Jay Winston Ritchie considers the SLS readings that took place in Montreal 20-22 February 2015.
Ten readers, three days, two locations. Another out of season Summer Literary Seminars program has come and gone. This time last year ARIANA REINES and EILEEN MYLES were making waves around the city, and I got FOMO pretty bad about it. I made sure not to miss anything this time. Here’s what went down over the weekend.
Friday Feb. 20th – Librairie Drawn & Quarterly
GREG SANTOS started things off with his latest collection Rabbit Punch! He put on a surprisingly convincing Batman voice for a poem, which prompted host MIKE SPRY to predict that Michael Keaton would win an Oscar—not for Birdman but for the Batman role he played 16 years ago, neither of which happened. Sorry, Mike.
Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Concordia STEPHANIE BOLSTER read next. She started with a moving tribute to a friend who had recently passed away, reading a poem from her deceased friend’s book. She continued with her own work, a long poem tentatively titled Long Exposure that is a response to Robert Polidori’s post-disaster photographs, specifically New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Poet CACONRAD ended opening night on a high note. After leading workshop participants through crystal meditation and giving reiki attunements earlier that day, CA launched into poems that came out of “(soma)tic rituals”, their current poetic praxis.
One (soma)tic ritual involved placing a penny under their tongue for a day and drinking orange juice to commune with the goddess Aphrodite (whose element is copper and whose fruit is the orange). Another (soma)tic ritual involved riding up and down their favourite set of escalators in Philadelphia on the 30th anniversary of the creation of their gender-neutral name and handing a picture of themself to passersby, asking: “Have you seen this person?” Needless to say I was captivated. Excited about life, I joined a handful of people at the bar afterwards and had extended conversations about poetry, the occasional absurdity of art installations, and the joys of drunk cooking. At one point I was handed a Samsung Galaxy that had a picture of a girl licking a dog’s face with a boy’s face photoshopped over the dog’s, which is when I left.
FOMO rating: Put a penny under your tongue and drink orange juice.
Saturday Feb. 21st – Librairie Drawn & Quarterly
SLS Associate Director MIKE SPRY introduced JEFF MILLER, ANNA LEVENTHAL, MELISSA BULL, and SEAN MICHAELS collectively as “Soulgazers”, which I was certain I had misheard—maybe as a garbled “trailblazers” or “newsmakers”.
In a red and black striped sweater JEFF MILLER explained the nearly decade-long history of the Soulgazers, which as it turns out is a writing group. JEFF is the longest-running member and the only one who has been around since its inception.
This commitment seemed fitting with Ghost Pine, his zine that started in 1996, made into a book in 2010, and that continues today. JEFF started with the short story “Drag it to Dinner”, in which an aging, aspiring drag queen gives a vegan dessert workshop at Frigo Vert. (Other things happen, but it would probably be more satisfying to read it yourself.) He ended with a story from Ghost Pine 13: Boys that somehow makes high school bands seem like a good idea.
ANNA LEVENTHAL read an excerpt from “Wellspring” in her QWF Concordia University First Book Prize-winning book of short stories Sweet Affliction. In it a young Hasidic boy demands that the protagonist Angela explain the finer details of sex to him, in the middle of the street. This encounter prompts a rumination on infidelity in the lives of Angela’s parents.
Side note: The unexpected and unprecedented camaraderie of the event made the reading feel less like a line-up where the “headliner” goes last and more like a Thanksgiving dinner where everyone stands up and says what they’re thankful for.
MELISSA BULL read two nonfiction pieces about St. Henri, where she grew up. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in St. Henri would have been able to feel her melancholy in the gentrifying neighbourhood. In “Haunting St. Henri” she mentions that the new super hospital resembles a starship, which I want to take the space here to corroborate. The piece ends with a heron as an augury of death. MELISSA has recently translated a posthumous collection of Nelly Arcan’s unpublished writings Burqa of Skin and has a book of poetry called Rue coming out in May.
SEAN MICHAELS ended the evening with an excerpt from the beginning of Us Conductors, the Giller Prize- and Hugh MacLennan Prize-winner. SEAN was especially vocal about the Soulgazers. As he read I started to see a previously invisible through line materialize between the writers’ work: a sincere, touching, funny, and apparently award-winning through line.
FOMO rating: Start a writing group.
Sunday Feb. 22 – The Brass Door
Energy was a little lower on Sunday night as many SLS participants had gone back to Boston and Toronto and other places.
GILLIAN SZE read from Peeling Rambutan, which was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Award. GILLIAN is pregnant, and before she read she told me that there are at least four different blankets needed for newborn babies (swaddling, feeding, something else, etc.). She shared some more outrageous facts about contemporary baby culture, although the line “the Chinese character for ‘good’ is a woman with a child” from her poem “East Is the Sun Behind a Tree” seemed like positive counterweight.
PETER DUBÉ read in a voice that reminded me of an 18th-century elocutionist. He read “Beginning with the Mirror”, a short story about a man visiting a friend from his rambunctious past who is dying from AIDS. The drama in his voice matched the drama in the story. The narrator is later visited by a heron, which was kind of a weird parallel with MELISSA BULL’s piece from the day before.
Later PETER told me he had met Anne Carson at a housewarming party once, but couldn’t tell me anything more than that.
Man Booker nominee and SLS fiction faculty ALISON PICK closed the weekend with an excerpt from her memoir Between Gods. The reading was professional, concise, and somehow funny even though the book deals with trauma and the Holocaust.
The Brass Door kind of cleared out after that. They put on the Oscars. During Maroon 5’s performance it took me a while to realize they weren’t Coldplay, and that the TVs were muted and the bartender had her iPod plugged in.
FOMO rating: Anne Carson goes to housewarming parties.