Kaslo Jazzfest scores another successful year

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Grand opening parade for Kaslo Jazzfest 2018 on Kaslo’s main street.

The Festival

From the swirl of colour and rhythm at the grand opening parade on Friday evening to the last sweet sounds trailing off into Sunday night, Kaslo Jazzfest once again made a lot of people happy. Over 2,600 of them, in fact – peak ticket sales reached 2,618 on Saturday. The local rumour mill claimed that 3,000 tickets had been sold, causing concern about overcrowded campsites in the village. But according to festival director Paul Hinrichs, it’s not true.

“We actually sold more tickets on the Friday in 2016 with Michael Franti. That day we sold 2,670 tickets. That was a record, the biggest day Kaslo Jazz has ever had.”

At meetings prior to each festival the board decides on a maximum capacity that will work that year given infrastructure, volunteer numbers, weather, etc. That number often falls far short of 3,000. “We’ve never sold that high because it would take a lot more resources. We sell to the capacity we’re comfortable managing,” says Hinrichs. “Even at 2,600 it feels full, it’s the sweet spot. This year Sunday only had 2,300 on site, so we didn’t quite get there for the whole festival.” This in part is what has earned the festival its reputation as one of the top outdoor festivals in North America—its family atmosphere and sense of intimacy.

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Kids find plenty to do at Jazzfest including learning the hula hoop.

Festival patrons noticed another change on-site this year – the floating stage rode higher in the water and has a new lighting rig. The stage was raised by 28 inches, partly in response to complaints in recent years about sightlines. In the past, dancers were relegated to zones on either side of the floating stage, keeping sightlines open to those sitting down. When the new management reversed this policy, allowing dancers up front, the view was blocked. To remedy the situation, the festival successfully applied for funding to renovate the stage, receiving funds from Creative BC, CKCA/CBT, and the Province of BC. This paid for a complete replacement of the superstructure, adding 50,000 pounds to its weight. The project is ongoing; next year the canvas arch above the stage will be replaced with trusses capable of suspending lighting and sound equipment.

Others noticed a new LED lighting system onstage. It’s also the first year the stage has used a smoke machine for effects. Hinrichs says many bands now stipulate in their contract the lighting needs for their show and come with their own lighting director. There were some issues with lights pointing into patrons’ eyes, but Hinrichs says by Sunday this was remedied. “Personally I expect a certain production value when I pay a couple hundred bucks for a festival ticket. We’re going to continue to grow the light show. Was it perfect this year? No, of course, we’re still learning.”

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Jazzfest floating stage in Kaslo Bay Park, 2016.

Although the festival has had to change its roster of performers to reflect a more eclectic music market and younger audiences, Hinrichs says he’s not really interested in tracking age-related demographics. He sees Jazzfest as an all-ages event featuring improved kids’ events and wheelchair access. “I worry that by tracking age you can end up with an ‘us and them’ factor. I just feel like music lovers can be any age. I’m much more interested if somebody’s a repeat customer as well as where they come from. I just want the best live music experience people can have.”

Visually the festival was a treat as always, kicked off by the delightful spectacle of the grand opening parade on mainstreet making its way to Kaslo Bay Park. It was Kaslo’s own Mardi Gras Day, with the dazzling costumes and stilt-walkers of the Circus Act Insomniacs, the pulsing rhythms of the Moving Mosaic Samba Band, and kids’ dancing choreographed by Glynis Waring.

The Music

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Mavis Staples: still vital at 79.

The content of the festival was sonically impressive, from the ‘newgrass’ of Greensky Bluegrass, to the new take on singer-songwriters manifest in Shakey Graves’ wildly popular show, to jumpin’ grooves by Shred Kelly, to the avant-garde ‘brass house’ horns of Too Many Zooz, to major stars like Mavis Staples and Buffy Sainte-Marie. These two women are icons of both popular music and social justice history, still performing into their late 70s. Mavis spoke of being part of the historic march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. Her new album, If All I Was Was Black, is her soulful R&B message to a 21st century America ripped apart by racial tensions. She performed several of the album tracks, including Build a Bridge, Little Bit, We Go High along with classic R&B numbers. Her between-song banter was relaxed, as if chatting with us in her living room. Her band was unstoppable in their cover of Talking HeadsSlippery People, oddly enough an ideal song for Mavis. She said in a music career spanning six decades it was the first time she’d performed on a floating stage. “They tell me this festival has been going for 27 years now. What I want to know is, why you didn’t invite me before now!”

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Buffy Sainte-Marie, 77, delivered a powerful show at Jazzfest 2018.

Buffy Sainte Marie is one of the most decorated artists in music, with 12 honorary doctorates, an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and five Juno Awards, to name only a few. She spoke eloquently about the history of racial oppression but made it clear her activism wasn’t limited to racial issues, but to the cause of peace generally. As if to underline the point, she performed her 2015 song The War Racket, whose lyrics are unambiguous in exposing one of the most evil, profitable industries in the world. The crowd raised the roof with applause when she sang favourites like Universal Soldier, Starwalker and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. She also led the crowd in a singalong of the old solidarity hymn We Are Community. Like Mavis, Buffy is touring a new album that sees no diminishment of her powers, Medicine Songs. It was incredible to see enthusiastic fans as young as their early teens singing along to her songs right alongside fans old enough to be their grandparents. The stage-shaking cheers Mavis and Buffy received during their shows proves both their popularity and their message remains strong.

“I wasn’t around in the sixties when their message was fresh but I think it’s just as important now,” says Hinrichs. “If you look through our lineup a lot of the bands had a message in their music. Mavis and Buffy both seemed to have a fantastic time, so it meant a lot to have them go away feeling that.”

None of this is to give short shrift to the younger, newer artists who graced the stages at Kaslo Jazzfest this year. I betray my age when I confess how surprised I was to see how big a star Shakey Graves is with his audience, many of whom knew the lyrics to every song.

LINKS: Mavis Staples’ story and new album: https://www.mavisstaples.com/about/

https://kaslojazzfest.com

http://buffysainte-marie.com

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An Interview with Blues ‘Ice Queen’ Sue Foley

INTRODUCTION

As a lifelong devotee of music—and especially of blues and rock music—I’ve been privileged to see some amazing performances. The kind of performances that galvanize the eyes of several thousand people on the stage, as if mesmerized. In my life, that has included several life-altering moments: James Cotton in Mary Hall, Nelson, BC, 1975. The Pogues at Expo ’86, Vancouver—even hobbled by a pathetically drunken Shane Macgowan. The discovery of the mighty voice of Ruthie Foster at Salmon Arm Roots and Blues in 2007. Seeing Chris Squire—who along with Who bassist John Entwistle rewrote the book on how to play bass in a rock band—in Kelowna, BC on his final tour with Yes in 2013. Stumbling on the greased lightning of Aussie slide guitarist Jeff Lang at Kaslo Jazz Etc. in 2014. And that’s not even considering all the legendary moments in music history I had the misfortune of birth or timing to miss—Ten Years After and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969. The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Jethro Tull at the Isle of Wight, 1970. To name only a few. These kinds of performances seem to align with the cosmos—and the performer’s 10,000-plus hours of experience—to burn themselves indelibly into the synapses. If you’d seen Jesus walk on the water you couldn’t have been more impressed.

