Scott Berry’s “Confusement”: Two Video Walk-Throughs and a Thought or Two

Confusement – The feeling of being stared at but no one can see who you are.
– Scott Berry

We hoped to collaboratively create an environment for the viewers to experience and make their own meaning.
-from the program accompanying Confusement

Scott Berry’s installation, Confusement, a collaboration with dozens of fellow members of the Nina Haggerty Collective, staff, volunteers and visitors, is a breathtaking mirror held up to each of us.  Anyone who has spent time with people who are “different”, who have “disabilities” or “challenges” or “special needs” is familiar with the double takes, the brief or extended stares, the uncomfortable smiles that inevitably are directed their way.  Berry has turned the tables on “us” with Confusement.

Here we are surrounded by thousands — possibly tens of thousands of unblinking eyes (and a few blinking ones). Voices are whispering around us, but its hard to catch any words.  Bits of music float by, scales on a piano.  A mirror faces us at the end of the entrance corridor – this is about us. Hands reach out from walls, ghostly figures (packing tape whole body casts of Collective artists) loom above us and around us.  Just before turning the corner into the heart of Confusement – a party of ghostly figures in conversational knots surrounded by yet more eyes – one is mesmerized by Berry’s computer video of floating lidless eyeballs, staring, somehow blinking their irises, unpredictably and uncannily.

For all the Lovecraftian spookiness such a description might imply, Confusement is not frightening.  It is certainly designed to confuse, to playfully unsettle, but also to amuse, pleasantly mystify, and stir us to beneficial thought.  These eyes mean no harm. These unknowable figures are busy about their own affairs.  The curtains of eyes are the environment we all move through every day, but some of us are forced to swim more deeply in that sea of benign, but too often unseeing eyes, the world of Confusement.

The day before the dismantling of the installation, I made two impromptu video walk-throughs.  They do little justice to the powerful effect of the vision of Scott Berry and the Nina Haggerty Collective.

 

 

 

Confusement was at the Stollery Gallery of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts in Edmonton from February 12-27, 2015.

On the Misattribution of Quotations

Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.  

– some Italian guy whose name I can’t remember and what’s it matter anyway?

For all my adult life I have found the misattribution of quotations to be a crime akin to plagiarism and theft, indeed, it is a sort of cultural vandalism, an appropriation committed against a usually dead author and the framing of another for the crime.

Social media have increased the incidence of the crime and may anxiety level over it.  When I come across a tweet in which Sinclair Lewis is given words about fascism, flags, and Bibles, or Voltaire defends to the death the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdou, or any of the countless other bits of pith that echo through cyberspace attached to the names of great wits who likely said no such thing, I grab a book of quotations, then another, and another. Then I google.  Rarely does it turn out that the attribution is correct.

For the record, Voltaire did not offer to defend to the death anyone’s right to say something:, those were his biographer’s words. And there is no record of Sinclair Lewis talking of fascism wrapped in a flag holding a Bible — and there is significant record of other people saying similar things.

Sure, we all make mistakes.  I confess I spent a number of years quietly convinced that”What tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive”was in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, never imagining it was from Scott’s Marmion.  Thankfully, I never exposed such an error on social media, and I was glad when I learned the truth.

Some will ask “what’s it matter?”

I’m sorry, but I think it important to accurately give credit to the persons of the past who had the wit, who spoke the words which capture our attention and express our feelings today.  Giving credit to the wrong person is little different from claiming the credit oneself.  If we don’t care to remember by name the giants upon whose shoulders we sit (to paraphrase Newton [1676] paraphrasing Bertrand of Chartres [12th Century], Burton [1621], et. al.), are we not remarkably tiny people?

Perhaps a reason I am so obsessive about the problem is that I was, as a young boy, framed for the theft of some of the most beautiful lines of English poetry.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, sometime before my fourteenth birthday I discovered the poetry of Yeats while reading Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe.  In those days, I had youthful dreams of becoming a science fiction author (instead, I came to live, as we all do, in the science fiction I read as a teen).  For an assignment in my grade 8 English class in late 1974 or early 1975, I wrote a short, two page science fiction story about a young man searching the universe for eternity for his lost sister.  My story closed with the young fellow recalling some lines from The Song of the Wandering Aengus by Yeats.  I clearly included attribution!

