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Representing BC Poets at Montreal's Atwater Poetry Project

Posted by Greg / October 28, 2013

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This post was written by Emily Paskevics


The next instalment of the Atwater PoetryProject, an almost-monthly series showcasing established and emerging poets from Montreal and across Canada, will take place on October 31th.

At the last one, on October 3rd, the featured poets were Sarah Burgoyne and Steven Price, who, although at different stages of their careers, are both born-and-raised West Coasters. Burgoyne is currently a grad student in the English Department at Concordia University, while Price is an instructor at the University of Victoria.

Poet Darren Bifford hosted the evening. Incidentally, he too has roots in the rich literary community at UVic, and has also been an Atwater reader.


The venue is held above the library proper, in a spacious room that has a town hall vibe. A couple of beers and some wine were available in the back of the room, alongside the table where Argo Books had copies of Price's most recent collection, Omens in the Year of the Ox, were available for $20 apiece. He is also the author of The Anatomy of Keys and a novel, Into That Darkness. Burgoyne's first chapbook, apparently entitled Happy Dog, Sad Dogwill be published in the next two months via Proper Tales Press.


With a warped piano on the stage behind them, the poets delivered from a lectern. Burgoyne read first, from two distinct selections of her recent work: first, short lyrics taking their titles from Czeslaw Milosz, and second, a sequence of lipograms. The former she herself described as "cheeky" - an accurate label, although the pieces are not lacking in sincerity. For instance, the first poem she read, entitled "It Was Not In Parts That I Learned Humility," also contains the striking line "to make up for your loss/ I become you." Similarly, the piece called "To the Masters of Our Faith, Greetings," offers this thought: "To be loved/is to be let go,/there is no other meaning."


Introducing her lipograms Burgoyne gave the necessary nod to Christian Bök, who has basically become master of the form (access his full, Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Eunoia here)Burgoyne's personalization of the form is that she uses only the letters in the title of the poem within the poem itself. This means a lot of fun with sound and wordplay in poems with such titles as "On Corkscrew Swamp," "Mountain Coyote," and "Similkameen." The final piece she read, "Consoling Myself, Not Very Much Consoled," involved a different kind of word-game, putting prefixes onto words that don't usually have them - creating conceptuals like "contra-dereliction of the soul" and "hyper-apathetically."


She recited with a clear, measured, and slightly lisping voice. While she seemed comfortable reading she is also clearly unseasoned - in an earnest and refreshing way, as though she has not quite come into her own presence.


In contrast, Price is a very comfortable and conversational speaker, a natural storyteller with a resonant voice. Burgoyne was actually a student of Price's during her undergrad UVic, and the echo of influence can certainly be detected in their crisp diction and wordplay. Throughout his work Price is constantly erudite and linguistically experimental, making games with sound through words and rhythm. Still, his poems have a lot of weight to them, and are most often dark. This he acknowledged, describing Omens in the Year of the Ox as an attempt to encounter and come to terms with the darkness, while also functioning as a book of consolation.


He read 6 or 7 poems from the collection, including "The Crossing," "Raccoon in Ditch," "The Excursion," and "Ghosts." All are gripping, slightly eerie pieces. The highlight for me was "Arbutus," a stark poem both descriptive and abstracted. Quoting the first few lines:


If grief were given shape, if grief

were given shape it would grow like this


in a horror of limbs, and headless -


Abruptly up to gripped rock it

gives, groan on ingrained


groan, it


writhes, waterworn and weathering

the weather of its own wood


while the shelf of the world shivers.


The sound of his work is raw, while the wording is finely crafted; his language absorbs the thick textures of the ideas and images. Check back in the upcoming week for a brief review of Steven Price's Omens in the Year of the Ox.


The evening wrapped up with a longer Q & A session than I expected. Typical of poetry evenings, the audience seemed to be mainly poets and/or English Lit students. On the inevitable question about their writing processes, Burgoyne said that automatic writing, or what Canadian poet Tim Lilburn called "emptying the hands," has been her main technique for generating ideas lately. Price highlighted the act of listening, briefly discussing sound and the value of working within traditional poetic forms - which he described as "fun constraints" - while still allowing a poem to lean into what it wants to become. "You never stop working on a poem," he concluded.


I've attended the Project a couple of times in the past year, and the turnout this time was about average: small, but not uncomfortably so. I'm used to readings held at dingy pubs or else in a university lecture-hall format, and while the smaller scale could make for a more intimate reading, the set-up tilts rather awkwardly between formal and informal. Still, the Atwater Poetry Project has all the makings of a dynamic and interactive poetry event.


The next Atwater Poetry Project event takes place on October 31th and features Amanda Jernigan and Jan Zwicky. Check the full schedule here

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