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Sue Foley at Finley’s, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018.

Now I have another such legendary performance to add to my sensory apparatus: Sue Foley live at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018, hosted by the Kootenay Blues Society. It takes incredible skill and talent to invest a genre as old as blues with an original approach, but she surely did it that sultry, smoky Thursday evening. Her first set was all electric, with blistering solos on her signature pink paisley Telecaster. Then, as if we weren’t gobsmacked enough, she pulled off another coup. Her second set was entirely acoustic, displaying a dexterity and command of stylings that ranged from Texas and Delta blues to flamenco. The set included songs by her original blues heroine, Memphis Minnie, and one of the few non-original songs from Foley’s new album, The Ice QueenSend Me to the Electric Chair, by Bessie Smith. Foley’s eloquent playing walked us through a history of the blues that cried, sang and moaned with grace and power.

Her technique is nothing short of stunning. The thumb pick/fingerpicking combo favoured by so many blues greats gives her incredible right-hand dexterity. (In the book It Came From Memphis, author Robert Gordon relates the story of when Hubert Sumlin joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Seeing that Sumlin used a flatpick, the Wolf told him to get rid of it.) According to guitarist and Kootenay Blues Society director Jon Burden, Foley uses almost no effects pedals—incredible given her many subtle tonal variations. And her current band is something of a blues power trio: Tom Bona is the most interesting blues drummer I’ve seen in years, using brushes, tom-toms and an array of cymbals to add tonal nuances to the songs instead of just keeping time. Leo Valvasori plays bass.

In my interview with her before the show, she talked wistfully of her younger years playing in clubs and how much she misses that scene. Finley’s is as close to a live music club scene as exists now in the Kootenays. The intimacy of the venue must have struck a deep chord with her, because she pulled out all the stops for this show. People either danced right to the end of the night or stood mesmerized near the stage. I’m guessing she won’t forget her night at Finley’s anytime soon. Now if we can just entice her back to the Kootenays….

INTERVIEW July 26, 2018

I notice from your Bio that you started playing guitar at age 13 while living in Ottawa. Did you grow up in a musical family? I did. My father played guitar and my three older brothers played guitar. I was the youngest girl and kind of just followed in their footsteps.

Was there an active blues scene in Ottawa at that time? There was; there was a good blues scene at the time. A lot of those guys are still there, like Drew Nelson. Back Alley John was there at the time, and Terry Gillespie who’s still out touring, he’s great, one of my favourites. He has that band Heaven’s Radio and I used to follow them around. All those guys taught me—and Tony D. of course, who’s now with Monkey Junk—he had a band called Saints and Sinners. So I go way back with all those guys. Tony gave me my first blues guitar lessons. And the other thing that was cool about Ottawa at the time was that a lot of Chicago bands and bands from the States came up there and toured. My first real blues shows were—and this was before I really saw anybody else—I saw James Cotton live at age 15. And that’s what really put me on the trail of wanting to play blues music.

Sue Foley @ Finley's 3 lo-res copyAs far as training goes, did you do a lot of formal study, or was it more a case of listening to records and learning to play the songs? Or just sitting in with musicians and learning that way? Yeah, all of the above. No formal training. I took some lessons from Tony D. and he basically taught me the most important lesson is how to teach yourself. He taught me how to pick up stuff off records and teach myself. And the rest of it was just from playing with other musicians. Playing with other players is how you learn the most. And if you can play with players that are better than you, even better, because that’s how you really start to rise above your own limitations.

So what about mentors in the blues, whether it’s people you were personally taught by or mentors among the great blues artists? Early on, Ronnie Earl reached out to me. He’s one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. I met him when I was about 20 on our first tour across Canada as the Sue Foley Band. And he really has been a mentor my whole career as far as being like a big brother figure, somebody I could always look up to and always admire his playing and count on for advice if I needed it. And then there’s people even now—to this day, I hang out with Lou Ann Barton in Austin, who I consider a mentor. And Jimmie Vaughan—I consider him a mentor figure as well.

And what about your attraction to the Texas blues? From what I remember reading online, your early forays into the blues were more Chicago blues, but more recently you’ve been leaning toward Texas blues. Well I think since I started my recording career I’ve really leaned toward Texas blues, it’s more where my specialty lies. When I first started learning blues guitar, I studied what I consider Chicago 101, all the Chess Records catalogue, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmie Rodgers, Little Walter—all that stuff. But then when I went to Austin I really started to study people like Jimmie Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and all the Texas blues musicians and guitar players. And I think Clifford Antone was really a mentor, because he signed me to my first record deal in Austin, he taught me a lot about Texas blues, even the stuff from Louisiana—all that really influenced us.

What would you say distinguishes the Texas blues from Chicago? Well, the interesting thing about the way Texas blues has evolved is that Chicago blues and Texas blues evolved together at Antone’s because all those Chicago blues artists were coming down to Austin. Muddy Waters was coming down, Jimmy Reed was coming down, Eddie Taylor was coming down, Buddy Guy. And so I think that Chicago style infiltrated the way Texas blues guitar is played now. Earlier on, before that happened—before the 1970s—a lot of Texas guitar players were influenced by horn players. Clarence Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker and guys like that were really influenced by playing in a band with horns. And then Lightnin’ Hopkins, that’s country blues that comes directly from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

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Sonny Rhodes at Finley’s, July 21, 2018

I was talking to Sonny Rhodes about how, blues in the earliest days was a form of protest music, how the earliest lyrics were written in a kind of code about how the ‘man’ was oppressing them, because they were slaves. And then you get some of the early preacher musicians like the Reverend Gary Davis who were both ministers and blues players, so they were concerned about what was going on in the world. I don’t know if Sonny mentioned him but Bill Campbell, who lives outside of Austin, was one of the most important figures in blues guitar. He came up at the same time as the Vaughan brothers, but he’s pretty obscure. So he and Sonny were like, buddies, at the time when blacks and whites were still not allowed to hang out together.

How did you meet and end up working with Peter Karp? We had a good run; we met at the Ottawa Blues Festival and recorded two albums together that was more singer-songwriter stuff, or mixing singer-songwriter with blues. So I think that was a good experience as far as developing my songwriting. I was doing some other collaborations too; that’s why I haven’t done a solo album in ten years because I got involved in those projects. But it was good, yeah. It was a different kind of project but I was happy to return to what I do best, my own stuff.

