In the summer of 2013, I had the pleasure of collaborating with the poet Sheri-D Wilson at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words. This artist, who has been dubbed the “Mama of Dada,” is a wonder. Part poet, part sage and full goddess, Wilson is a combination of nurturing warmth, searing insight, and disquieting independence.
The Calgary-based poet is thoroughly entrenched in the spoken word genre and finds her roots in the practices of the beat poets. Her chosen form of expression is a move of poetry back toward its roots in orality, mysticism, and prophecy. Its centering conviction is the very presence of the poet unmediated by the page and in direct communication with the audience. In its practice, this form extols words as spoken expressions and audible extensions of a human intention. The stress here is on the immediate and circumstantial.
One of my longest-running art practices has been my one-line drawings. These extemporaneous works follow the trajectories of Pablo Picasso’s cubism and Keith Haring’s pop art. Despite these modern influences, they remain grounded in my tendency to draw from primordial religious, contemplative and aesthetic sensibilities from eras long before our modern times. The conceptual origins of my drawings harken back to an era in which language was more closely associated with images and, thus, they possess a primitive appearance that merges the aesthetic impulses behind hieroglyphics, petroglyphs, Aztec drawings, and labyrinths.
These drawings are performance-based and are typically implemented in a public space. In terms of their production, these works emerge from one continuous line that is used to express whatever thought comes to my mind during their execution. These thoughts typically emerge directly from the circumstances that surround me at the time they are made. In the end, they contain a combination of words and images that represent a circumstantial experience more than anything else.
In the case of my collaboration with Sheri-D, they were executed during all her public appearances at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words and thus they reflect the content of her performances and practices, along with my reactions to them. Each drawing began from the moment the performance-based poet began any of her public discourses and ended with her concluding statements. These events included her teaching workshop and all of her performances and dialogues during the festival.
With the exception of the workshop, where I sat directly beside Ms. Wilson, I always sat opposite her. Typically, I was across the expanse of the room in which she performed or spoke. With the audience filling the distance between us, I was typically in the direct line of her vision recording some aspect of her performance.
In the midst of our collaboration, I imagined her to be the inspired oracle and me to be her faithful scribe. Both my drawings and Wilson’s practice give emphasis to the immediacy, actuality and significance of a given moment as an embodied encounter. The content of my work and the intent of her poetry are bound up in the very moment of inspired human expression. It is this aspect was at the very heart of our aesthetic collaboration.
The development of written text and then the printing press is a miracle of human invention. The effect that it has had on our self-understanding cannot really be overstated. Peter Arthur, the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of British Columbia, notes that the contributions of the printing press are numerous. He states that the mass printing served to systemize the grammar of language, emancipating it from the idiosyncrasies of both regions and teachers. This broadened the capacity of the written form of language to communicate. He also explains that the press served to increase literacy by making texts available to the general public quickly and cheaply. This, he notes, allowed for radical social changes and transformations like the Reformation by facilitating the dissemination of revolutionary political and religious views.
Written language’s transition from its pictographic origins, through its phonetic evolution, and toward the printing press has done much to shape our modern consciousness. For example, this transition has impacted our perceptions of how information, understanding, and even wisdom are acquired. Long before the printing press and long before language was captured in written texts, the acquisition of understanding and wisdom was wrapped up in a specific social situation that relied on the very presence of a sage, oracle, elder or teacher. In these primordial situations, the greater aspects of learning took place when the instructor and students were present together.
Though these technologies of human genius did not utterly destroy this social aspect of learning, it did facilitate a broadening gulf between authorizes and their students. The written and then printed text allowed for students to be exposed to the thinking and teachings of individuals without having to actually be in their very presence. With written language and the printing press, teachers became transformed into authors and learning became associated with reading as much as hearing and lectures. With this, the printed media made room for a higher individuation in the student and an increased autonomy in the learning process, forging something of a conceptual and social divide between the author and the reader.
As I stated earlier, the function and intention of contemporary spoken word poets seeks to challenge the tendency to give emphasize and importance to the written and published aspects of poetry. Like the pop artists who sought to emancipate art from the highly conceptual and academic nature that had driven much of modern art, spoken word artists break down the divide that has developed between the poet and the general public. They seek to break poetry from it academic nature and the mediation of high-culture sensibilities in order to relate it more fully to everyday life.
The spoken word sensibility funnels highly personal experiences through a poetic narrative, creating a highly individual platform that, typically, defines experiences and viewpoints apart from the social conventions and decorum that typically drives high-minded aesthetic prescriptions for poetry. The tendency within this format toward narrative, frankness, bluntness, and even vulgarity serve to separate the practice from the more “refined” and dignified aesthetic conventions typically associated with “serious” poetry. All this is not to say, however, that the genre has no concern with aesthetic refinement or the development of craft. My time with Sheri-D Wilson in her workshop convinced me of the deep dedication of these poets to their craft. It is, however, to say that this genre is concerned with the moments in which poetic and aesthetic conventions get in the way of the very sincerity and integrity of the thought being expressed. Put in other terms, this genre seeks to save poetry from the potential of academic and the smug pretenses of importance that remove it from the actuality of everyday life and everyday people.
In the hands of the spoken word and slam poets, poetry is returned to a social experience. Amidst their practice, poetry becomes an event for truth and readers are transformed back into present hearers. In the midst of this practice, poetry becomes restored to an embodied experience of encounter that is constituted by an oracle and an audience. Garnered wisdom, depth of insight, realization, and honest reflection permeate the practice, making it sermon emerging from a shared interest in folk wisdom. In all this, there is a situation that is somewhat akin to the honesty, direction, authority and nature of a prophetic utterance emerging from an inspired moment.
In my drawings of Sheri-D Wilson’s activity at the festival, I was attempting an ironic return of her words and expressions to the page. However, I was not attempting to record the actual content of her activities. Instead, I was attempting to record my experience of it and to record the fact that something profound, at some moment, and in some place, had actually happened. Beyond this, I have no understanding of what these images might mean.
As part of the National Reading Campaign, Ross Melanson will be executing one line drawings in response to poetry readings by Robert Currie, the former Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan. To find out more information, click here.
For more information about Sheri-D, click here.
For more information about the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, click here.
The images are used with permission of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words.