On the evening of Tuesday, May 29th, I had a pleasantly warm ride along College to the Church of St Stephen in fields. What fields? Were they the magnetic fields? What was St Stephen doing in the fields? I’d thought it had something to do with St Stephen doing the old evangelical mind-fuck on farm workers, but apparently they call churches “in the fields” because of their location when they are built. In this case it was literally built in a field, which at that time in 1857, stretched all the way to University College. Imagine that! That must mean that all of those computer stores at College and Spadina were also in the same field at the same time, along with the 7-11 on the corner. So why isn’t it called “The 7-11 in the Fields”?
After entering the church I talked with Laboni about the land acknowledgement that she recites before Shab-e She’r begins. In it she mentions the meaning of the name “Toronto”, but only gives one, even though scholars don’t all agree that it comes from “Tkaronto”, meaning “the place where trees stand in the water”. Of the ones that think Toronto comes from “Tkaronto”, not all of them agree that what is now the city of Toronto is the original place where the trees stood in the water but rather a settlement further north of here, which later moved south and kept the name. Laboni said she’d look into it and thanked me for my feedback. Sometimes though when people thank me for my feedback it really means “leave me alone”.
Jeannine Pitas was sitting in the front row with Bänoo Zan. Jeannine used to be a Shab-e She’r volunteer but then a few years ago she moved to Iowa for work and so she only gets up here about once a year. Bänoo got up and gave me something slightly more substantial than an air hug. Jeannine told me that she’d be the photographer for the night and wondered if it would be okay to take my picture. I told her head on would be best because profile accentuates my fat belly too much. She commented that I write funny captions for the photos and cited the one she’d taken of Sydney White and I chatting. Sydney had maid the claim that Lady Diana had been pregnant at the time of her death but that the Rothschild banking family control the British government and the royal family through the banks and they would not allow the world to find out that the future king’s ex-wife was going to have a “Muslim baby”. Jeannine was surprised that I had actually been quoting parts of our conversation. She’d thought that I’d made it up. I told her that the part that I’d made up was my response, which I’d only thought of later, and that was, “Gee, I didn’t know that babies were religious!”
Bänoo went to the mic and announced that if anyone wants to sign up for the open stage we should give her our names. I asked, “If I give you my name, what am I going to use?” She answered, “You can use mine.”
Tom Hamilton was in the sacristy playing Shenandoah or some Scottish air on his violin and then he moved on to even sleepier and sadder pieces. This was the first time I’d ever seen him at Shab-e She’r, but it made sense because I’ve seen him everywhere else.
Tom Smarda arrived and instead of greeting me he tried to hand me a pamphlet about an online petition to shut down the Pickering Nuclear power plant. I told him that I wouldn’t be signing it.
We started at 19:08 with the land acknowledgement. It might have been a coincidence unrelated to my earlier conversation with Laboni but she stumbled over her mentions of Toronto and Tkaronto.
Bänoo said this was the 63rd event since Shab-e She’r started in November of 2012. She repeated that the goal is to bring together diverse communities because otherwise people in each of those communities will run their own events and the groups will remain separate.
There were several former features in the audience and Bänoo asked them all to raise their hands, saying of one of them, “We have a legend in the house: Lillian Allen!”
Bänoo gave a special introduction for Jeannine Pitas to kick off the open mic, telling us how Jeannine used to volunteer for Shab-e She’r but had to leave Canada to work. Bänoo urged Canadian employers to not let people like Jeannine slip away from our country.
Jeannine’s poem was called “Macondo” after the fictional village of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”- “Once a village lost its memory … The people hung two signs to remind themselves of the facts … They tried to take photographs of god … Priests walked across the sky … Sometimes a war broke out … Sometimes a man faced a firing squad and survived … I imagine them rising each morning … I am trying to work as they did … I am trying not to be surprised when a child becomes a feather … before I lose both name and face.”
Nordine Storm said, “Boom boom boom … A quickie … Blue in the hips … Blue in the lips … Techno funk to save our nation … She governs how we address others … Boom boom boom.”
Yavar Qadri read – “Flames of the … burning leaves … in the breezy gardens … each pile tended by one … promptly put in the pot …”
Yavar’s second poem was “In the Warmth” – “Warmth is such a simple thing … It’s something he can share with whomsoever he wished … Small moments of happiness … ready to smother pain … Complete the happiness chain.”