Do you think the blues in North America is in a good state or a bad state right now? I always focus on the positive; you can always find negative things to talk about that you don’t like. But I’d rather focus on the people that are still playing and doing great work, like Jimmie Vaughan who I go see all the time, and Lou Ann Barton. Gary Clark Jr. is really super cool, doing some great things for the blues. I just saw a great kid called Kingfish, a Mississippi black guy that’s tremendous—wow, what an amazing guitar player. There’s a lot of interesting young people out there right now.

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Sue with drummer Tom Bona.

So much of the music industry right now seems to be skewed toward demographics, where it’s targeted toward specific age groups. We’ve had that experience in the Kootenays with the Kaslo Jazz festival where, in the past two or three years they had to change it up to suit a younger audience, with only a handful of blues and jazz acts. Salmon Arm Roots and Blues was another one that had to modify their approach a little bit. Well they do, because all those guys have died off, and the blues demographic has become older. That’s not to say that it can’t be young. I think a lot of the bands that do blur the lines a little more, like say Tedeschi-Trucks, are more successful with a younger audience. Obviously they’re also fantastic blues musicians. But it’s not just blues, and they’re wildly popular. And I mean you look at Gary Clark Jr., the same thing, he does a lot of blues style, but he’s not just a blues musician and he wouldn’t call himself that. I don’t think blues has ever been commercially viable music. It’s always been somewhat underground.

So hopefully we can attract a younger audience to the blues. I think it’s about inclusiveness and mixing other styles with blues. I mean, even Jack White and people like that love blues and they play it and talk about it and turn a lot of people onto it.

Do you think that can happen in a culture where the reality of poverty is very different, compared to a hundred years ago? When I interviewed Sonny Rhodes he said: “The blues is about pain and suffering and how to overcome that.” So if you have a culture of people that were raised with a certain amount of privilege, then how do they sing the blues? But there’s no less pain and suffering now, and I think there might even be more, in spite of having all this material wealth. Just look around—I don’t think there’s any less pain and suffering in the world than there ever was. That’s why our work is never done.

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Foley’s new album has a stellar guest cast.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Ice Queen. What has you excited about this recording? It was recorded live, so we’re able to pull it all off at the show, and that really excites me because I’m able to play all the songs from the album and represent them live accurately. I love all the concepts of the songs, I’m really proud of it. Of course, I’m tickled to death about all the special guests that have been on the album. It was such a shot to my system. I was talking to somebody today saying, this is what we do this for, because we look up to these heroes, these mythological figures and we try to step into their shoes. So when any of them even acknowledge that you exist it’s one thing, but if they actually play music with you, wow, it’s something else. I’m really proud of it; I stand behind it one hundred percent.

So your special guests were—Jimmie Vaughan—name some of the others. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Chris Layton from Double Trouble, Charlie Sexton, Mike Flanagin the great (Hammond) B3 player, and he’s our producer; George Bigby Rains, one of the greatest Texas blues drummers ever, and the Texas Horns. It’s a great line-up of musicians but it’s also a great mixture of songs and styles. And it’s fun to play.

And the concept of the Ice Queen, where does that come from? Well it’s a threefold concept, there’s the song The Ice Queen, because I was thinking about the idea of the Ice Queen and what people think about her and would say about her, what’s really going on inside. And I think a lot of women can relate to it. Anybody that puts a shell around themselves relates to that song, but I think women in particular relate to it. But it’s tongue-in-cheek too, it’s got a little humour in it. And the Ice Queen is also representative of me being Canadian—my Canadian roots—where I’m from. I’m a northerner from the land of ice and snow. And then it’s a tip of the hat to Albert Collins, the ‘Ice Man,’ fellow Telecaster player and one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. Watching him play changed my life, changed the way I approached the instrument, changed my conception of what blues was, what guitar playing is, how powerful it can be. It’s a tip of the hat to him.

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The author with Sue Foley, who generously offered autographs and selfies between sets and even after her show.

Closing thoughts: what would you like to see for the future of the blues? Welll… I just wish there were more venues that we could play at on a regular basis, so we could just be out playing all the time and people would be coming out. I think it’s changed a lot, so you kind of have to play more festivals or listening rooms, and there aren’t as many clubs as there once was. It’s not really a club culture anymore. And I really enjoyed my youth, being able to play clubs, I feel very lucky to have done that. I just wish we could keep doing it forever. It would be great to see things like that again—people going out again, getting off their phones, listening to live music.

Thanks very much for taking time out before your show. Well, thank you, it was a great interview, great questions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT: http://suefoley.com / https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com

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Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues

Over the years the West Kootenay has seen some first-rate blues acts, especially in the mid-2000s when Nelson’s Royal Hotel was styling itself a blues pub. It was there I got to see living legends like John Mayall and Leon Russell in a venue that could barely cram in 100 people. It was a glorious taste of what it must have been like to be in Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Club in 1983 when the Stones played with Muddy Waters. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, it used to be you had to travel to Calgary or Vancouver to see a big act. But in recent decades that has changed for the better. In large part this was due to Nelson’s sudden international fame when Steve Martin filmed Roxanne there in 1986. A wave of urban migrants soon followed, attracted by the slower, saner pace of life and the sheer beauty of the mountain landscape. The Kootenays now attracts artists from all over the world, thanks in part to the many music festivals that have thrived here over the past 20 years or so: Starbelly Jam, Kaslo Jazz Etc., Tiny Lights, and Unity Festival. At Kaslo’s Jazzfest during the past decade, we’ve seen Richie Havens, Ruthie Foster, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the late great Jeff Healey, and so many others. Trail’s Charles Bailey Theatre attracted the late great Johnny Winter on one of his final tours and continues to bring in top blues, rock, folk and pop acts.

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Sonny Rhodes: blues legend and snazzy dresser.

I was privileged to be able to interview Sonny Rhodes, one of the last of the great blues originals, at Finley’s Bar and Grill in Nelson, BC, on July 21. I am indebted to the recently formed Kootenay Blues Society and in particular to Jon Burden, a fine guitarist, great friend and blues enthusiast. Sonny at 78 years old still performs 200 shows a year, slowing down only slightly despite his increasing frailty. He arrived at Finley’s the best-dressed man in the house, wearing a custom tailored pink suit, black shirt and hat, and what looked like Italian-made shoes. On his career retrospective disk The Essential Sonny Rhodes, he talks about how he once wore a turban onstage until confronted after one show by three thugs with guns. But he never stopped being a snappy dresser. (The album weaves Sonny’s storytelling about his long career between his signature songs—only 20 out of the over 200 he has recorded since 1958.)

