Last night, at the Vancouver Public Library, I was fortunate (along with what appeared to be about 300+ other people!) to be able to take in an evening of readings by three gifted poets…
The night began with Kayla Czaga, and her first published book of poetry, For Your Safety Please Hold On. Her collection has a conversational tone to it. As I sat listening to poems about her drunk uncle or her poker-playing father, I was reminded of a family backyard barbecue or reunion. We hear the voices of these significant others in her life, and we get to know them through her snapshot portraits.
As a teacher who often has students with English as an additional language, I loved hearing about the landlady in her poem “That Great Burgundy-Upholstered Beacon of Dependability,” who is spending her day “teaching rich Korean kids the difference between a nightstand and a one-night stand.” I laughed and laughed, because I have lived moments like this, one in particular, where a student, quite accidentally, used the word “relationSHITS.” The ending to this poem is clever and touching, though, and it was a beautiful finale to her reading.
Up next was Arleen Paré, whose book Lake of Two Mountains, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. As I listened to her selections, I noticed how it is not simply a collection of poems that use water symbolically but rather a portrait or memoir of a lake that truly exists between Ottawa and Montreal, a lake where she spent many summers with friends and family. She writes about the lake as if it were part of the family, too, so it was an interesting followup to Czaga’s personal poems.
Her poetry is music, filled with rhythms that she says come quite naturally to her. Even as she read, she made changes to some poems, which at first struck me as an odd choice, but later made sense. She’s swept up in the moment, in the words, improvising as she goes. The most shocking was her reading of “Summer Ends,” where she cut the final four lines in what is an eleven-line poem. It was like she set up the mood, and, satisfied with how it sounded, left it there for people to take in. A talent on paper and in person.
The highlight of the night for me was hearing Patrick Lane read some of the work from his latest, Washita. This is a collection of entirely new work that he has written over the past four years, but there’s a bit of the old Lane here too. “Off Valparaiso” includes “flensing knives huge as paddles, the blocks straining, at times a whale still breathing, its skin lifed away in strips, the sighs, huge and unimaginable.” It took me back to the first Patrick Lane poem I ever read, “Because I Never Learned.” That poem, written in the 60s, included an image of someone stepping on the head and crushing the skull of a kitten that’s been hit by a passing car. It’s a move that is both compassionate and ugly at the same time, and it’s that poem that led me to write “Big Red Schoolhouse,” which includes a different real-life event that evokes the same type of reaction. It’s a poem I dedicated to Patrick and his brother Red.
“Because I Never Learned” was a poem that shocked me (You can write poetry like THAT???) back in 1987. It’s what got me into reading and writing poetry. I was fortunate to have Lane as my prof in the University of Saskatchewan that year, and his enthusiasm for Canlit hooked me. In 2014, my Lane-like poem won a poetry contest, Pulp Literature’s Magpie Award, and was published in that journal’s autumn issue. At the reading last night, not only was I able to get an autograph from Patrick Lane on an edition of his collected life work, but I was also able to GIVE him a copy of the journal with my poem written for him in it. It was the completion of a circle for me, a moment as satisfying as those rare times when words flow effortlessly.
THE WEIRD FACTOR:
Czaga mentioned that she had never been taught by Patrick Lane, but that she had a connection to him. She was being taught by his wife, Lorna Crozier, who created a “bad haiku” contest, one judged by Patrick Lane. Czaga won and received her prize: a poetry-in-transit poster of Lane’s poem “Bamboo Seeds.” It’s always found a space on her wall, throughout the moves she’s made, and it’s also found in another space too…the wall of a certain Coquitlam teacher’s classroom…ahem, ahem.