Skip to content

…It may be a broken world, but it is glorious nonetheless. Linda Hogan

January 18, 2016

At the age of 16, my guitar teacher suggested that I play at a café-fundraiser for a theatre group*. It was in the basement of a church somewhere in the central Toronto. Coming from the suburbs on a late fall night was a little scary, riding a streetcar, looking at old buildings and hoping to get off at the correct stop. Finding the church, kindly people led me to the basement where it was taking place. There were some short skits, a piano player** who accompanied some singers and lots of poetry readings. It all worked out extremely well, the theatre folk were kind and invited me to come again and it felt like I’d had a big adventure into the world of grown up artists.

Throughout my student days in Toronto I played frequently at poetry cafes noting the various characters around me. The fellow who was nearly blind teaching himself Arabic working away in the corner, the attractive woman who always read something sad and always had a line of men congratulating her after. There was the impassioned communist who proudly announced he was free because he had bought a printing press. Then as now the scene was filled with fascinating people who were verimgresy attentive.

During the early 1980’s I did a concert with guitarist Brian Katz and poet Jacqueline D’Amboise. We had decided to do some improvising behind Jacqueline’s reading of someone else’s poems***. What happened was uncanny, the music went places it had never went in rehearsal and Jacqueline seemed to know where it was going. Her voice rose to draw us into more intense musical expression, then softening to lead us into more intimate zones. It was as if she was our conductor and was reading our minds. In the early 1990’s I got the idea of repeating this sort of thing and called on an old actor friend to try Gwendolyn MacEwen’s After-thoughts. These were her final set of poems and the text moves from the philosophical, to comical tributes and sometimes maudlin musings. This provided me with lots of scope to create moods and to reflect musically upon some very powerful ideas. I later set five of those poems as art song.

Then I got the crazy idea of invitingsteve and wm poet Steve McCabe to perform as narrator for Rzewski’s masterpiece Coming Together – Attica. Steve reads no music and the long work demands that the narrator follow the score at precise moments throughout. I had improvised with Steve several times and found that like Ms. D’Amboise, he knew where the music was going. Steve did a fantastic job, delivering the lines with just the right emotion and energy.

So I am thinking about rhythm, cadence and emotion, which are some of the tools that poets rely on. Thinking also about the power of collaboration, how we can be changed and understood by someone working a slightly different field. When at a loss for a title for a piece of music, I peruse a book of poems until a lovely combination of words strikes me just so. Sometimes, I find my own feelings expressed in ways I had been grappling with for years like “In daylight houses expand – like chests of majors. In dark night they contract.” Linda Hogan – What Gets In. So, I describe myself as a friend of poets.

Nasrudin woke up in the middle of the night with a very dry throat. It was cold and dark outside, and a bit of a walk to the well, so he wound a turban around his head and found a lamp to carry with him. The lamp was empty and as he tried to fill it in the dark, some oil spilled which he wiped up with the end of his disheveled turban. Nasrudin stumbled as he tried to light the lamp and leaned closer to see the wick better. The oil-soaked end of his turban caught fire and Nasrudin raced around the room screaming, when at last he went into the backyard, flung the turban to the ground and stamped out the fire. Nasrudin’s wife, roused by the commotion, came out to find her husband jumping up and down on his turban. “What on earth are you doing,” she cried?


“Just getting a drink of water,” said Nasrudin. 

 *          Open Circle Theatre – now defunct

**        Pierre Gallant

***      The poet was György Faludy

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: