Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Souled Out: Lost in Transliteration

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Souled Out: Lost in Transliteration

"The way I see it, there is no greater spiritual beauty than fanaticism, of a sort so sincere it can only end in martyrdom." - Isabelle Eberhardt.

By Nathaniel G. Moore

One of the perks (sometimes) of being the writer among a group of creative types is that you find yourself asked to produce something that is beyond your own feeble little world. That has been my experience over the last few years, working with an interdisciplinary artist on some short films for a program called Bravo!Fact, for which artists are given anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to make a short five-minute film. I won’t depress you by revealing the writers fee.

Through a different program this year, my creative partner and I received a grant to shoot a film-poem based on one of my pieces from my first collection, Let’s Pretend We Never Met (Pedlar Press, 2007), which deals with my poetic struggle and identity crisis over the long-dead Roman poet Catullus. The trouble is, I don’t want to do it.

Now my reasoning is complex, subjective and the genesis for writing the book in the first place: Catullus is mine. However, I also realize that he is not. At a recent BookThug launch, editor Jay Millar introduced one of his poets as a modern-day Catullus. I sort of flinched in my chair a bit, and felt a bit wheezy.

Last fall I participated in Margaret Christakos’s Influency Salon and tried my best to explain my relationship with Catullus. I must admit I was extremely nervous and despite my best efforts, Catullus just wasn’t on my mind the way he once was.

As part of the students' assignments, they had to compile a critical biography of me to present to the class. For some reason, perhaps due in part to reality, there wasn’t that much to go by, despite The Georgia Straight reviewing the book glowingly and a write-up on rob mclennan’s blog, the students mostly came back with sensational bylines and gratuitous interviews that I had given. But what eclipsed these NGM findings it seems, in terms of pure artistic identity, was how strong their perceptions and findings about Catullus the poet himself were. These musings were detailed and revealing, both in terms of what they were discovering about my man Catullus and how they demonstrated clearly that I was now competing with “my” monster. I felt as though he was more popular and relevant in the discussion than anything I contributed.

That leads to the present where I am struggling not to write a poem script for a film that will simply cash in on Catullus’s story and say nothing to me about my life. Am I being selfish? Probably. My fear is simple: people will walk away from watching the film thinking, so that was Catullus. Then they’ll go rent a Twilight film and forget it ever happened. But I know poets who have done these sort of short films and it made sense. When I heard that they were doing these crossover projects, I knew the poems were extremely personal. Take Jordan Scott’s Blert, a book I reviewed and enjoyed a while ago. The book works because it is both daring and extremely personal, riffing on a lifetime of stuttering and “turned it to audacious advantage.” It is his experience “of language as a resistant physical medium — where every vowel and consonant must be traversed, claimed, made audible by non-stop bodily effort.”

Or Souvankham Thammavongsa, on whose poetry the film Found is based, a personal story of discovering ones past via her father’s scrapbook, the one he kept while the family lived in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand. (The book Found was published by Pedlar Press in 2007).

Because I have remixed my own voice with that of a dead man’s, it’s impossible to separate myself, the actual poet, from Catullus's perceived and already established voice. Perhaps that is where I failed. I clung to his toga too tightly. And it became impossible to separate us, or more importantly, to distinguish my creative intention. The visuals that are projected to be in the short film (the one I refuse to write) belong to Catullus and his story: the sparrow, the grains of sand, the Roman aesthetic. All his work, his struggle, not mine.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the terrifically long film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and I couldn’t help but notice a dandy of a cowboy reciting a poem to impress his cowboy buddies, and it was in fact a Catullus poem. This was within the first ten minutes of the film. It was a translation (a pretty good one too) of Carmen 70. My woman says to me that there is none/ With whom she'd rather spend her days than I,/ Should even Jove himself ask her to wed./ So she says, but women often lie,/What a woman says to a desirous lover,/ This he ought to write in the wind and rapid water. It seems my work here, is completely done. When Hollywood starts lifting your muses, it's time to ride off into the sunset. I think Catullus was my greatest opponent, because I clearly could never match him, or beat him, not that it was my goal. In my introduction I wrote, "Catullus was a poet on whom I had no intention of giving up. He was someone I didn’t particularly want to lose to another." The truth is, I never thought I would lose him to himself. A lot of this will make no sense, but then again, I have no problem with that. Warren's girlfriend told me this summer she admired me because I didn't follow any trends. Clearly, I said, which made Warren laugh. Is Catullus a trend? Am I? Is Casey Affleck?

There are many Catullus poems that I didn’t remix, remaster or interpret in Let’s Pretend We Never Met. Two that stand out are poems 49 and 56. These are pieces I would like to approach creatively someday. They are very telling poems, ones that are sensational, rude and a bit humourous, taking up space in a basic “everyday” way, like a strange napkin note or phone message scrawled on a scratch pad. They are civic, not civil. I found these online:

Carmen 49

The most eloquent of the descendants of Romulus,/ as many as there are and as many as there have been, Marcus Tullius,/ and as many as there will be afterwards in other years,/ Catullus, the worst poet of all,/ gives the greatest thanks to you,/ as much the worst poet of all/ as you the best patron of all.

Carmen 56

Oh what a funny thing, Cato, and a jest,/ and worthy of your laughter and ears!/ Laugh as much as you love Catullus, Cato:/ the thing is funny and very much a joke./ I just caught a little boy thrusting away/ into a girl; I banged him, if it please Dione,/ with my boner like a spear./

The other thing that frightened me was the lucidity of Catullus’s identity. His availability to others. Catullus himself is public domain. That he could be pulled away from me so instantly. I had spent years reading up on him in libraries in Ottawa, Waterloo, Kingston, Montreal, New York. It wasn’t until Beach Holme Publishing sent me a letter (circa 1998) saying parts of my manuscript reminded them of Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson that I realized that maybe I was treading on her turf. But I kept toying with the gimmick, despite the disappointment that Carson had already been there, done that.

So I’m leaving the dead poet where he belongs. Sure someone will come along and recontextualize him in a few months and it will be another small victory for the seemingly unknown poet. We had a good run. But maybe it's not fair to extend his identity this way. Into the realm of the short art film. Maybe it’s not my right (and that’s alright with me.) Maybe it should be his exact words, in Latin, untarnished by my Wonderbread heritage.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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