we can’t tear our eyes away. Sometimes it helps to understand that we are all suffering; there’s a camaraderie in that. These tales also serve as morality plays for what might happen if we continue to a) use up all the resources in our environment; b) continue to place a low priority on those less fortunate…
Wouldn’t it be fun to write within the perspective of a Utopian community! My ideal world entails free love, the end to heteronormative monogamy as the dominant culture, the disappearance of gender binaries, solutions to homelessness, poverty, disease and war. In addition I would like a fully funded arts and culture program, and an endless supply of strong coffee and profiteroles please.
Is your poetry/are your poems a community? In what way(s)?
I typically write long poems and poem series. I think each one of them is a community. Sometimes they are populated with invented or historical characters; other times they are populated with soundscapes (“Sessions from the Dream House Area,” excerpts of which can be found on 17 Seconds Magazine here), metal textures (Me, Medusa, a chapbook published on line by the UK Press, the Red Ceilings Press). Sometimes they interact quite directly with the work of other poets (Ghazals Against the Gradual Demise: chapbook 1 – “Sex First and Then A Sandwich” is in response to Jim Harrison’s ghazals; “The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman” is in response to Robert Kroetsch’s “The Sad Phoenician.”
Could you give us a few considerations on/tentative predictions regarding the future involvement of poetry in the life of communities, or the other way round: the impact of future possible or virtual communities on poetry and their depiction in poetry?
I think we’ll need more curators to guide us in the increasing miasma that is the Internet. As independent bookstores, which used to be the primary hub for readings and author signings, close, we will need other ways to promote and foster a community of readers. In Ottawa in the last few years, we’ve seen the closure of several bookstores, including Collected Works and Mother Tongue Books. Both of which held numerous readings in their stores and sold poetry by local poets.
Sites like GoodReads.com and Canada’s the 49thShelf.com, OpenBookOntario, Lemonhound.com, help to maintain a literary community and inspire readers to purchase books, either on line or in print. There are a number of excellent literary journals on line: DitchPoetry.com, Numero Cinq (a warm place on a cruel web), the Volta, The Conversant, Penn Sound and Jacket2. As postal service is reduced, it is probably true that printed journals will cease to exist, which saddens me immeasurably, but these online hubs, for want of a better term, offer a lot of possibilities that printed journals cannot offer.
I tried to get into Second Life, the virtual reality / role playing game which also seems to have poetry readings somehow. It wasn’t for me, but perhaps others will find this sort of thing a help in fostering community.
I really like the idea of poetry events being broadcast live. The Griffin Poetry Prize for example, always streams the shortlisted readers. I wish the sound quality and video quality was better, but I think that’s coming.
Another cool thing is the book trailer where authors read excerpts from their books which are translated into short films. I think this is exciting, but it has to include an element of feedback, of direct access to the writer, either through social media or e-mail. I know many authors balk at the idea of such direct contact with readers, but for those who enjoy it, we are in a time of great opportunity for interaction between fans and creators. Take a look at the Moving Poems site, which has a huge list of poetry book trailers.
Brick Books, a Canadian publisher, has a slew of audio recordings of its poets and is at the forefront of ensuring all kinds of readers have access to poetry for free through these podcasts.
Two festivals, the Ottawa International Writers Festival and VERSeFest work with local schools to offer programs where authors are invited to schools to read and talk with children. The Ottawa Public Library and local writers organizations also offer similar activities, such as writing contests for young people. These programs seem to be increasing rather than diminishing.
The League of Canadian Poets in collaboration with an advertising company is publishing poems on public buses in a program called “Poetry In Transit.” I have read great poems by poets such as Dionne Brand, P.K. Page and Robert Kroetsch whilst standing on a crowded #95 en route home after a long day in a Byward Market café, penning my own poems and hanging out with fellow poets. Life is rough!
Community radio stations such as Carleton University’s CKCU and the University of Ottawa’s CHUO have programs which feature the arts, particularly poetry on shows such as Friday Special Blend with Susan Johnson, Literary Landscapes with Pearl Pirie, Dave Currie, Kathryn Hunt and Neil Wilson, and Click Here with Mitchell Caplan. The hosts interview poets and publishers on their programs. The CBC through shows such as Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel and The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, also broadcast interviews and highlights literary work, including, on rare occasions, poetry. You can listen to these programs live or as podcasts later on.
I believe all of the above initiatives and activities bring poetry to the community and community to poets. You don’t have to live in the city where a reading is taking place in order to enjoy the work of the poet in the poet’s own voice, for example. And with the help of good curators, this information can be passed on to those new to poetry.