Sonny Rhodes was born Clarence Smith on November 3, 1940 in Smithville, Texas. The son of Emma Mauldin, Rhodes was orphaned as a baby and adopted by Leroy and Julia Smith, black sharecroppers barely eking out a living. He received his first guitar at the age of eight as a Christmas present, but it had only one string. When a family friend told his foster parents how good he was becoming on guitar, he said: “Wait ‘til I get the other five strings!” He became serious about playing the blues at age 12 and while still in his teens began performing around Smithville and nearby Austin in the late 1950s. It was not an easy time for a young black musician. Migrating from Texas to California in the early ’60s, he met producer Saul Zaentz, who told him he’d never make it with a name like Clarence. He’d already settled on ‘Sonny’—Zaentz suggested ‘Rhodes’ and a blues legend was born. In part he has Canada to thank for his start in the blues—some of his earliest gigs were performed at Calgary’s legendary blues bar, the King Edward Hotel, a.k.a. the ‘King Eddy.’

For more on Sonny Rhodes’ bio visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Rhodes or https://www.allmusic.com/artist/sonny-rhodes-mn0000045823/biography

JOYCE: What was it like growing up as a black person in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s?

SONNY RHODES: Well it was bad. Coming from the south like I did, if I turned around every time I heard the word ‘nigger’ I’d be walkin’ backwards. If someone called me a nigger I didn’t care. Why should I care? You look up above and you say, God forgive them, for they know not what they do. They called me a mule and all those terms and I grew up with that, you know.

I took it until I graduated from high school because there weren’t too many black people who graduated back in the ’40s. If you were going to get something out of life you had to graduate, at least I got that. I graduated from high school in 1957 and I wanted to see California but I didn’t have a job that could take me out there. If you didn’t have the knowledge to work in a factory, you had to pick cotton or grow corn. So what I did, I joined the navy. And they didn’t have that many black people in the navy at that time.

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Sonny onstage at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC

JOYCE: It must have been quite difficult for a black person break into the music market back in those times.

RHODES: Yes. But you know, I had my mind on that, and I had to ask God to help me be what I wanted to be.

JOYCE: So was it in 1958 you made your first recording?

RHODES: Yes. I had just come out of the navy. Three ladies in Austin, Texas owned a company called Domino Records and they were looking for musicians to record. My first single was I’ll Never Let You Go and the other side was All Night Long I Play the Blues.

JOYCE: What was it like playing bass for Freddie King and Albert Collins?

RHODES: I always looked up to them. Freddie King, he was the big man. Albert King, he was kinda hard to get along with but if you kissed his ass, gave him a big smile, fine. If you messed up a note while you was playin’ he’d be ready to kick your ass, so best to get out of his way.

JOYCE: So you felt like you learned a lot from T-Bone Walker, King and Collins?

Yes I do. I learned everything I could get from them except their personality. I had my own personality. I don’t want to be T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and all those. I just want to be the best I can be, as good as Sonny Rhodes can be, because that makes my own legacy. I got started on lap steel with LC Good Rockin’ Robinson, from the south. I met him in Oakland when I lived there—he was playing one of those. He said you can play but you’ll never be as good as me, you’ll never beat me, and that pissed me off, so I decided to get good on it. I also play guitar but I had both of my hips replaced a couple years ago so I have to sit down to play now.

JOYCE: Do you think they influenced your sound at all?

RHODES: When you’re learning for the first time, you gotta find someone you can play like without makin’ a lot of mistakes. So this is what I was able to do, play like the people I liked to listen to, and kind of put them all together. So whether it’s Albert King, or B.B. King, or Albert Collins, you put them all together and you might hear a note here and a note there, but it’s not anybody’s, it’s my own.

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Sonny’s band warms up the crowd at Finley’s on a hot summer evening: Greg Smith, guitar; Steve Wilson, drums; Rob Van der Laan, bass; Jon Burden, guitar (right); Clint Swanson, saxophones.

JOYCE: I can’t say I envy musicians their lifestyle, because you guys really have to work very hard for your money. And there’s good things and bad things about the road.

RHODES: Well, you know, you’re never thinkin’ about that. When you’re doing what you love to do, and enjoy that while you’re doin’ it, there’s nothin’ out there bad enough to discourage you from doin’ that. What you do, you smile and think of all the people that enjoy what you’re doin’.

JOYCE: But then there’s the hazards of the road, too, like drugs and alcohol. Have you lost friends to the lifestyle of the road?

RHODES: I have tried these things but I had bad experiences with them. They made me sick, they made me feel like, I don’t wanna do this again, this is stupid. And I have so many people that I cared for that died behind using drugs. There’s nothin’ I can do about that—you have your own life, so if you do this, I try to stay away from you. I don’t put up with that in my band.

JOYCE: Any particular friends that have passed that you really miss?

RHODES: Well all the good people like Albert Collins, Freddie King. I was always a person that cares for people. And I still do. But of all the people that have gone on, I have learned something from them, either good or bad. The good things I try to keep from them.

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Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues, with Sean Arthur Joyce, at Finley’s Bar & Grill, July 21, 2018.

JOYCE: If you could offer young musicians these days any advice about starting a career in the blues, what would it be?

RHODES: What I would honestly say, go and do what you wanna do but always have the good Lord in mind, because he is your creator. If you can learn how to say, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, I truly believe in that.

JOYCE: In other words, have a form of spirituality.

RHODES: Exactly. There’s nothin’ better than that. That has helped keep this body together.

JOYCE: Do you think blues has changed?

RHODES: Well, yes, but it’s a changed blues because it’s different people playing it. And there’s different things happening in the world today that people have to write about. The blues is about heartache and pain and how to overcome all that. But even if it’s a different style, it’s still blues.

JOYCE: What future would you like to see for the blues?

RHODES: Well I would like to see more of it. I would like to have the profanity taken out of it; not talking about sex so much, but about what is wrong with the world today and what we have to do to protect it, what we can do about it to make it better.

JOYCE: Because really, the blues started out as protest music, didn’t it? The cotton field workers singing in code, ‘the man, he be oppressin’ us.’

RHODES: That’s right.

JOYCE: And so that tradition has to carry on.

RHODES: It does. Because the world has not gotten better, more people are dyin’. And we got these millionaires who ain’t gonna let it stop.

JOYCE: That’s interesting, because Son House had a different idea; he always said it was all about a man and a woman. But if you go back further, say to people like the Reverend Gary Davis, they were very much concerned about what was happening in the world.

RHODES: It’s about life—what’s happening in life, you can make it better or make it worse, depending on what kind of person you are.

JOYCE: I appreciate you taking your time for the interview, thank you. It’s been a great honour to meet you.

RHODES: Thank you.

For more information on upcoming shows sponsored by the Kootenay Blues Society visit: https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com/

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Literary Festival Lessons on Love, Loss and Craft

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it’s no surprise writers hunger for a chance to hang out, share a glass of wine (or beer) and compare notes. As Canadian poetry icon Susan Musgrave has said, writers have been described as ‘gregarious loners.’ “So when you need people, you really need them, but when you need solitude, you really need that too.”