Lee Papart read “Clothes Line June 1982” – “Mom stood next to the silo … A thoughtless wind blew her dress above her knees …”
From Norman Allan – “She played with the devil’s pudding … No closure.”
From Norman Allan – “She played with the devil’s pudding … No closure.”
I got up and announced that my poem was called “Aging in Your Direction”. Tom asked me to repeat it and then said he’d thought I’d said something about an erection. I told him, “That’s in there too!”From my poem- “Innocence as sin / when this interesting / is a non Participation / in clumsiness / far inside / where it rests / and can exist / in devastation / where we’re surrounded / by a nature / that constricts us / like a python / made of coiled / religious scripture / on top of the smoke chain / of Ba-bye-lon / and you remind me / of gravity / because I am aging / in your direction / Let’s go for broke / and be binary” I looked over at Tom to deliver the line “so I can die / with an erection / and you can fill me / with a p-o-u-r excuse / for the emptiness / of the hang woman’s noose”.
My piece seemed to go over well.
Bänoo announced that the next performer had come all the way from Newfoundland. She said, “Please welcome Wendi!” I thought to myself, “Wendi? I know a Wendi from Newfoundland! Could it be Wendi Smallwood?”
It was Wendi Smallwood! From Wendi’s poem – “My mother cleaned the toilet with Pinesol … resin thick … disinfecting … rubber gloved … pouring it undehydrated … cushioning … nostrils flared … fingers smudging spit … hand dipping, swirling … toboggan … body rigid … elbow bent back … flushed.”
It was time for the first feature, Gianna Patriarca, but in introducing her Bänoo began reading the bio for the second feature Thunderclaw Robinson. She’d gotten the bios mixed up because Thunderclaw had originally been scheduled to go first but Gianna had decided that because of her age she might not have as much energy if she went up later, so they switched.
Gianna said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been on an altar! Jesus!” She meant that in the Catholicism in which she was raised one would not use the altar as a stage. St Stephen in the Fields though is an Anglican church.
Gianna told us, “I want to do spoken word, that stuff that they do, but I’m old! I’m going to try because John Dryden said that writers should both enlighten and entertain.”
Gianna recited “Returning” from memory – “In the 60s we came in swarms / like summer bees /smelling of something strange / wearing the last moist kiss /of our own sky … I was one of them / tucked away below the sea line / on the bottom floor of a ship / that swelled and ached / for thirteen days / our bellies emptied into the Atlantic / until the ship finally vomited / on the shores of Halifax / there where the arms and legs / of my doll fell apart into the sea / finding their way back over the waves …” When she finished she commented, “Not so good, eh?” There was loud applause.
“I’ll stick to reading!” Gianna recounted how when she was a schoolteacher she once asked her students, “What is a poet?” One boy called out, “I know! It’s someone who can’t write sentences!”
Her next poem was “For Grandma, in Bed, Waiting”- “Your arms are the wrong colour … Pain … never smiles … Your face contradicts everything … How could 91 years not have bruised … You have come to the end of your journey … There’s something between us … I come, I sit by your bed … I am in awe ... You take me to your century.”
Gianna told us that she wrote book years ago called “Daughters for Sale”. Her six-year-old daughter at the time asked, “Mommy, are you selling me?”
From “Loreta, la calda” - “They won't talk about sex / They talk about everything else ... It embarrasses them / as if their children / were all announcements by Gabriel … I had my legs wide open / as well as my eyes ... I was so beautiful...” Gianna finished that last sentence in Italian and then continued, “You think I'm vulgar ... Only death is vulgar.”
I remembered this poem from many years ago when Gianna featured for The Art Bar reading series when it was at The Imperial Pub and I also recalled the English translation for the Italian line. I was about to shout out a request for her to give the translation when she gave it, “I was so beautiful he didn't know where to stick it”.
From “Two Fat Girls” - “In the 1970s / we walked St Clair Avenue / from Dufferin to Lansdowne … as if we owned it … and that one treasured café / where we spent our street life / sipping cappuccino before they were cool … we walked the Avenue in our three-inch heels / like models on a runway / with our skirts split at the back … You with the perfect breasts and me the tall one … ‘Hey Susie baby, sleep with me tonight!’ … They could only have us with their eyes.”
