Tag Archives: poetry

Sheri-D Wilson in performance

Drawing from Sheri-D Wilson

Ross Melanson Festival 1
Ross Melanson drawing

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.

Ross Melanson Festival 2
Ross Melanson drawing

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.

Sheri-D Wilson in performance in front of Ross Melanson's painting.
Sheri-D Wilson in performance in front of Ross Melanson’s painting.

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.

The Memory of Marion Piper

I first met Marion Piper at a Thematic Residency hosted by Artscape Gibraltar Point on the Toronto Islands. It was our mutual love for words and images in our artistic work that drew us into that residency and into the proximity of each other. In her, I found an expression of human being so affable and buoyant that it was an experience of pure pleasure just to have the honor of spending time with her. She carries herself with such an infectious air of adventure and fun that you can barely believe life could have even a moment of burden to it.

This is not to say she carries herself without the attributes of seriousness or reflection. It is to say, however, that she does not allow these attributes of her personality to make her austere. Glass Confetti, her latest collection of poems, was the book of poetry she was working on during that residency. And, as a body of work created by her hand, it entirely captures her complex temperament. The book is serious without being grim and light-hearted without being trite.

The magic of Glass Confetti conjures up a moving and tragic narrative intricately weaved through graceful and formal poetry. While doing so, it conveys a story of two sisters, separated by death. The main story it tells darts through the poetry, following the surviving and eldest sister, Jo, as she negotiates her world through the lens of her own memory. This lens is primarily focused on specific events in her youth that surround her younger sister. In her retrospection, Jo finds that these touch-point events of her memory often foreshadowed her sister’s impending death and, thus, were filled with a poignancy that had escaped her at the time they were actually happening. This narrative approach, which reveals the illuminating power of memory and its ability to enrich our past, also fills the book with an ethos of regret.

Glass Confetti is a manifestation of concrete poetry. This kind of poetic expression conveys meaning partly or wholly by visual means, using patterns of words or letters and other typographical devices. It is a formally driven practice in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of poetry like rhythm, rhyme and so on.

Do not let this impetus to the book’s content dissuade you. In Piper’s hands, this formal style is neither dry nor academic. Instead, her use of the style becomes a scalpel that slices open an ordinary moment and effectively reveals the inherent poetry of it. Throughout the book, form’s relationship to content is always in the service of it’s meaning. The emerging Australian writer not only avoids the potential of dry formalism, she also avoids becoming too enamored with her clever use of concrete poetry’s style. She never allows her formal tendencies to run away with her. In this book, the young writer’s discipline ensures that poetic form is always in the service of what turns out to be a beautiful and tragic story.

Her playful use of a visual interaction between the literal and metaphoric nature of words and sentences is very effectively used to mirror the youthful, mischievous, playfulness of the two main characters. Her wisdom as a writer is demonstrated in the fact that these same visual keys do not evade the heartfelt pathos of these innocent playful moments. That wisdom is also demonstrated in the fact that this same pathos never eclipses the wonder and innocence of the moment itself. Evading the morose, Piper’s work strikes a perfect balance between the innocence of the moment and the grief that retrospect finds there.

I started this review with Ms. Piper’s personality because her personal biography feeds the essence of the book. Years back, Piper discovered that she had a sister born into this world through her father. After a few years tying to track her down, her estranged sister’s mother found Piper through social media. They arranged to meet and, just days before the scheduled rendezvous, the poet found herself facing the horrific news of her estranged sister’s death in a car accident. The very day that Piper was to meet her sister for the first time ended up, ironically, being the day of her sister’s funeral.

The mood of this tragic event in Piper’s biography pervades Glass Confetti. The book is filled with a sense of angst, genuine self-reflection and frank emotional honesty. And, because of the author’s own process of self-awareness, it is also filled with a precise amount of joyful resolve that does not banish grief all together.

In the book, the actual details of Piper’s own narrative have been inter-mingled with a strange form of fiction. The content of this book is a continuation of the writer’s long-standing tradition of collecting, commemorating and appropriating the narratives of others who have confessed their own tales of loss to her. Glass Confetti extends the practice that has driven the greater part of her artistic work: the details and experiences of others are subsumed into the artistic service of the story it tells. In the end, this means that the content of the book is a skillful compilation and hybrid of numerous stories of grief, forging a believable, yet fictional, rendition of Piper’s own biography.

This method, though used by many writers, seems to be more profound in this context. In the environment of a book of poems so saturated in the act of remembering, the author seems to be making something nearing a statement. There does seem to be an implication that interpretations of the moments of our lives, and the memories we subsequently build from them, are an admixture of both fact and fiction. There also seems to be an implication that one of the profound aspects of memory is its desire to re-examine the veracity of the story it tells.

In the end, the point seems to be that believable things are not necessarily true and that fictional stories are not entirely false. Regardless, the whole enterprise of the book’s examination seems to give license to rewriting our past. This conveys the good news that our tragic and devastating memories can be rewritten into a redemptive story.

The central metaphor of a shattering windshield that is caught forever in the book’s poetic title, symbolizes the shattering grief that lies at the heart of this book. Ultimately, it chronicles the haunting nature of human memory. It reminds us that our memory can often be an ironic simultaneous advent of joyful celebration and reflective grief. Glass Confetti is also a reminder that memory is not only a means to regret, it is also a means to the redemption of healing.

If you are looking for something poetic to evoke your own experience of grief without burying you in it, I think this is a book for you. The author confesses that the book is dedicated to those who have lost someone too soon and who have a story that they do not know how to tell. If your life holds a pocket of grief, the words of this book are a kind of balm that could help you find a way to tell your story, helping you to remember that you have suffered loss and helping you to remember that you have survived.

Marion Piper is a writer, artist and gallery assistant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her art making practice examines the role of personal text and memory in the face of trauma. You can purchase a copy of Glass Confetti here.

Piper/Melanson

Marion Piper is a writer, artist and gallery assistant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her writing is a mixture of poetry, reviews, non-fiction and critical commentary. Her art making practice examines the role of personal text and memory in the face of trauma.

In this collaboration with page51 founder, Ross Melanson, there will be an exploration of communication over great distances using text and images.