Esi Edugyan author pic

Esi Edugyan, author of Half Blood Blues. Photo Steven Price.

This year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival (July 12–15) brought a stellar cast of authors to the gorgeous lakeside setting of Nelson, BC, including Musgrave, author Esi Edugyan and husband Steven Price. Musgrave gave us all a great gift with her candour, emotional honesty and incisive humour. That she came at all when her husband, author Stephen Reid, only died a month ago is testament to her courage and generosity. Her presence alone was worth the price of entry and, to my mind, both the literary and emotional highlight of this year’s festival. Her Thursday evening workshop at the Nelson Public Library, ‘Literary Cross-Dressing: when poetry, prose and creative non-fiction start slipping into one another,’ kicked off the festival and by all accounts was a big hit with participants.

Friday’s events began with an afternoon pub-crawl of Nelson’s three new microbreweries. The ‘Literary Craft Crawl’ paired Selkirk College writing students Emma Leslie, Callum David Pengelly, and Whitney Rothwell with three locally brewed craft beers, with musical interludes by ubiquitous Kootenay sax player Clint Swanson. Of course, Nelson has had an award-winning microbrewery since the 1980s with the Nelson Brewing Company and it was NBC who sponsored the Friday night gala event pairing three local authors with three specially brewed ales.

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Slocan Valley poet Jordan Mounteer.

I was honoured to be chosen alongside Slocan Valley poet Jordan Mounteer and young Nelson writer Rayya Liebich. Author and librarian Anne DeGrace introduced each of us with a clever and poetic tribute comparing our writing and personalities with the unique qualities of each brew. She joked that writing these poetic pairings had required her to spend “way too much time online consulting beer connoisseur websites.” DeGrace paired me with NBC’s Happy Camper Summer Ale, which—among other qualities—contains a “level-headed earthy, weedy, and musky floral verdant hoppiness … and a hint of wayward yeast.” “Sounds like something brewed for a valley palate to me,” DeGrace concluded. The audience was given samples and invited to toast the authors. I opened my reading from my new novel Mountain Blues by noting that, “If I had a Zen master, he’d likely say that the spiritual condition of ‘happy camper’ is a real accomplishment in life.” She then repeated this feat of literary legerdemain for the next two authors, Rayya Liebich and Jordan Mounteer.

Saturday morning’s panel appealed to both morning types and mystery writers, featuring crime writers Judy Toews, Rachel Greenaway, Roz Nay, and Dave Butler. (For author bios, awards and publication credits visit http://emlfestival.com/the-festival/the-presenters/)

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Clint Swanson gets animated at the ‘Creative Couples’ panel discussion. With Antonia Banyard (far left), Esi Edugyan and Steven Price. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Literary Couples,’ so the second panel Saturday morning, ‘Creative Couples,’ featured question-and-answer sessions with Edugyan and Price, Antonia Banyard and Clint Swanson, and Susan Musgrave and Stephen Reid (in absentia). The focus of the panel was to find out how differing creative personalities manage to balance relationship, family and writing careers. Some, like Edugyan and Price, are personalities cut from the same cloth, while others like Banyard and Swanson are opposites. Musgrave observed that, “When you’re with someone in a relationship, you tend to absorb them into yourself.” Knowing how to stake out one’s individual creative space within the same household can be a challenge, and by their responses, has many possible answers. “Whatever the interests of your partner, in a relationship you show respect for those interests, even if they’re different than yours,” Price observed. And while Swanson as a musician is outgoing and gregarious, Banyard is shy and reserved. Yet they’ve managed to make it work by balancing off these two qualities: if she’s preparing for a presentation, she can bounce ideas off him about what will work for an audience. For him, her quiet calm is a steadying influence in his life. They actually prefer that they work in different disciplines and never critique one another, whereas Edugyan and Price constantly read one another’s manuscript drafts and offer constructive criticism.

The Saturday afternoon panel, ‘Risk and Resilience,’ explored what it takes to earn a living in the arts while still nurturing one’s craft. The panel, moderated by Rayya Liebich, featured musician Brian Kalbfliesch, dancer Slava Doval, poet Jordan Mounteer, and visual artist Genevieve Robertson. Clearly, as a career choice, the arts are high risk. It takes resilience to persevere in the fact of repeated rejection and projects that can take years but with no guarantee of success. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from adversity.” When asked, “What gives you the strength and courage to persevere?” Mounteer joked that “writing earns me just enough to buy the next bottle of wine that will get me through the writing of the next poem,” highlighting the importance of a sense of humour. Doval, one of the most popular dance instructors in Nelson, said it’s important for artists to remember they’re playing the “long game,” which helps with individual rejections, “knowing that the work feeds you, it doesn’t starve you.” Kalbfliesch said it’s important for artists not to pressure themselves constantly to produce saleable work. “If you mess up, recognize that and adjust your process.” Robertson agreed, urging artists to see their studio space as a process for growth, not just production. “And get used to failure; I don’t just mean getting rejection letters, I mean whatever you’re doing.”

The Saturday night gala event featured literary readings coupled with interviews by Globe & Mail Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, a gracious, funny and charming interviewer. Edugyan read from her Man Booker and Giller Prize-winning book Half Blood Blues, a rich tale of race and resilience in the jazz scene during World War II era Germany. Her husband Steven Price next read from his new novel By Gaslight, set in Victorian-era London. Edugyan said Saturday night’s reading was the “swan song” for the novel, as she has a new one due out this fall. During her interview of the couple, Lederman asked them if their work sometimes cross-pollinates. Edugyan said that while Price was researching By Gaslight, he had books about ballooning all over their home, a theme that crept into her writing. They reiterated that they find the creative ferment of living in close quarters a source of renewal rather than conflict, even with raising small children.

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Susan Musgrave during her last visit to Nelson in 1997 for the Federation of BC Writers conference. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce.

Susan Musgrave read two poems from her most recent collection Origami Dove (2011) and two prose pieces from Stephen Reid’s books Jackrabbit Parole (1986) and A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison (2012). It was immediately apparent why publishers were willing to get behind Reid’s work, which renders a poetic, incisive insider’s view of the prison inmate’s life. Musgrave made it clear that her husband wasn’t primarily a criminal but an addict from an early age. Thankfully their marriage enjoyed a 12-year period of sobriety before he relapsed into his addiction and committed the 1999 robbery that sent him to prison for 14 years.

