Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Callings and Vocations

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Continued from "Of Swallows, If Pheasants and the Toronto New School of Poetry."

by Melanie Janisse


As I sit in a seat at the John Cage workshop put on by the Toronto New School of Writing, the seats begin to fill with a rather large selection of pioneer spirits, ready for anything. Ready to mine.

I pull out my clipboard, writing utensils, one speech or academic piece of writing, some sort of bill or invoice and one book of poems, substrate. I, of course, brought my receipt for the will I just had drafted, but have not managed to pay for. I am hoping that one of the exercises is that someone will swoop down with a chequebook, but I have my doubts.

Cara Benson (author with BookThug, mistress of ceremonies) begins the journey with a masterful Dale Carnegie style name-remembering performance that is Houdini-esque and baroque. We introduce ourselves, and she repeats name after name after each new introduction is made weaving in bits of our life stories and small details of our individual selves that connect us to each other and to the room. Having all been introduced, our names uttered over and again until the room is full of our identities, Cara asks us to begin with our eyes closed, writing, answering the questions where are we going and what are we doing? The radio is on the static channel. We all retreat into the tunnels with our headlamps to see what we can find.


bill bissett is whirling in the shuffleboard gym – one of the many stunning rooms that Workman Arts newly inhabits in the community hall at St Ann’s Church. He is whirling around post-grilled cheese sandwich, pre-interview, like a dervish. A sweet and devilish dervish. He is the poet in residence at Workman Arts. He, I have decided, is a John Cage song personified. Our conversation wove a forest, a grown-over path through Detroit, the post apocalypse, Nina Simone, politics (both American and Canadian), bluegrass, meditation and concrete poetry. I love how his mind works, in and out of subjects, weaving, retreating, heading back, forging forward, loosing the script and finding it again. bill lives deep into the thicket of the forest, far from the beaten path of everyday, and even though he lives far out in the ether, he deeply appreciates his daily life, his job at Workman Arts and his breakfast.

Lisa Brown (director of Workman Arts) can talk all of bill bissett’s languages (including gibberish she asserts). She asked him on as the poet in residence at Workman Arts this past year, and the result is a workshop full of burgeoning poets listening to bill’s asymmetrical tutelage. The result is a room reverberating in poems and bill whirling in the shuffleboard gym.

Thank goodness Lisa decided to pass on the hopeful career as a rock star and instead decided to pursue her nursing career. That career brought her to the evening shift at Queen Street. Because it was a slow shift, she began to jam with the clients, do talent shows, even an occasional haircut occurred. From this grassroots beginning, a play was produced. From this play, Lisa asked for full-time funding. A Rendezvous With Madness, City in the Asylum and Workman Arts were born and re-born. Blessings to those (like Lisa) who hold the spaces for artists and poets whose headlamps loose their lights, for those of us whose inner-compass needs re-tuning. The lives of poets are rife with the loosing of scripts, poets journey far from the third dimension sometimes and need courageous folks to allow for safe entry back from the caliginous forests of our minds. If it weren’t for folks like those at Workman Arts, many artists could get lost in/out there forever.


I have been up for some hours in the bakery. There is the coming to from the blankness of sleep and there is the realization that I am here again in this life, this body, and this odd place that I have lived for now thirty-seven years. As I get more conscious, I remember things like bills that need to be paid, responsibilities, resentments and perhaps, if I am really lucky, something that I have planned and look forward to. Maybe there is some hard work from the day before that I want to get out of bed for and review. Wow. Those are really good days.

Here is the trick for me. I need to get from the bed to my bakery downstairs in the cafe, before the paralysis and fear become a bit too much and I begin to wish for the day before me to disappear. If I can reach for my baking clothes, find my keys and kerchief and get my butt downstairs, I can deal. There is the silence of the cafe. I add in the familiar voices of the CBC. I pull myself an espresso. Downstairs, I turn my oven on, reach for my flour. Hope. Overcome irritation, refusal and doubt. I make muffins, familiar in routine, proof croissants. I adhere myself to my day like Velcro. I erase the void with recipes.

There are days where the despair and doubt become too much. On those days, I visit the church behind my house (on special pass and special order from the minister there). I sing in the church, whose walls were painted by the Group of Seven. I sit in the air over there and ask for Velcro. I ask to accept Velcro, community, muffins and deadlines.


Here we are. Let us say yes to our presence together in chaos.

Back at the workshop we are asked to pull out our academic selection of writing that we brought along as part of our workshop tools. Ripping up Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is terribly fun. Re-organizing the words from the academics of my past liberates everything. I tape thinly sliced pieces of paper together and think of the concrete poets that I know. I appreciate the opportunity to use my visual mind, to assemble and compose physical elements that just so happen to have words on them. I let my pen weave in and out of the collage, responding, reacting to what I see in front of me.

bill bissett lets me sit in his workshop for a moment. It is a symphony being led by no leader. It is a free-form whisper, an announcement from a participant that there is a poem that needs reading. It is bill’s humble, random and profound connecting. It is hope and poems and freedom. I am given permission from one of the students to publish her concrete poem (last week’s assignment). Her name is. Naomi Hendrickje Laufer. Thanks.


Being a poet is not a career. I think that we all know this. But what is it? A new friend (from Letters, from the press room, from outer space) visited me at the café when I first opened and we talked about what it might be about. The best formulation was his. Poets choose to live in a state of mind, a psychic space that one must consciously tend to. If we choose to see the world a certain way (a concrete description of this not available) and further choose to transcribe what the view looks like from here, it might become poetry.

However awkwardly, we pen the spaces we choose to hold. Why? The postulation is that the poet hopes the reader will pick up the words on paper and be able to (however awkwardly) commune in the psychic space that was experienced by the author of the words. The poems on the page are merely the husks of the matter.

Essentially, poetry is a vocation and a commitment to nurturing and fostering an alternative to cultural norms. Poets are explorers who are constantly asked to come back into the paved world, to fall back in line, to be practical. So, poets are also courageous warriors protecting their thoughts like fragile plants. We all need supporters and blessings for a safe journey through our days. We need a community, even if this community is a bunch of cats trying to get along in a room, an empty church and muffins. We all need each other when the road gets a bit dark. We need each other’s illumination. Sadly I missed the end of the Cage workshop. I left with my will receipt intact and unpaid. Damn. The TNSofW a beacon on the journey though, a safe harbor in the storm.

I wish you all a lovely month of poems and poets. Yes. Let us say yes to our presence together in chaos. Let us write poems anyhow.

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Click on any image to start the slideshow of photos by Melanie Janisse

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