Some time later my teacher, Mrs. Whittaker, approached me with the news that the yearbook committee would be interested in printing my story in the literary section of the yearbook.

“Cool,” I thought.

“Okay,” I said.

At the end of the year I got my copy of the yearbook and was absolutely horrified.  My story was not in the yearbook.  Instead, there were Yeats’ lines, lines that had inspired Ray Bradbury, there they were, perpetually preserved, with my name attached as author!

I immediately crossed out my name and wrote “WBYeats” in an emphatic but kind of ragged scrawl. image The idea that someday, somewhere someone would think I had claimed Yeats’ words for my own has haunted me now for almost forty years.  I am horrified today as I look at the evidence.  In all seriousness, I feel like I have been framed for a truly heinous intellectual crime, a false accusation which hangs over every academic paper I’ve published and sullies those achievements with the guano of injustice.

For decades I’ve hidden this undeserved shame, but now I’ve finally come clean.

Despite what the nameless members of that yearbook committee accused me of, I never claimed the words of Yeats as my own! (Using Yeats’ line “Through hollow lands and hilly lands” in my poem “Elven-Maid: A Consciously Archaic Fragment” was an homage.)  Seriously, after forty years, it still hurts, and I’m still ashamed of an intellectual crime I was wrongly accused of committing.

However much the Twitterati may shrug it off, proper attribution is important!  For god’s sake, do your due diligence before you hit “retweet”!


 

A note of due diligence:

the epigram at the head of this post is from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, as “rendered into English” by Edward MacCurdy, London, 1954, p. 85.

Another brief thought on Canada Reads 2015, Barriers, and Alberta

This my second post about Canada Reads 2015. The first is here.

In my reading of things, (some of) the Barriers to be broken down in Canada Reads 2015 are, in a few little nutshells:

Native Canadian/Settler Canadian

Immigrant experience/”native” Canadian Experience

“Muslim World”/everybody else

(L)Gay(BT) youth/everybody else

Elders approaching end of life/the young

I don’t think anyone can legitimately deny these barriers exist and need to be breached. What I couldn’t help fell as I read the five books was how much Albertans – those wacky, pickup driving, dilbit swilling, trucknut swinging, two-fisted cowboys with the sunburnt necks – how much Albertans had already done to  hip at those barriers.

Native Canadian/Settler Canadian

Edmonton has the second largest urban-Aboriginal population in the country. Big civic events now routinely open with Elders praying and smudging followed by an apparently grateful acknowledgement that we are on Treaty 6 Land. I could go on about Alex Decoteau, Douglas Cardinal, Alex Janvier, and the young vibrant generation of First Nations and Métis artists, chefs, business people, office workers, politicians . . .
And I will also shout loudly that the racism is still rampant, and ugly, and lethal.

But I have stood in a crowd, in the heart of Alberta’s Capital City, and I, an Old White Guy, was in the minority. And there has been nothing in my life better than again seeing Aboriginal people confident (they’ve always been confident, but not always seen), again the majority, if only for a day, for a round dance, for a moment that can’t ever be ended.

That wall is coming down.

Immigrant experience/”native” Canadian Experience

If the immigrant experience has ever been forgotten in a Province in which few people have an Albertan-born – or even Canadian-born – grandparent, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, with its rampant abuses and even tragic deaths has undoubtedly put a jack hammer to that barrier.

“Muslim World”/everybody else

I live in an Edmonton riding which elected the first Muslim MP in Canadian History. And Rahim Jaffer shiwed with great panache that stereotypes of Muslims have little basis in fact. And, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim to be elected Mayor of a major city in Canada, is a Super Hero, not a jihadi at all.

The cracks are speading in that wall.

(L)Gay(BT) youth/everybody else

Premier Prentice’s  absurd Bill 10 fiasco in response to Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s un ontroversial private member’s bill mandating Gay-Straight Alliances in schools where students requested them, and the “consultation” following, has shown clearly that Albertans, in general, are more homophiles than homophobes, and that they love their children, all their children, no matter what and unconditionally.