Musgrave was nothing short of a revelation, both in her readings and during the interview. Still in the raw stages of grieving, she said she felt she’d made progress when she discovered “one still unused hanky in my pocket.” At times during her interview with Lederman her composure cracked, yet she recovered quickly, giving openly and freely of herself. It was as much a life lesson as a literary lesson for the audience. Musgrave said she struggled to find poems to read from Origami Dove, realizing that so many of them were about grief. She read two of the book’s funniest, wittiest poems, ‘Al Purdy Took a Bus to the Town Where Herodotus Was Born,’ and ‘Fred Biggar Swims Nude in the Reflecting Pond with Koi.’ The latter poem was inspired by her work teaching creative writing at UBC, when she said to her students one day: “What is it with poets nowadays? You’re all so damn respectable! Why don’t you go out and break some rules for a change?” Or as the late great Gord Downie sang in Poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / don’t tell me that they’re antisocial / somehow not antisocial enough.”

Musgrave was candid about her relationship with Reid, noting the many ways it nourished her, even though “no one needs an addict in their lives.” She said that while sober he was noted as a kind and generous person known for his small acts of kindness.

For more information visit the festival website: http://emlfestival.com/the-festival/schedule-of-events/

POSTSCRIPT: EMLF festival volunteers did a superb job under trying circumstances and deserve commendation: Festival Coordinator Natasha Smith, Anne DeGrace, Tom Wayman, Verna Relkoff, Calvin Wharton, Marty Sutmoller, Rayya Liebich, and many others.

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Joyce to tour new novel Mountain Blues

You are invited to join author Sean Arthur Joyce on tour for a reading from his new novel, Mountain Blues. The novel has been compared to Stephen Leacock’s classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Joyce will do a spring tour of the East and West Kootenays, with a featured launch in Calgary May 31. He will also be one of the featured authors at this year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival in Nelson, BC, July 12–15 (http://emlfestival.com/).

MountainBluescover.inddMountain Blues is the story of a small village in the Valhalla Mountains that must struggle to save its emergency ward from government cutbacks. When reporter Roy Breen arrives in the village of Eldorado after 15 years working at a big city newspaper, burnt out and ready for a slower pace of life, he is soon pitched into the town’s crisis. He must decide whether to blur the lines between objective observer and activist, knowing that closure of the village’s ER could mean the end of the community. Along the way he meets the many eccentric yet loveable characters that inhabit Eldorado, each with their own take on how to save the hospital. It’s that rare creature—an activist story that’s fun! http://www.newestpress.com/books/mountain-blues

Art profile 2015 A

Sean Arthur Joyce

Joyce drew on nearly 30 years’ experience as a freelance journalist and a lifetime Kootenay resident to craft the story. His experience as a poet also figures strongly in the prose. Canadian poetry icon and author Gary Geddes writes: “Joyce brings a unique toolbox of writing skills to bear in Mountain Blues that makes for crisp, lyrical prose, an engaging narrative, memorable characters, including an emotionally articulate cat, and a lightness of touch that is as surprising as it is delightful.”

Nelson author Brian D’Eon gave Mountain Blues a strongly favourable review. “Joyce cannot hide the love he has for his characters. He loves not just their strengths but their flaws, their best intentions, their sweet humanity.” D’Eon compares the novel to the popular 1990s sitcom Northern Exposure, a great compliment. Read the full review here: http://www.briandeon.com/authors-blog/book-review-mountain-blues-by-sean-arthur-joyce

NeWest Press has launched the careers of many prominent Western Canadian authors, including Rudy Wiebe, Angie Abdou, and many others. Founded in 1977, NeWest Press is one of Canada’s first independent literary publishing houses. NeWest publishes literary fiction, literary non-fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as a line of mystery novels, with a particular interest in books by Western Canadian authors.

Joyce will host book launches at the following locations in the West Kootenay: Nelson Public Library, Thursday, May 24, 7 pm; Bosun Hall, New Denver, Friday, May 25, 7 pm; Nakusp Public Library, Saturday, May 26, 7 pm; Slocan Community Library, with author Agnes Toews-Andrews launching her book, A Return to the Divine Feminine: The Goddess, Sunday, May 27, 1 pm. The Langham will host the Kaslo launch on Sunday, June 10, at 3 pm.

The novel will also be launched at Shelf Life Books in Calgary—one of the city’s premier independent bookstores—on May 31 at 7 pm. http://shelflifebooks.ca/events/

This will be followed by an East Kootenay tour at the following locations: Creston Public Library, Monday, June 4, 7 pm: Centre 64, Kimberley, Tuesday, June 5, 7 pm, with an author meet-and-greet at the Kimberley Public Library from 3–5 pm; Invermere Public Library, Wednesday, June 6, 6:30 pm; Golden Public Library, Thursday, June 7, 6:30 pm.

A fall tour is in the works.

Hope to see you at one of these events! The official release date for the novel is May 15. To pre-order the book visit the NeWest Press website at https://newestpress.com/books/mountain-blues, your local independent bookstore, Chapters, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

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Poetry Alive and Well During Poetry Month Pt. 2

  1. A Marriage of Form and Theme

onnotlosingmyfathersashesintheflood_jacketaward_360xRichard Harrison, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (Buckrider Books). I’ve been a fan of Harrison’s poetry since his 2005 collection Worthy of His Fall, an undeservedly overlooked gem. Unlike the taut lines and more formal metres of that book, the poems of On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood opt for a longer, more looping line somewhat reminiscent of the Beat poets. At first this threw me, because longer lines can be much more difficult to control, and in the hands of lesser poets merely descend into glorified prose. Poetry perhaps more than any other written art is about precision of language. In his essay ‘Modern Poetry is Prose’, Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts it this way: “It is often very well-written, lovely, lively prose… whose syntax is so clear it can be written all over the page, in open forms and open fields.” But to his mind it often falls short of his ideal of “aspiring to poetic highs somewhere between speech and song.” Yet nowhere do Harrison’s lines run out of control. Late in the reading of this book, it dawned on me: his choice of line length was deliberate, given the theme of water that permeates these pages. Water, with its tendency—especially in flood—to spread indiscriminately over everything:

…like the drafts of a poem,

sometimes deliberately torqueing towards the opposite of the desired end

because the poem is a way we give in to a logic that lives within us

but is not our own.

Although given Harrison’s consummate skill, he is being modest here: clearly his theme and method unite with a subtle harmony all too easy to miss at first reading. Another poem whose line structure took me a few reads to comprehend is A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street, a response to the March 5th, 2007 car bomb attack on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street—the historic center of the city’s booksellers—wounding more than 100 people and killing more than 30. The opening nine lines of the poem are set in paragraph like a prose poem:

I am a word. I am a word in Arabic, in English and in Farsi. I am a word in Kurdish and German and Hebrew and French. I am a word in the mouths of prophets and hawkers…

But then, “when the bombs go off,” the poem’s structure is exploded across the page just like the shredded pages that terrible day on Al-Mutanabbi Street:

I am scattered

from all that I have known,

and the wind and ashes take me.

