Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Opulent Poems: The Griffin Awards

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By Melanie Janisse

The rain comes pouring down as I make my way over to the entrance of The Royal Conservatory. As my taxi pulls up, there is a sea of people milling around in the lobby, making a dash for the door from their taxis. They inhabit the glass entranceway like busy ants, anticipatory, gathering their tickets, brushing off the rain.

The first thing to exit the cab are my new YSL black stilettos. I feel the wet of the curb against the exposed part of my foot, the tension of my stance inside of these shoes as I begin to find my way towards the sea of ants, the plate glass, the highest place of poetry here in our city. I wait in line, rain-soaked and within a tight throng of other wet bodies. I am alone, exposed, aware of the knots of conversationalists, the hierarchy of clusters, the couples, the families of the award-contending poets as they proudly announce their surnames, collect their tickets.

I have forgotten my ticket behind, and so I begin to explain to the ticket holder who I am and that I was given a press ticket by Damian Rogers. They re-issue my ticket and I head towards the crowd already gathered outside of the auditorium. Here, I run into my Guernica editor, Elana Wolff and the poet Karen Shenfeld. We sit, speak poems and drink bitter coffee together. I get news of Guernica’s latest book launch, again perfectly attended in the top room at Bar Italia. We three women are a brushing of souls in the midst of the tension of the impending award readings and proceedings. As the time gets close, we part ways and head to our seats. While delighted, I am confused as the usher leads me towards the left wing of the stage, towards some of the nicest seating in the place. I make myself comfortable, but as I do, Damain approaches me, confused. As it turns out, I have her seat. The ticket booth operator must have confused my instructions. She looks stunning and is wearing a special pair of earrings that I made for her out of red leather and gold glass beads. I sneak away, just as the presentation is about to begin, and find a lovely seat nearer to the back of the house, beside another journalist.

I have always been fascinated with the structure of readings. I notice how fragile and awkward it is sometimes to orate the written word. It requires a special connection between the author of the words and his or her own text. It requires the patience and complicity of the audience for the times when the poet is unable to connect to the written word. We all can think of the dozens of times we have been at a reading and had to suffer through a bad presentation of poems by an author. I always feel as though I must try and understand the experience as a whole, to get really high on an emotional groove when a poet is able to connect with text, but also to be complicit in the struggle to achieve this state. I am reminded of a quote from a text by Jeanette Winterson (in her book Art Objects, which I will paraphrase) wherein she asks why we have become such impatient audiences that cannot sit still long enough to really see what is going on in front of us.

I suppose, I have my opinions regarding the merits of some of the poets and their readings, but would rather speak towards some of the precious kernels for me that shone out of the dark richness of the evening like twinkling jewels.

Adrienne Rich. It is an honor to be in the same room with her. I went back to read "Diving Into the Wreck" just recently, and within this poem is the majestic hand of the visionary, the journeyer, the courageous warrior of the soul - all that Rich is. I am touched as she makes her way slowly to the podium with her walker, having lived, being given the accolades of a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Griffin Trust. This is by far the crowning moment of the night. I am left fumbling.

John Glenday is most elegantly spoken. His poems are simple, his delivery gentlemanly. His backwards fairytale poem becomes for me the journey back to everyday life from the myth of romantic love. It sticks to my ribs gracefully and reflects to me places of consideration that are personal to me. The poem produced a wry smile across my face and a small sight of relief that stories may run in reverse.

Dionne Brand, perhaps my favorite reader of all time, did such justice to P.K Page’s glosas. "The Blue Guitar" was brilliantly read and brought forth images of a simple truth of the working artist. Wallace Stevens's poem is refracted through the language of Page, who stays true and yet also changes Stevens’s poem. I am such a sucker for lyrical poems, older notions of poetry, my memories of seeing P.K Page read at Hart House in amongst antiques, old wood and leaded glass. I will truly miss her presence in our midst.

Valerie Rouzeau and translator Susan Wicks tippytoe and flip babbling brooks of language into the sky together. They are at once singers of lullabies, chanters of mantras and speakers in tongues. The poems nibble away at notions of deep loss, death and memory as seen through child eyes, which always procure a strange and innocent wisdom. I loved them.

Of course, there are more poets, more impressions. There always are, but I will stop here.

The Griffin Awards remind me of a strong impression I was given on my recent trip to Paris. My companion and I were marveling over how Paris shone like jewels out of the darkest of tapestries — the Champs-Elysees with its deep, dark shops, their items hitting the eye like rich jewels, the Rose Window at Notre Dame blasting into the room out of the deep black shadows. The Griffins feel opulent. It is a rare time when we really deck out and put poems in the context of luxury. The Royal Conservatory is such a stunning backdrop with its careful interpretation of old and new, its elegance. I find that from this context the poems sing out like precious stones from a unique setting. They become gifts.

Congratulations to the nominees: Karen Solie, P.K. Page, Kate Hall, Susan Wicks, Valerie Rouzeau, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Louise Gluck, John Glenday. A special congratulations to the recipients Karen Solie and Elian Ni Chuilleanain.

And of course, a huge sense of gratitude and immense kudos to Adrienne Rich for her lifetime achievement award. Without your feet before mine, I am never sure. Thank-you for paving my way.

I’ll leave you with Adrienne Rich’s poem "Diving into the Wreck":

Diving Into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
abroad the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it's a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or week

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
and I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
Obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

          — Adrienne Rich

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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