Gianna shared with us that she taught elementary school for thirty years and “I survived the little buggers! Teaching children gives you an identity.”
From a poem about being a teacher – “Olivia’s mom dropped her off early again … She is small and dark … her jacket needing a good wash … I opened the window and called her over … Her smile is hesitant … I pray she has no allergies.”
From “My Name is Giovanna Berta” – “I get my names / from my two uncles … One died of the clap /the other a bullet // Grandpa / was a communist / with a dent in his skull / from the great war … My father was … a prisoner of war / in Sardinia / with the Americans who had food / he learned to cook their meals … for more than a year … Mamma was sixteen / when the Germans sent her / out, pail in hand / to fetch water … the air raids … the shrapnel has left scars … I was born … before the evacuation … contradictions / in my blood.”
Gianna told us that her mother, who was her biggest fan, died a few months ago. She said she would read something about her but not too much because she would break down.
From “It is Time to Be Old” – “It is time … to be pushing grandchildren in park swings … Unrealized dreams essentially necessary in the end … I will pack up the shoes … but the photographs are still proof that everything happened.”
Gianna shared that her mother was a widow for 35years and that her final illness lasted ten days.
From Gianna’s last poem – “More than any other month, January defines darkness … the breath of January seeps in … She seems smaller today … Her mind is clearer than this January day … Her body has turned against her … but her brain won’t abandon her.”
The first poem that Gianna did, the one she knew by heart was by far her strongest poem with the images of the emigrants vomiting on the ship and being vomited by the ship and especially the part about the doll breaking up on arrival and floating back to Italy were extremely moving and powerful. Generally it is only the poems drawn from her personal experience that inspire higher quality works, such as “Two Fat Girls”. For the most part her poems that are inspired by the experiences of other women don’t achieve much of a poetic grip, with the exception of “Loreta la calda”, but even there she creates an awkwardness by relegating the most interesting English line, “he didn’t know where to stick it” to an afterword, replaced in the poem with the original Italian, which throws the reader off.
We took a break and I went to the washroom. On the way back I looked for Wendi Smallwood, whom I hadn’t seen since she left for Newfoundland many years ago, although we became friends on Facebook a few years after that. We met and came to know each other from both working as art models at various studios and schools around Toronto.
I saw her walking towards me and we embraced. We chatted for a while and then she went to the washroom. Just after she left me, Jovan approached me and told me that the poem that I’d read was the best he’d ever heard from me though he added that they are all good. He said he would be looking forward to hearing what I brought next time. I told him that it would probably be one of my translations from the French of stories by Boris Vian. Jovan said he’s not good at writing stories. I told him that I’m a better poet than a storywriter but I’d rather read stories than poems and so I keep writing them.
I talked with Tom S and Tom H. Tom S asked Tom H to accompany him during his open mic spot and he agreed. Tom S told him the chords he’d be playing but Tom H said he didn’t need to know the chords. He declared that people are way too caught up in the knowledge of music. I added, “They can’t see the music for the keys”.
Bänoo announced that the next Shab-e She’r would be on June 26.
The warm-up for the second feature was Tom Smarda, which took him by surprise because he’s usually the last performer of the night. Tom Hamilton was onstage as well, waiting to back him up while Tom struggled to get the two microphones in position for his voice and guitar. Tom Hamilton said he wouldn’t be using a mic and then he asked if Lillian Allen was still there. When Lillian came over, Tom asked her if she remembered what Clifton Joseph used to say, “I don’t need a mic, cause I can shout!” Oddly though, Tom imitated Clifton with a slight US southern accent, even though Clifton Joseph is Jamaican.
Tom’s song was complimentary to the pamphlets he’d been handing out earlier – “Renewable is doable … We’d like to share some facts … $100 million in savings in a year … Shut down nuclear … Shut down Pickering, no need for bickering… Now’s the time to act … Let’s be speaking of the risk of leaking, affecting millions of us … Cleaner water power from Quebec at low cost and the infrastructure’s already there …”
I don’t know if Tom is right about the economic argument. If the Pickering plant supports 7,600 jobs a year then those jobs wouldn’t be transferred to a hydro operation if the nuclear plant is shut down. Ontario Power Generation says that keeping it open until 2024 will add $12.3 billion to Ontario’s gross domestic product. While it might be cheaper to buy electricity from Quebec there would be an initial large expense in the billions to upgrade Ontario’s transmission infrastructure. The risk of an accident jeopardizing public or worker safety is very low and the Pickering plant has to be shut down permanently in six years anyway.