Not to discount the reading as a great opportunity as well. Ottawa is a city full of readings of poetry and fiction. While there’s a tendency for such readings to attract the same old die-hard enthusiasts, there are often at least one or two Ottawa newbies who found out about the reading through a friend or some online resource, such as Bywords.ca.
‘Poetry’? What kind of poetry, if any? How does poetry look in that (any?) picture (of the future), if in any way present? And speaking of virtual, what do you think is or could be the communal relevance of digital/electronic/new media poetry? Is Marjorie Perloff right when she states in Unoriginal Genius that writing the new century poem (concerning itself not with inventio but with the processing and absorption of the foreign itself, and therefore typically proceeding by [inter/hypertextual] sampling and appropriation] is no easier than it ever was, just different?
I think poetry looks very much the same in many ways with books and chapbooks and online journals but as I said, print journals may go the way of the dodo. I think digital poetry combined with animation will be of interest to some people as it is now and perhaps more so. I can even imagine poetry book trailers beginning a film in a theatre, much like animations do today.
I’m hoping that poetry pioneers such as Christian Bök who combines science with poetry will continue to thrive. I hope that there will be more hybrids and fewer genre labels on types of creativity. I hope that the audience for poetry or for these hybrids will increase.
Do we want to see the end of copyright? How does plunderverse as described by Gregory Betts and other forms of appropriation fit in to what is legal or acceptable when it comes to publishing? Will publishers be willing to risk lawsuits and fines if they publish text recycled from others?
I’d like to be able to play with whatever is available. The Internet has made it easier to cut and paste text. I think of Jonathan Ball who licensed his poetry under Creative Commons so that others would be able to take the text and do what they like with it, including creating new forms of art. Take a look at Gary Barwin’s reversals of parts of Ball’s book, “Clockfire.”
I think that being able to work with existing texts or music or art opens up the possibility for creativity, so I’m all for it, provided people give credit where credit is due. The Internet has made it possible for people from all over the world to contact one another. This has also paved the way for collaborative poetry projects.
The Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen has few blogs where she invites contributors from all over the world to participate. See Time for a Vispo.
Or, even beyond virtual community, in Mark Surman and Darren Wershler-Henry’s terms, what is the place of poetry in the “common space” and in the age of the “power of the collective,” and what kind of poetry could that be?
I hope that poets continue to question the dogma and propaganda that is prevalent in society, thanks to increasing Big Brother presence, censorship and double speak of government and large corporations. The poet is the canary in the coal mine, n’est-ce-pas? I am hoping that grassroots collectives such as the Occupy Movement, Idle No More and other activist groups continue to grow and gain support and that artists and writers who question the dogma are able to thrive, but I worry that Conservative intolerance for unconventional lifestyles, non mainstream thinking and the power and corruption of right-wing forces will keep free thinkers underground. The fact that we have to be concerned with governments monitoring our social media and Internet interactions is very scary to me. It shows there is a need now more than ever to make art and to find ingenious ways to disseminate it, as Diderot did during the creation of L’Encylopédie when he published entries that challenged the status quo under mundane items such as “Souliers” [shoes].
And, if, as a well-known playwright twitted a few months ago and then a Washington Post article elaborated on, “poetry is dead”—which is also the name of an excellent Vancouver based poetry magazine—is there any (chance for a) post-history post-poetry out there, or in here, in your verse?
T.W. Adorno wrote that “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric;”yet we have an impulse to bear witness. I think this is more important than ever today. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was one of the writers who utilized symbolism and allegory in his work to personalize and portray the horrors of war at a time when literal renderings were censored. Poetry is an ideal and subtle means of articulating the dangers of acceptance of the status quo and a way to question the language of propaganda. I think for this reason alone and there are many other reasons to add, it will survive because it is needed by the reading public to help us translate and convey emotion, tragedy, comedy and life in all its myriad and complicated facets. To create art is to survive and to rebel against convention.
I think poetry will continue to exist, change and adapt as it has always done, and to serve an audience. I have no intention of stopping writing poetry or whatever hybrid I choose to create, even if I had a choice in the matter. As Mark Twain once said, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Amanda Earl is an Ottawa poet, publisher and pornographer. She defends your right to express your creativity in whatever way you please. She is the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the (fallen) angel of AngelHousePress. Her poetry has been published both on line and in print in America, Australia, Canada, England, France and Ireland. Her visual poetry has been exhibited in Russia and Windsor, Ontario. Her most recent poetry chapbook, Sex First & Then A Sandwich is available from above/ground press. For more information, please visit AmandaEarl.com or talk to her on Twitter @KikiFolle.