It’s a poignant reminder of the pointless, indiscriminate carnage of terrorism. The poem is included in the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here anthology: https://www.amazon.ca/Al-Mutanabbi-Street-Starts-Here-Booksellers/dp/1604865903

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Richard Harrison courtesy Wikipedia

A recurring touchstone in Harrison’s work has been his relationship with his father, a British World War II veteran. Given what we now know about epigenetics—in particular the capacity for past family trauma to influence subsequent generations—it’s not surprising that Harrison continues to grapple with the repercussions of this in his newest collection, the 2018 Governor-General’s Award winner for poetry. What our parents don’t finish is generally handed down to us. Avoidance may seem the easiest option but it’s a mirage. We either deal with it ourselves or our children will have to. As Harrison writes in Confessional Poem:

…the person I would have apologized to is dead now…

The poem was like having an argument with someone in a dream,

then going up to them in daylight wanting to make amends.

Given the wall of critical silence that seemed to greet Worthy of His Fall, with its pointed political poems, I was relieved to see that Harrison didn’t abandon the form in this collection. There are several fine examples: Propaganda, Just Who Do You Fuckers Think You Are?, and of course the superb A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street. Although the political in poetry fell out of fashion during the long dominance of postmodernism, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to a more politically engaged poetry. As George Orwell said: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Often the great magic of poetry is that it articulates for us what we can’t for ourselves. Men don’t tend to want to talk about feelings, which makes Harrison’s explorations of the father-son dynamic so touching yet never sentimental. The bulk of the poems here deal with the eviscerating hell of watching a loved one slowly die. Fortunately for Harrison, he shared something of a literary relationship with his father, and the two exchanged verses during his father’s terminal decline. The two men shared a fondness for Dylan Thomas, one of my formative influences:

You haven’t heard

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea

until you’ve heard it from the wizened mouth

of a man in the not-knowing-when before his death.

In Superman, Harrison deftly chooses the miniscule details that make watching his father die so heartbreaking:

There came a time

when my father did not know

when his stomach was full,

and finishing a meal

was the same to his brain

as closing his eyes on the table.

It reminds me of Irving Layton’s great poem, Senile, My Sister Sings. When I saw him perform this poem in Edmonton in 1986, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yet there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in that poem. This is what finely honed poetic craft can accomplish.

https://bookstore.wolsakandwynn.ca/products/on-not-losing-my-fathers-ashes-in-the-flood

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Jordan Mounteer

Jordan Mounteer, Liminal (Sono Nis Press). Mounteer is one of those rare individuals who seems “sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus,” his poems as well-turned as someone who’s practiced the craft for decades. (Admirable, if a little infuriating to those of us who tend to be late bloomers.) Mounteer was raised in the Slocan Valley, a region known for its civil disobedience. So it’s not surprising there are political and ecological themes in Liminal. After all, while the ‘War in the Woods’ at Clayoquot Sound was over by 1993, it continued well into the late ’90s in the Slocan Valley. And in many ways, it’s a war without end. Valley residents live in a kind of subdued high alert, aware they may be called upon at any moment to protect their community watersheds from destructive logging practices.

In Fugitive Upbringing, Mounteer writes of his mother’s activism in the Slocan Valley, “comprehending protest, like the poems / I would write years later, as a basic form of courage.” Mounteer avoids the strident in favour of the subtle and pithy. Having worked as a treeplanter in BC forests, he’s seen environmental devastation firsthand: “We are agents of small-print conservation, / seeding life in the guts of life taken at softwood prices.” (Wilson Creek)

liminalLike Kelly Shepherd and Ken Belford, Mounteer has a sense of the complexity of our flawed, often destructive relationship with nature. One could hardly grow up in the Slocan Valley without a deep sense of attachment to nature and the need to fight to protect it. “The idea of ‘ecology’ plays heavily into my work, whether we’re talking about dubious logging practices and the diminishing glaciers in the Valhallas or ‘going deep’ into that mental interface between ourselves and the environment, trying to find that ‘holographic puzzle piece’ of ourselves that fits into the rest of the world.” Activists here and everywhere are painfully aware of the inherent contradictions of both action and non-action. As Mounteer writes in Actaeon Sound:

How exposure to the ransack of timber,

ambushed citizenships of old growth,

rubs thin an ache. How a word

repeated often becomes a word only.

Many of Mounteer’s poems explore romantic attachment, but again, in a nuanced, surprisingly mature fashion. At least since Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice, poets have often found a muse in a lover or someone desired from afar, and many of the poems here are addressed to someone called Joslyn:

Joslyn, as if generated out of shadows,

leans in, clumsy, kisses my shoulder once

with wet lips that conceal the weight

of what it means to be a woman

behind them. The silence that follows

is like missing the last step

at the top of the stairs in the dark.

Love poems are among the most difficult to write, and many a poet has foundered on the rocks of that impulse. Emotion can too easily overcome craft, and the ardent poetry of young love too often merely becomes embarrassing later in life. But clearly, Mounteer has the eye for the telling detail that telegraphs the underlying feeling without descending into maudlin yearning. http://www.sononis.com/component/virtuemart/?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=22&category_id=11

I’ve run out of space to discuss the many other fine collections of poetry I’ve encountered during the past few years, so I’m just going to list them in the hopes you’ll trust my judgment and go pick them up:

  • Calvin Wharton, The Song Collides (Anvil Press, 2011)
  • Tom Wayman, Winter’s Skin (Oolichan Books, 2013)
  • Timothy Shay, The Dirty Knees of Prayer (Caitlin Press, 2016)
  • Paul Wilson, The Invisible Library (Hagios Press, 2013)
  • Joe Rosenblatt, The Bird in the Stillness (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016)
  • Owain Nicholson, Digsite (Nightwood Editions, 2016)
  • David Brydges, Vagabond Post Office (Brydge Builder Press, 2018)
  • K. Linda Kivi, Unknown Hum (Maa Press, 2015)
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Poetry Alive and Well During Poetry Month Pt. 1

  1. Turning Back to the Earth as Muse

Poetry is indeed alive and well in 2018. Judging by recent books by both established and emerging poets, the art is in fine fettle. There’s evidence of both high craft and relevance to the social and environmental circumstances in which we find ourselves. And finally, the taboo against political poetry seems to have lifted in Canadian poetry.

In one of my first blog posts in 2011, I foolishly announced that “poetry is dead.” Of course, I wasn’t the first to make such a reckless declaration. There’s even a journal now called Poetry is Dead, as if to ironically underscore the point that in fact it still thrives. In my defense I will say that poetry in the early 21st century lives in a strange paradox: more books of poetry being published than at any time in history, yet fewer readers of poetry than ever. Welcome to the age of cognitive dissonance. Just ask a publisher about trying to sell books of poems and you’ll get the exasperated equivalent of an eye-roll. Way back in 1990, in an interview with Tom Wayman for our Selkirk College magazine, he said that Canadian poetry was kept alive on the “artificial life support” of the grant funding system. That, and proliferation of creative writing faculties in the past 30 years. But is anyone outside these faculties actually reading poetry? When I wrote that essay, I was questioning poetry’s role “as a relevant cultural force.”

