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Write On Ottawa: If human beings were numbers what would the sum be?

By Alejandro Bustos on October 25, 2013

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Poets and accountants are like oil and water.  While the former are known for their intense passion, the latter are often seen as synonyms for mind-numbing dullness.  But what if the two groups shared a secret, namely, that they both manipulate “facts” to create multiple meanings?

“Give me any set of figures and I can come up with the answer that you want,” an accountant once told me.  While said in half-jest, his point was serious:  How you arrange numbers on a balance sheet is more important than the figures themselves.

In her new poetry collection The Counting House, published by BookThug, local poet Sandra Ridley plays with the idea of accounting.  By producing works that are akin to an emotional audit, her poems “tally” the elements of human relationships

This is particular true in the piece Lax Tabulation.

“In Lax Tabulation I used a column format, of sorts, to signify a record keeping, like an accountant’s balance sheet, or ledger, but with missing information and revelatory torques,” says Ridley in an email interview.  “This poem is not definitively linear.”

Readers who are curious about this experimental writing approach can see Ridley tomorrow, Saturday, October 26, at The Manx Pub (370 Elgin), as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.   Admission is free.  Fellow BookThug writers Michael Blouin and André Alexis will also be present.

The Counting HouseRidley’s non-linear technique makes for a challenging read.  While less than 80-pages long, the book contains a flood of symbols, meanings and re-definitions, including references to such works as Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

With some poems, it was not clear to me if the text should be read vertically or horizontally.  In response, I read from left-to-right, and then re-read by going up-and-down as if scanning columns on a page.

By reading the words in different sequences the meaning of the poems changed.  This left me with the impression that one can count the words in the book in different ways, and that the sum can change depending on your perspective.

To paraphrase the aforementioned accountant: How you arrange and read words on a page are sometimes more important than the words themselves.

“It’s heartening to hear that you found yourself reading the book’s text both vertically and horizontal on the page,” says Ridley when I mention how I read her poems in different sequences.

“That was definitely intentional.  The meaning shifts, with those two reading approaches, like an interpretation of an event or interpersonal exchange would shift, depending on perspective. Working towards a reckoning, each poem represents a set of re-tellings and tallyings.”

This search for new meanings can be seen in the piece A General Tale, which offers a fresh (and creepy) take on children’s nursery rhymes.  In the hands of Ridley, the timeless chant “Ring Around the Rosie” becomes a menacing song, alluding to the legend that the song is about the plague.

The Counting House is not a book to be read lightly.  It requires work form the reader and at times can be quite challenging.  For those who are up for a literary adventure, however, it is an interesting collection by an award-winning poet.

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