The second feature was Thunderclaw Robinson.
He recited his poetry without text but used his phone sometimes for reference.
From his opening piece – “I need another dose of your medicine … Last time you under-prescribed me … It’s you that I admire … Now because of circumstances I can’t have … At least you won’t charge me for a carpet ride … Rapunzel’s hair brush has been proven addictive … It doesn’t matter how much creativity I have … I will knock on your door until your birthday … I keep coming back to the edge of the water … Harmonies don’t appease the animals like they used to … Temporary satisfaction … No focal point … On the edge of my chair … I’d rather not do anything if I can’t feel you inside me … The crystals in my nerves can’t absorb all of my wonders like they used to …”
Thunderclaw told us that he didn’t know why he wrote that first poem.
From his second poem – “My heart beats … I’d heard once … I slowed my breath, placed my ear on her chest … There is an orchestra of machinery … for this one moment … I exhale … I breathe again … as calm as the ocean is allowed to be … I play … dark … explosion … my percussion section … used to taking things from each other the wrong way … My muse will never be your muse …”
Thunderclaw confessed that he would like his poems to not always be so slammy and his next piece was an attempt at a non-slam poem – “I just want to know if I can love you … I was an astronaut … I’m not even in your orbit …”
From another poem – “She’s been waiting for me to grow into a better vision of myself … Your favourite song … you never forget … the artist is telling you they love you … My heart is a Valentines Day card on steroids … but she doesn’t like poetry …”
Thunderclaw told us that he belongs to the Toronto Youth Slam Team, which won the biggest youth slam in North America. They are going to Texas for an international slam and are looking for donations to pay for their flight.
From another poem – “For two years you saved my life … I don’t feel like I ever thanked you enough … when we met … I fell apart in your palm … The most resilient floodgates … When you can’t see the cliff face and the valley below is so tempting … You saved me … and helped me find my super powers … You gave me back my pen …”
Another – “I used to write you love poems … I guess it’s clichéd to say that I ran out of ink … Someone else ended up with the last dance … A pessimist hiding in his own ambition … I’ve been farming thunder … Someone tell god there aint no one alone … I couldn’t hear the fact that you’d probably never let me back …”
Thunderclaw’s last poem was “For Superman” – “What if Clark Kent can’t save the world or even himself … What if Clark can’t leap buildings at a single … bound by Wonder Woman’s rope … Heat vision won’t turn off … What if Clark Kent became a poet?”
Certainly Thunderclaw Robinson’s most outstanding piece of the evening was the last one, with it’s half rhyme of “Kent” and “can’t” and his use of the homograph “bound” as in “leap” and “tied”. He needs though to study more poetry in order to see how many clichés he uses in his work. He often falls into the formulaic slam trap that simply saying meaningful things is enough, with no requirement to innovate language. Certainly there is rhythmic triumph here and he knows how to speak and deliver but there is very little that is new, even for slam poetry. He says that he would like to write more non-slam poetry but to do that he really needs the traditional foundations in order to learn how to break their rules.
We returned immediately to the open stage, starting with Susana Molinolo reading “Victoria Park Avenue” – “Despite the busy sidewalk Mrs. T would play Monopoly with us … While stirring soup her overworked wrist whistled … Lounging in a medicine cabinet … perfume … I cradled the oval-bellied glass … slowly twisting the cap … That was my first seduction.”
Terry Trowbridge before reading his poem took a few minutes to tell us what is happening with the CUPE strike of contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at York University. He said they were now in week 13 and the university has only negotiated for one hour since February. I would add that the administration considers their offer to be the best deal that any university in Ontario has to offer.
Terry told us that for anyone that was a teenager in the 90s, everything comes down to Simpsons references. From “Ralph Wiggum’s Love Letter” – “I bend my wookie thinking of you … It’s you I chew chew choose.”
