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Write On Ottawa: Forging poetic sculptures with new literary works

By Alejandro Bustos on September 23, 2013

Today we continue our look at the amazing poetry scene in our region by profiling two excellent writers.

Award winning poet Shane Rhodes is one of the most innovate wordsmiths in the National Capital Region.  In fact, his work is so cutting edge it completely redefines what a poem is.

When one thinks of poetry one normally imagines a literary text.  While the words play rhythmic games and convey symbolic meanings, the form is usually constant: i.e. words arranged on a page from left to right, with the eyes of the reader descending line-by-line in a vertical fashion.

In the hands of Rhodes, however, poetry is transformed into an art project, with his writings arranged in various shapes and radical layouts.  It’s as if words are a material substance like wood or marble sculpted into different forms.

Rhodes most recent book is X, a powerful work that looks at Canada’s shameful relationship with its aboriginal peoples by focusing on such things as the numbered treaties.

“[T]he numbered treaties (one through to eleven) represent one of the largest systematic, colonial land appropriations in the world,” writes Rhodes in an email from Brisbane, Australia, where he is currently residing as the 2013 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence.

The numbered treaties refer to a series of 11 treaties “signed” between aboriginal peoples and the Crown between 1871 and 1921.  The legitimacy of these treaties, however, have been questioned by many people.

X“During the signing ceremonies for many of the treaties (especially the earlier ones), many First Nations signatories marked Xs as their signatures as they could neither read nor write English, let alone the highly legal and stylized English used in the treaties,” says Rhodes, who is returning to Ottawa in late November.  “Sources also report that some First Nations people did not even make the X marks themselves but were told to only ‘touch the pen’ after a mark had been made for them.”

Several of the pieces in the book contain text from the original treaties that are rearranged into poems.  For instance, the work “as may have been grunted” begins like this: As aforesaid within, hereunto, the hereinafter, thereupon and hereby thereof.  By rearranging legal texts into sentences that flow but are essentially gibberish, Rhodes offers a stinging rebuke of the various treaties.

The spotlight, however, is not limited to Canada’s past.  The long poem “White Noise” is based on online posts by roughly 10,000 Canadians in response to news stories on the Idle No More protest movement.  The poem cuts-and-pastes these posts into a long piece, resulting in a work that is highly disturbing.

“The poem is a collection of what Canadians actually say about Indigenous issues and Aboriginal people when they sense they have a bit of anonymity,” says Rhodes.  “In creating the poem, I was shocked by how racist and hateful most of the comments were – it was beyond anything I had expected.  Creating the poem was not an enjoyable process.  At the same time, there were voices that stood out in opposition to much of the hate and, as a result, the poem has these moments of emotional calm where one statement of truth can almost cancel out the two pages of racist ranting that proceeded it.”

chris jenningsAnother poet who pens interesting work is Chris Jennings.  A resident of Ottawa since 2003, the local writer released Occupations last year, which is his first poetry collection.  While 40% of the poems in the book are new, the remaining pieces are based on previously published works that appeared in numerous journals and magazines.

The poems in Occupations do not have a clear narrative structure that revolve around a single theme.  Rather, the pieces describe different moments or thoughts in time, without offering a sense of “truth” with a capital T.

“I’ve … never subscribed to poetry’s special status when it comes to truth or personal experience,” says Jennings, who is the prose editor for Arc Poetry Magazine.  “Poetry does fiction just as well as prose, and it’s just as valuable when it does.”

As well, he reminded me that one should not become too focussed on content.

“A surprising number of the poems here did begin with an idea about poetics rather than content or a particular moment,” says Jennings.  “In a few cases, it was the poetic potential of a particular grammatical or rhetorical formula that kicked things off.  The content followed, and so, in that sense, I’m not capturing moments so much as constructing them.”

That being said, Jennings is not too caught up in the distinction between capturing a moment and constructing it.

“Capture or construct, I think the motivation is partly in those lines of William Blake’s: To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour.  If you get a moment right, it’s a link to the moment’s whole context including movement and a past and a future,” says Jennings.

Both Occupations and X are available at local bookstores.

Jennings will be reading on October 6th at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library at 120 Metcalfe with Monty Reid, Deanna Young, Rhonda Douglas, David Groulx and rob mclennan.  On October 26th, meanwhile, he will be giving a poetry workshop at the Carlingwood Branch.