Again, there are ugly homophobes out there – many in government – but, still, the wall crumbles.

Elders approaching end of life/the young

I confess, I hesitated on the Elder/youngster barrier. But then I remembered the ongoing outrage about the treatment of Seniors in care, the physical abuse that has come to light, the deaths through negligence, understaffing, poor training, budget cuts. . . and I realize: we all have aged family members, and soon most of us will be facing the assisted living institution. This barrier is aleady being assaulted by a grey horde with raging siege engines of experience and their children and grandchildren – all of us – are at the charge.

Cautious Optimism

Please don’t mistake my hopeful tone for naive complacency. I see a long and difficult struggle ahead in the breaking of each of these barriers. But the very fact that Alberta, a jurisdiction with such a reputation for conservatism, reactionism, cowboy insensitivity, that such a place is actually ahead of the curve on so many fronts, truly makes me feel that we will, together, soon, see a much better, mutually supportive tomorrow.

Brief Thoughts on Canada Reads 2015

This evening I finished reading Jocelyne Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down, the last of the five Canada Reads 2015 finalists I had left to read.  I read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian some time ago. Over the last few days I’ve read, in order, Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable, and Kim Thúy’s Ru.  All five are tremendous books in their own way and deserve to be read.  The Inconvenient Indian is funny and deadly serious. Ru is shear poetry. Intolerable is an intensely troubling portrait of Islamist fundamentalism’s effect on a family over a single generation.  And the Birds Rained Down is a generous and gentle discussion of aging and “end-of-life issues” and memory and endurance. And When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a harsh and loving depiction of the plight of Generation Y, most particularly of the Gay teenager.

I’ll say right off the bat that I think When Everything Feels Like the Movies should win on the “Breaking Down Barriers” score.  The very fact that there is a campaign to strip Reid of his Governor General’s Literary Award makes clear that there’s a viscous barrier needing removal.  As I finished reading the book, I tweeted “I think When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the Generation X of our time” and I mean it strongly.  As Coupland’s strange-at-the-time and barrier breaking book gave a generation a name and its ennui a coherent description, Reid has written a brutally uncomfortable “Young Adult” novel that describes the deadly dangerous screen-filtered world facing today’s youth and the ennui they, too, are too often sucked into.  When Everything Feels Like the Movies is not a coming-age-novel like any previous generation’s.  It is a beautifully written, harsh, difficult novel for an “Old Adult” to read.  As a side note, Reid’s novel and Jordan Tannahill’s Age of Minority belong on the same shelf and I think any parent (or non-parent) would be wise to read them.

Again, all five of the Canada Reads 2015 finalists are tremendous, worthwhile reads.  An added bonus is that they’re all quite short.  I particularly think that Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable scores highly in the Barrier Breaking department, in this case, showing clearly that the shift to radical Islamicism among youth (and adults) in the Middle East is a result of political and economic conditions, not simply a function of Islam itself.  Al-Solaylee grew up with his many older sisters and brothers in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt in a completely secular family in secular, multicultural communities. But as political corruption took over the governments and the economic disparities grew greater and unemployment soared, an older brother found support in the Muslim Brotherhood and, within a few years, the whole family was destitute, back in Yemen, the women veiled and the men more or less radicalized.  Al-Solaylee escaped the economic and political disasters, first to the UK and then to Canada and is today a successful Gay man in love with Toronto and freedom.

I found Thúy’s Ru far more poetic than any of the other four books, but I’m not sure that it is terribly successful at breaking down barriers. Certainly we see an immigrant’s experience, in this case, that of the Vietnamese Boat People. I don’t know.

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian is, of course, about breaking down perhaps the most barrier most in need of dismantlement in Canadian Society.  I think it is a very important book and should be required reading in Canadian Schools, but I’m not sure that it is, on its own, more than a single jack hammer when a battalion of battering rams are needed.

Jocelyne Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down, is a beautiful, beautiful book, a joyous celebration of freedom to grow old and, ultimately, to die on one’s own terms.  Certainly, the “issues” of assisted suicide, elder care, elder abuse, and geriatric sexuality are still surrounded by conversational barriers, and the barriers need to be removed. Certainly, Saucier’s novel can open up that discussion to a great degree. But I’m not sure that it will be as successful at bringing change, on its own, as will, for example, Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies, which has the potential to change a generation as it is coming of age.

Of course, I could well be wrong. When I was on my 20s in the 80s, I felt like my generation had outgrown the homophobia of our parents’ generation. I never imagined that in 2015 a novel such as When Everything Feels Like the Movies would be imagined, never mind vitally necessary. But, three decades after Jimmy Sommerville sang of a Small Town Boy, which song Reid references in his novel, Albertans, who overwhelmingly favour Gay-Straight Alliances in our schools, have been forced to suffer through a retrograde government’s offensive, reactionary, panicked “consultation” on the “issue”. It is beyond depressing that still today there is no place in Canada free from the violent barriers which keep this song being lived, and all too often died, by a Smalltown Boy or Girl:

Giving Back to the Edmonton Arts Community

If you have any awareness of the Arts in Edmonton, you probably know that the Roxy Theatre, home of Theatre Network, was destroyed by fire a few days ago.  If you think you’re up on the Arts in Edmonton, you should know about the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts.  The Arts community in Edmonton is a pretty tight knit bunch and its visual and musical and theatre and dance artists are very supportive of each other.  In that supportive spirit, here’s what I’m going to propose:

 

A while ago, after looking at my Eastend Sketches, Dave Janzen suggested “Those would look good BIG.”  So, without much foresight, I went and got a big canvas.  Now I’ve got a four foot by four foot finished painting with no free walls for hanging and precious little storage space in my hopeless clutter.  Here it is:

 

Eastend Tree Large watermarked

“Eastend Tree”, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 48″x48″

 

Here’s the deal:  If you or your company have wall space in need of filling, and if you want to support the Arts in Edmonton, buy “Eastend Tree” for a thousand bucks.   I’ll just keep 20% to cover cost of materials (and maybe lunch for a couple of days) and divide the other 80% equally and donate it in your name to Theatre Network and The Nina Haggerty Centre.  I’ll make sure receipts for tax purposes are issued in your name (I don’t have enough income to need them), you’ll have a big painting, two important Edmonton Arts institutions will have a bit of cash and I’ll have a some of space back.

If you’re interested, you can contact me by clicking on “Me on facebook” or “Me on twitter” up there on the right and we can do some direct message arrangements for you to come see the thing, etc.

On “Distance Closing In” by Arleen Paré

 

Lake of Two Mountains, Arleen Paré‘s 2014 Governor General’s Award winning poetry collection celebrating/lamenting lifetimes of summers on the shores and waters of Quebec’s  Lac des Deux Montagnes at the confluence of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence, a stone’s throw from Montréal, did not grab me with every poem.  Many poems definitely did grab me.  But none grabbed me quite as strongly as “Distance Closing In”, the first poem of the cycle. Rather than discussing the entire book, I will devote my attention to this single poem.

This devotion to a single poem should by no means be construed as a dismissal of the rest of the cycle: Lake of Two Mountains is a poetic tour de force, a magically varied study of years and generations of life in family and in solitude.  Only two things could do justice to the entire slim book: a much thicker book of close reading and analysis, or, more obviously, get the book and read it yourself, out loud, over the course of days and weeks, making notes if you like.  I did the second one because I’m lazy.  But I’m going to try to do a bit of a close reading of “Distance Closing In”.

I’ll reproduce all twelve lines of “Distance Closing In” because I consider such reproduction in this critical study to constitute Fair Dealing.  If Ms. Paré or her publisher, Brick Books, take issue I’ll remove the text. But I think such removal will be detrimental to an understanding of my critical argument, which argument is entirely praising of Paré’s poetic skill and artistry.

And so:

DISTANCE CLOSING IN

flint-dark     far-off
sky on the move across the lake
slant sheets closing in

sky collapsing from its bowl
shoreline waiting     taut
stones dark as plums

closer     future
flinging itself backwards
water now stippling thin waterskin

shallows pummelled     the world
hisses with rain    iron-blue smell
and pewter light ringing

The alliteration leaps out immediately, particularly for one familiar with Mediaeval English verse.  Five lines even have caesuras typographically indicated.

Flint-dark     far-off

the poem begins, like an Old English elegy, the fricatives exploding in the stressed syllables and in the line’s closing sound.  This is a poem of oral and aural activity.

And here we meet a remarkable thing. We read the poem — aloud without doubt — and our speech parts are flapping like everything.  But, look at the page —

Only one single word, a lonely “hisses”, is actually a verb.  This poem of great physical activity in the reading, is constructed almost totally of dull little nouns and fascinating gerundives.

Look at the things we might mistake for verbs:

“on the move” – prepositional phrase
“closing in” – gerundive and preposition
“collapsing” – gerundive
“waiting” – gerundive
“flinging” – gerundive
“stippling” – gerundive
“pummelled” – past participle (one might construe it as a verb in the preterite, but I think one would be wrong: the shallows are pummelled, they do not pummel the world.)
“hisses” – a verb!
“ringing” – gerundive

Apart from

                            the world
hisses with rain

the poem is verbally static.  No single thing actively does, all are adjectivally doing, or, in the case of the shallows, already bruised by their preterite pummelling.  Only the world, the totality, actively “hisses”.  All the bits make up a series of still images, frozen in the gerundive, pregnant with the potential of the rain, released when the hissing starts and the visual is cut through, the audible hiss releases the smell and the light and the senses become present in the synaesthesia of the visible sound of “light ringing” and the coloured odour of the “iron-blue smell”.

At the centre

closer     future
flinging itself backwards

The time has not been out of joint, it has been frozen, and now the future is closer, backward to the Now violently flung.  The tension is building timelessly until finally the release of the rain’s hiss, the storm, and time have broken.  The eternal stillness of the Lake’s potential here bursts into the Now with an iron-blue smell, and the sound of pewter light ringing.  The flint-dark is now truly far-off as the storm wakens and blends the senses in audible light.

“Distance Closing In” is a startling poetic construction carefully crafted of grammar, meaning, sound and the physical act of speaking the poem culminating in the expressive synaesthesia that fills the hissing, awakened, active world.

“Distance Closing In” is just one of fifty-seven poems in Lake of Two Mountains.  Paré is a viciously keen observer of the world in which she’s immersed and a meticulous crafter of her poems.  Lake of Two Mountains is a cycle of poems to be read carefully with all the focus and attention the reader can bring to the rewarding task.

A Nice Start to the New Year

I woke up this morning to kind of surprising news: for some reason unfathomable to a nonetheless grateful me, Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons has nominated my wee blog for a 2014 #Yeggie award in the “Arts & Culture” category. For those who don’t know what a #Yeggie is, it’s an annual recognition of “content creators” in “New Media” working in the Edmonton metropolitan area.

For a 50-something guy who blathers on and rambles about everything from poetry to politics to parenting to Space Rock and sometimes even speaks Old English verse online, this feels like a strange but somehow Big Thing, particularly being nominated by an experienced professional journalist whom I highly respect. That I’ve received such a nomination in this hipster-saturated, crazy-engaged New Media city is nothing other than weirdly mind blowing.  As I say in the “about” bit of my blog, “I just sorta do stuff…” And then, this.

I have little illusion that I will win or even make the shortlist, mainly because the blogger I nominated in the same category, Jenna Marynowski, does, in her blog After the House Lights, the best – uncannily good – journalistic treatment of the vibrant Edmonton live theatre scene that’s being done, professionally or otherwise, bar none.

If there’s any justice, Jenna will win the 2014 #Yeggie for Arts & Culture. And I will be a long-winded, disjointed footnote with Miltonically extended sentences having no particular focus beyond the quiet happiness of being honoured for a moment by the knowledge that a respected person I’ve never met in Real Life has listened to and heard my little voice.

And Jenna totally rocks #yegtheatre.

 

(Full disclosure: I’ve never met Jenna Marynowski in Real Life, either.)

(By the way, before the turn of the calender I posted a thingy about my most read posts of 2014. I really ramble!)