Bänoo mentioned that Facebook has a practice of bringing back older memories from a user’s timeline. She shared that today Facebook reposted Bänoo’s announcement on May 29th, 2014 that she had just become a Canadian citizen.
Jovan Shadd read “Shareholders” – “Vestigial tales of revolution at birth … Our known mythologies have been usurped … choking on the dead language that we have been forced to speak.”
Sydney White read two poems. From “To All My Friends Who Died Just Bringing Facts to People” – “… and you bastards, I’m still standing … under the weight of mean intent … Her spirit comes in freedom still … May courage be the last to die.”
From “Warrior Woman” – “Last night I dreamt I was one of the Me Too … I was furious … I sprang to my feet … I shouted after him … You call that a rape? Get back here!” Then Sydney said defensively as if there’d been a negative reaction to her second poem, though there hadn’t been as far as I could tell, “It’s black humour!”
Anthony was next. He sat down with his guitar. Tom Smarda, with his harmonica stood on the left and Tom Hamilton with his violin was on the right. Anthony took quite a while to tune even after Tom Hamilton told him it sounded good.
Before he started singing, Anthony mumbled a few things, “Laneway church, basement floor … audio visual … signature … never got past the age of seven …”
Singing and playing – “So sad and lonely … There wasn’t one place I was never alone … and I miss you … I just think that you’re pretty … You think you’re so pretty and I just know that you’re pretty … and I miss you … I’m trying to tell you … what I’m all about … get you to listen … You were always meant for me …”
Khalid wore a hat and white shirt with a tie and carried a leather briefcase to the podium at the right side of the stage. He did not open the briefcase so it was merely a prop and he didn’t read anything but seemed to be making things up as he went along and walked back and forth onstage a lot, sometimes pausing at the podium on the left and sometimes at the one on the right.
Here’s some of Khalid’s monologue- “What is a poem? A poem is an attempt to translate silence … The word for freedom in Hebrew is hhofesh … I would like to take off my hat but maybe this is a kipa …”
He read “That Certain Something” – “You have to show me you’re literary … demoting me from co-writer … The play he wanted to write was called … involuntary subversion … Six days is all it takes to make a world but how long does it take to write a poem … If you place a coin in your mouth you can secure passage on the boat into the next life … I am a layman, which means that I cannot have that je ne sais quoi … that I don’t know what … It’s Ramadan but instead of giving food I’ll give a poem … There is no god but god … Muhammad is the messenger of god …” Khalid then led people in a call and response. “When I say freedom you say hhofesh” Then he did the same with “hureyah” the Arabic word for freedom. “The idea of this poem is literalism and not religion … In order to prevent misunderstandings, instead of saying ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘Free Israel’ … free Jerusalem …” Singing the shahada in Arabic, then translating it into various forms – “There is no truth but truth … Moses is the messenger of god … Jesus is … I think I’m out of time.”
From Nick Micelli’s poem – “The golden light way beyond the outer limit of my gaze … My darkness where I draw clear crystal and water … all moving to … creativity.”
Cecilia Tolley read “Relapse” – “How could I miss this … Lately you’ve been more wiry … It became a different kind of blinded … You held me together … Your kitchen was always filthy … I wish that you would clean up your hair … I can’t believe you’ve been using for eight months now … I miss you.”
Bänoo introduced Kate Marshall Flaherty in a way that didn’t exactly come out right, but we all knew what she meant. She said Kate is one of the oldest volunteers of Shab-e She’r.
Kate announced that last week she got the all clear after her cancer treatment.
With some help from Tom Hamilton on violin, Kate read “Sprout” – “Post chemo … Like that Grade 1 bead project … decorated Dixie Cup … something is growing on the smooth garden of my scalp … baby fine … soothing to feel something growing … I do not speak … warrior … I want to stand on this bald mountain top … waving my flag in the wind.”
The final open mic performer was Tom Hamilton, who drew our attention to his bow tie and told us that he does not always dress like a cartoon character.
He recounted that he used to be a writer in residence at a high school and the students referred to him as “that 70s guy”.
