Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Visit to Calgary: Part Three

My last engagement in Calgary on this winter 2009 visit was at St Stephen’s Church downtown where, on Friday March 6, Howard Gallimore, Jamaican-Calgarian who had read with me on my previous visit, joined me, reprising his role of Samuel, as we read my Good Friday poem, De Man. I read Naomi. I am a Roman Catholic, as is Howard, but, as the Lord would have it, the readings of this poem in Calgary have, on both occasions, taken place in Anglican churches. We are grateful to our Anglican brethren for hosting us on both occasions.

The story of the reading was a Jamaican pumpkin vine story, running off in different directions as it put out its blossoms and then bore fruit. Dr Cecille DePass, a Professor at U of C, and a good friend and supporter, had, when she heard I was coming back this year to visit the University once more, offered to put me up once I’d fulfilled my obligations to the University. In addition, since the visit would again be in Lent, she had proposed that I do a reading of De Man, as I had done in 2007. Professor DePass is that rara avis, that endangered species, an enabler. So she undertook to find a church that would host the reading. Enter Dr Jean Springer, Rector’s Warden at St Stephen’s and a good friend of Cecille’s – and, unknown to me, an old friend of my husband’s family. In fact, his father was married in her parents’ house, the Barretts and the Mordecais having known one another from Columbus came over. Jean agreed to approach Rev. Brian Pearson, the rector at St Stephen’s, and we were delighted when we heard that he had agreed. Jean and I spoke on the phone, I discovered the family connection – I knew Jean’s sister, concert pianist, Nerine Barrett – and when I came to Calgary, Jean took to me to lunch and we got to know each other a bit better.

Which was how, on the evening of Friday March 6th, Rev. Pearson came to be welcoming Howard and me and introducing us to a small but welcoming audience at St Stephen’s. We could not have been more received more thoughtfully. We had met the associate priest, Rev. Cathy Fulton, and also Brian’s wife, Jean, beforehand. There were microphones and lecterns at the ready, the church was lit, and there was water to hand. We were promised refreshments in the Canterbury Room afterwards.

A little bit about the poem: De Man: a performance poem is my second book of poetry, and is really a verse play. A two-hander written entirely in Jamaican Creole, it is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as reported by two imagined characters, Naomi, a maid in the court of Pilate’s wife, and Samuel, a disabled carpenter of Nazareth to whom Joseph taught the trade. It has been performed many times in Canada and in Jamaica.

But it is always a challenge, especially in Canada, where we, the performers, are aware that we are reading in a language that is not familiar to many in the audience. We make adjustments for this, but even then, one is never sure. It helps when, as has been the case on both occasions, there are Caribbean people in the audience. Naomi and Samuel have their own story, which unfolds as they watch Jesus on his way to Calvary. Naomi is a bit of a busybody, and a forthright speaker of her opinions, and, never mind that this is a terrible tale, there are light moments, as there must have been when the true history happened.

After the performance, we gathered in the Canterbury Room for refreshments, graciously provided by parishioners and well-wishers. Everyone I spoke to said that that it had been deeply moving, and that those who hadn’t come had missed something. English speakers found that they could understand once they became accustomed to the rhythms of the Creole. People generously purchased books, a portion of the sales having been promised to support the church’s ministry.

The reading was memorable for another reason. We discovered later that, unbeknown to us, Howard’s grandmother in Toronto had died while we were performing the poem.

Someone in the audience asked me, as we spoke afterwards, if I had seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ. I told him that I hadn’t and wondered why he had asked. He recalled Samuel’s description, as he observed the clothes being torn off of Jesus:

Dem tearing off him clothes
And scab and blood and skin
And flesh hold onto dem.
Him is a open wound.
A walking sore.

He had never seen or heard those details before – not until he’d seen the movie. I explained that I’d imagined what would have happened if a man had been whipped till he was bleeding, then had clothes put on him, then had them torn off when the blood had dried. When I returned to Toronto, my husband pointed out that the poem had been published in 1995, while the movie had been released in 2004.

I was very surprised and pleased at the invitation to have us back to repeat the performance on Good Friday! We are both – indeed all – extremely grateful to the clergy, staff and parishioners at St Stephen’s for hosting us, and in particular, to Dr Jean Springer for trusting, sight unseen, in the story of De Man. It was a great experience for both Howard and myself, I know. The plan is that we will come back for Easter next year, since it was not have possible to accept the invitation to return this Easter.