But of course poetry is perennially, eternally relevant. Poetry was where political leaders often found their most pithy quotes, at least in the pre-Trump, pre-Twitter era. That’s the greatness of the art: its ability to summarize human experience in just a few words or lines. The great poems act as high-energy constructs, densely packed and ready to go off like a Roman candle in your mind. Better yet, its fireworks change both shape and colour every time you read the poem. More subtleties emerge, more shades of meaning.

In this two-part article, I consider four Canadian poets: two established poets and two emerging voices: Richard Harrison, Ken Belford, Kelly Shepherd, and Jordan Mounteer.

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Kelly Shepherd

Kelly Shepherd: Shift (Thistledown Press). I discovered Shepherd’s work through a mutual friend who thought our poetics were sympatico, and he was right. In my own poetry I strive to get out of the typical self-absorption of humans and get inside all the other lives—from moths to robins to elephants—with whom we share this planet. After all, in the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway. Most poets writing about ecological concerns aren’t necessarily anxious to be labeled ‘eco poets’ but there’s no denying the theme is present in Shepherd’s work. At times there’s a shamanistic quality to his voice, but its authenticity never succumbs to the faux shamanism of so many New Agers. The poem In Exchange for Flight is an example:

…a bird hollows its bones,

letting the sky enter its body

in exchange for flight.

In Webs Across the Eyes, Shepherd deftly explores the hidden magic of the wild, a magic that animals understand intuitively:

Some spiders know the knots

to tie a cluster of Oregon grape

into one single dusty purple berry. If a

 

black bear swallows it under the right moon

he or she will become a powerful shaman,

able to speak the language of spiders.

Long before today’s ‘eco poets,’ the Romantic poets and early transcendentalist movement of Thoreau and Emerson attempted to turn us back to a less destructive relationship with the natural world. They saw from the outset of industrial capitalism what a divorce from nature would cost us in spiritual terms. In the 200 years since, our consumer culture and capacity for intellectual abstraction and narcissism has largely divorced us from our innate connection with the planet. The result has been climate chaos and endemic depression. But the best poets don’t sermonize, they create a space within the poem—an Aha! moment of transcendence—akin to the experience of actually being in nature. It’s the transcendence that comes from having our toes in the wet soil of the Earth. We are, after all, Earth animals. And there is indeed a transcendent element to Shepherd’s poems, thanks to his careful attention to craft. Little Thunderstorm Songs deserves quoting in its entirety:

Grasshopper,

your legs like lightning,

the rain is coming!

Find someplace to hide.

 

Dragonfly—

all your work!

The wind is rising,

the pond will burst its seams.

As if schooled in Japanese tanka or haiku, Shepherd pulls off this compact brilliance repeatedly, in poems like A World is Created, Big Lake Poplars, A World is Created, Being Bee and many more.

There are quite a number of ‘found’ poems in Shift. I’ve always been vaguely suspicious of found poems on the same principle that I remain skeptical of electronic music composed entirely of excerpts or ‘samples’ of other artists’ music. Too often it seems like thinly disguised plagiarism or a sheer lack of originality. So I asked Shepherd about it.

51oibwnlqgl-_sx321_bo1204203200_“I understand your point about techno music, simply combining other people’s music and calling it your own. This is hardly a musical skill, at least nowhere near the same category as playing piano or violin etc. However, at the same time (speaking of music) there is the notion of sampling as a way of paying homage, as is done in the best of hip hop music. They’re not claiming credit… they’re situating their music into a broader context. That’s more like what I had in mind with those found poems in Shift: acknowledging the genealogy of other writers in the nature writing / eco-poetry vein. Deliberately placing my own poems in that tradition, and thereby acknowledging my own literary / philosophical roots. The only one that’s different (not simply a direct quote) is the poem The First Metaphor where a passage from Annie Dillard is combined with a passage from John Berger. The direct quotes from the two different authors alternate.”

From this perspective then, the poet is acting as curator rather than originator. And clearly, Shepherd has a keen eye for the bon mot, the gold buried in the dross. To his credit, he provides the sources for his found poems in the notes at the back of the book. As has often been said, no art is ever 100 percent ‘original’ in the sense that everyone is influenced by someone else. Still, I don’t agree with those who go so far as to say there is no originality, only various gradations of ‘stealing.’ Though we all indeed in any craft or art stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s our originality, our genetic recombinations, that set us apart as writers.

Shift is an exciting discovery in Canadian poetry and deserves wide attention.

1550173499I should also note in this context northern BC poet Ken Belford’s 2005 collection Ecologue (Harbour Publishing), something of an updated coinage of ‘eclogue,’ a short pastoral poem that originated with 4th century BC Greek poet Theocritus. But unlike some poets who fall over themselves to avoid appearing strident, Belford is more of a plain speaker in the northern tradition. “Loggers wipe their asses with owls, / a synonym for old growth,” he writes in Weed book drift. “But shit doesn’t stick to feathers and / diversity is a moral responsibility / having to do with the transfer of properties.” In that sense he’s more in the tradition of Peter Trower or Milton Acorn than Don McKay. Yet in Acorn’s classic 1969 collection I’ve Tasted My Blood, he proved that poets can still pack a political punch within a superbly well-wrought poem, as for example in poems like I Shout Love. The danger of subtlety is that it can serve the wrong master. Trower, a former logger himself, had no problem naming the devastation wrought by industrial scale logging, “the land… hammered to stumps and ruin.” (The Ridge Trees)

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Ken Belford, courtesy Caitlin Press

Belford seems to have chosen the title of this collection somewhat ironically, positioning himself both within and without the tradition of the eclogue. “The conventional standards of narrative and lyric poetry give me nothing. The intention of the sequences I write is to assemble words that can be messaged to the habituated souls of the city from the land-aware that live outside city limits.” It’s an acknowledgement of the urban/rural divide of modern society, or what I call Canada’s 21st century ‘Two Solitudes,’ to borrow from Hugh Maclennan. With the late 20th century shift toward a primarily urban global population, only about 20 percent of Canada’s population resides in rural communities. Add climate chaos to that and it’s more important than ever that the ‘pastoral’ perspective isn’t lost.

But whether ‘eco poets’ strive simply to emulate the sense of presence in the landscape, as Shepherd does, or call out those responsible for its destruction, both are, to quote Belford in Land schemas, seeking “the return path”:

Away in the burrow out of earshot

the earthworm snuffles toward connexion,

an intentional conductor

zeroing in on the return path.

LINKS: https://www.thistledownpress.com/html/search/Authors/kellyshepherd/index.cfm

http://talonbooks.com/authors/ken-belford

https://www.britannica.com/art/eclogue

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