He read “I Came Down” – “I came down with your fever and a few irises … Laughing at rush hour we took each other’s clothes and the day off … Running through options, French doors … Fifty-fifty on rent … Dutch on our tickets to someone else’s continent … We were staying in the inn as a couple for at least a couple of nights … That marital probation that travel tends to be.”
Bänoo decided to read a poem to finish the night – “John … 23 … from China … You don’t bring lunch … After two months you can’t answer the question, ‘How are you today?’ … Like gods of yesterday they are withdrawing your love … I see this is not new to you … I wish you could read this one day to see that someone saw.”
I chatted again with Tom Smarda and Tom Hamilton. Tom H made the absurd claim that all mental illness is caused by an absence of positive social connections. Certainly have such relationships are better for the mentally ill than toxic ones, but when someone is in such an extreme manic state that they feel they could step off of the top of a high building and fly around the city, it isn’t because they lack the right kind of friends. The brain is a physical organ that gets sick just like any other part of the body.
Tom H told told me that he liked my poem and he liked what he’s heard me do over the years at Fat Albert’s, then he added, “There’s definitely a place for your stuff.” What an odd compliment. You could say as well that there’s a place for cockroaches in our ecosystem. One could claim there’s a place for everything and so telling someone that something they’ve worked hard on just has “a place” is like no praise at all.
I left the church, but on my way to my bike I heard Wendi Smallwood, who was outside smoking, call to me. We spent at least half an hour getting caught up. She said she was in Toronto for a few reasons. She said something about doing a one-woman show called Resurrecting Mary as part of Women From the Future at the Factory Theatre from June 21-24. She also said something about representing Newfoundland at the ACTRA conference in Toronto and that they paid for her trip and her hotel, even though she’s staying at her son’s place.
She told me that getting work on television in Newfoundland is very difficult because the production company that handles The Republic of Doyle, instead of using local actors actually brings in actors from the mainland and hires vocal coaches for them so they’ll sound like local actors.
Our conversation got interrupted by someone in the street that was arguing with a short guy with a beard and glasses that was standing on the sidewalk with Bänoo, Laboni and Cy. The street person didn’t like the fact that the short guy was speaking to him in a monotone. Then he asked them all for change. Laboni offered him the rest of her bag of chips but he said he was cautious about being poisoned. The short guy said he’d give him some money put first he would have to listen to him. I don’t think the guy realized he was beyond listening.
Wendi walked east with Bänoo and Cy. She’ll be in town for another month though.
I went home, had a late dinner and watched two episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
The first story had the second appearance of Zelda Gilroy. She is still obsessed with Dobie and he is still obsessed with avoiding her, but when she offers him free food he follows her home to have dinner with her family. She has five sisters, no brothers and a father who is constantly concerned with money. But after Zelda tells her father she is going to marry Dobie, Dobie disappears. Dobie decides the only way to get Zelda out of his hair is to make her attractive to other boys and so he spreads a rumour that her family has just struck it rich and that they are getting a swimming pool. The rumour works so well that Zelda’s father gets a loan from the bank and really does build a pool and Zelda does become popular with the boys. But then the bank finds out it was only a rumour and they repossess the pool, so Zelda goes back to chasing Dobie.
The second story begins with Thalia (Tuesday Weld) telling Dobie she hates him because she loves him. Then she explains that her father spent a lot of money to pay for her braces to give her a beautiful smile and asks, “How can I use beautiful expensive teeth like these to capture a pauper like you? It’s ridiculous! The bait is worth more than the fish!” So Thalia breaks up with Dobie. But the next day at school an attractive, rich and quirky student arrives in Dobie’s class wearing a mink stole. She just goes by the name Whitney because she says she has to make an impression fast due to the fact that she lacks security. She immediately picks Dobie to be her boyfriend because she can tell by his face that he has no guile and won’t betray her. But suddenly Thalia, seeing this other girl’s interest in Dobie, suddenly wants him back. Once she has him back she tries to figure out a way to make him worth the effort so she tries to teach him logic but gives up in frustration and breaks up with him again. But the next day when he offers himself to Whitney, Thalia wants Dobie back again. She tries once again to try to teach Dobie to think and this time succeeds but the first thing he does with his newfound logic is dump Thalia. Then he goes to Whitney and offers himself but she rejects him because now that he can think he will not be good for her security. She chooses Maynard instead because he promises that he will never think.