I think we all look forward to that time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Visit to Calgary Part Two

A note on my last post. It was written before I saw Nik Korpon’s review of Pink Icing, which is why I was pleased that Nik said what he did about my narrative disappearing act.

It’s my second day in Calgary. Tuesday, March 3rd.

From Aruna Srivastiva’s office, to which Robert Majzels has so kindly brought me through ice and snow and melt, I can glimpse a strange, bare landscape. It’s not just the emptiness of winter. It maybe looks as if someone has skinned the earth, as they would skin an animal, and what I’m looking at is what’s underneath. The mountains ringing the city on the low horizon are like folds of skin, pulled back from the exposed torso and piled up at the sides of the excoriated body of the beast.

I’d heard about Aruna before I met her – we had friends in common. We talked a bit before going off to her class and she told me some more about the course being done by the students with whom I’d be visiting. She’d already said via e-mail that English 492 is a course on postcolonial and globalization studies in which students look at literature in the context of cultural and political issues. They worked in groups, and so did not often meet as one large group, and they were mostly well motivated, and got on with what they had to do. I was interested, especially in the fact that they were assessed in non-traditional ways (one being that they blogged) rather than by means of tests and papers. I told Aruna that it seemed like it would be a lot of work to mark, more harassing than correcting papers, and she admitted it was.

But it would obviously be challenging for the students and would offer insights into their progress, a grasp of how well they were acquiring skills and knowledge and navigating concepts. Also, she would quickly have a handle on any problems they might encounter.

Aruna had been concerned about the student turnout and lured them with the promise of food after the class, which I subsequently told her was a lunatic thing to do, because I think every man-Jack was there! I enjoyed the session. Via an Internet hook-up, Tracy, an admin assistant, if I remember right, who would normally have been present except that she was ill, could participate. We all waved to her on camera and she waved back at us. The students were alert and interested and clearly very bright.

I was a bit angry with myself, though, for getting distracted. I found myself talking about getting published, what constituted a bestseller in Canadian and American terms, etc., etc. I wish that I’d just stayed with reading stories and poems.

Aruna treated us to dinner in the grad lounge, good food and vivid cocktails. There was lively chatter, somewhat constrained by the fact that we were at a long, thin table. Across the table from me was an Asian woman who diverted us with a tale of being thrown out of a bar by a bouncer. She never went to bars, she said, and this one time had all been a crazy mix-up. Beside me a white Canadian woman spoke of spending summers picking mushrooms that grew wild. She loved it. She told me which mushrooms – it might have been morels, which grow wild in British Columbia, but I can’t remember now.

It wasn’t a very mixed group, racially, and the evening ended with an interesting conversation – by that time everyone had left and there were only the five of us – between three white young men, one of Finnish heritage, one Danish and one of Bosnian background. They discussed racial purity, which I got the impression they all thought they had. Aruna is East Indian. I am a child of so many admixtures that they are lost in the mists of generations of miscegenation.

I would see Aruna again before the end of the week, to share a cup of tea and a slice of Jamaican plum pudding at the house of my friend and hostess, Cecille DePass, a Prof in Education and another innovative teacher. Cecille was why I was in Calgary to begin with. She had approached the Department of English in 2007 about having me do a reading at U. of C., to wind up my mini tour of Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton, and that had led to the current invitation. Louise Saldhana came with Aruna. During tea, Louise and I hatched a project concerning children’s literature.

It was a privilege to be with these women, as it had been to meet Mutriba Din, Senior Financial Analyst at the University. Mutriba had us to dinner before my reading at Pages the day before. Cecille DePass, Aruna Srivastiva, Mutriba Din, Hiromi Goto, Louise Saldhana, Larissa Lai, Nadine Chambers, Noga Gayle, Yvonne Brown, Jean Springer, Julie Hendrickson – women, most of whom I met on these two trips to the west. Dionne Brand, on a visit to Vancouver in fall 2008, described a “world beneath the world,” meaning the world that would have existed if all the dire things that have snagged it, had not. In a recent blog post, Larissa Lai referred to Dionne’s affirmation of the existence of this under-world, and observed, “There are women… actively making that other world...”

These are some of those women.