Approaching Toronto From the South

April brought trips to the Big Smoke under bright blue skies—some of the first of spring.

Look up at the sky there and you see other things, too.

Spent some time hovering near the Gardiner Expressway, that crumbly old relic, that need.

There’s old amid all this new and sight remains selective.

Mine so far off the ground these last few pilgrimages, this first of spring.

 

A Settler Survey

On this, Settler Education’s publication day, I’d like to ask you non-indigenous Canadian sorts some questions.

I’ve read some of the poems in this book in public, in Ontario, and I’ve found myself needing to first find out what audiences know about the stories and events told in this book, a good number of them considered to be “of the West.” To see where I’m starting from.

So it’s in that spirit that I present to you this small survey. I’d be delighted to receive your most honest responses or any or all of the questions below. I’d love to hear where you learned what you know. You can use the contact form on this website, if you like, or you can comment below. Thanks kindly.

Rifle Pits

A rifle pit at Frenchman Butte, in what is now Saskatchewan.

A Settler Survey 

What do you know about the Northwest Resistance?

When I mention the Frog Lake “massacre,” what does that mean to you? Anything?

If someone asked you who Big Bear, Poundmaker, and/or Gabriel Dumont were, what would you say? How about Louis Riel?

What treaty territory do you live in? Before settlement, who lived where you live now?

What residential schools did you grow up nearest to? What reserves are closest to you as you read this?

David Lynch at the Piano

Here’s how Lynch collaborates with Badalamenti on the music for his films. This passage comes from Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish:

 

Angelo Badalamenti

I met Angelo Badalamenti on Blue Velvet and since then he has composed music for all my films. He’s like my brother.
     The way we work is: I like to sit next to him on the piano bench. I talk and Angelo plays. He plays my words. But sometimes he doesn’t understand my words, so he plays very badly. Then I say, “No, no, no, no, Angelo.” And I change my words a little bit, and he plays differently. And then I say, “No, no, no, no, Angelo,” and I change my words. And somehow through this process he will catch something, and I’ll say, “That’s it!” And then he starts going with his magic, down that correct path. It’s so much fun. If Angelo lived next door to me, I’d like to do this every day. But he lives in New Jersey, and I live in Los Angeles.

~

Drumroll

I had a dream last night that I was taking some sort of class, a lecture course, history or statistics or something. It felt really useful and totally unrelated to my life; I was striking out in a new direction. Down the row from me the novelist Miriam Toews appeared and sat down and took a pen from her pocket. She had in her hands two books, and one of them was mine.

And it was enormous, my book: almost the size of a novel. Then it was the size of a coffee-table book. And I was shocked and a bit embarrassed. Nobody warned me it’d turn out that big! I thought. I watched as Miriam Toews leafed through my novel-sized poetry book. After the lecture, I talked with her in a dark, leafy atrium and she mentioned that she had received a review copy from Caitlin Press (which of course made sense in the dream), but she wouldn’t bring the thing out of her bag for me to look at, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask outright to see it.

And that was it. I woke up and couldn’t sleep for the next hour and a half.

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Book with cut nail found in the Frog Lake area by Bob Hendriks.

This morning, I heard a truck engine coming up the drive and went skidding down the stairs. The Canpar guy met me at the door and handed me an advanced copy of my book. A couple of hours later another Canpar guy pulled up with twenty more contributor copies. He joked about how quick I was to answer the door. It was mere hours ago, but I can’t remember either of these dudes’ faces now.

Turns out the book is not the size of a novel (phew), though it does clock in at over a hundred pages. I am outrageously nervous. I hope I got this right. I have grading to do and classes to plan for, and another poet is waiting so patiently for my comments on her manuscript, in the midst of her own drumroll.

I’m learning that bringing out a book is a slow unfolding. Bit by bit, it emerges into the world. The drumroll doesn’t culminate; instead, it keeping rolling and eventually decrescendos. Today, the drumroll’s got a bit more english on it.

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Regular sized books, slightly out of focus.

Settler Education‘s publication date is March 22. You can pre-order it now, or you can march into your local bookstore and ask them to order you up a copy. It’ll be launched in Toronto on April 13 at Harbourfront Centre, along with books by Jacob McArthur Mooney, Matt Rader, and my hero and former teacher Tim Lilburn. I’ll also be reading at Pivot in Toronto on April 20, and I’m aiming to put together small shindigs in London and Edmonton as well. If you’d like to buy one of the copies that came today from the faceless Canpar guy, you can send me a note and I’ll nervously sign one and dispatch it your way.

Welcome to the world, second book. May the drumroll be spirited for a decent spell.

Al’s Records

If I lived here, I’d start gunning for a radio show on the local station. I’d call it Al’s Records, and I’d spend an hour or two every week playing the albums that occupy this house. I’d have years of material—a whole three months on Soviet orchestras alone, for example.

The musical tastes contained in the A-Frame range wildly. Much like the books that occupy the shelves here, the records cut a wide swath. One can move from gospel to late-classical to experimental sound poetry to early American folk to Scottish ballads to German lieder to the music of the Pacific islands, and on you’d go for days and weeks and months. Almost fifteen years ago now I hosted a show on CJSR that often concentrated on leaping wildly between songs. This is my kind of record collection, in other words.

Of course, I don’t know for sure how all these records came to be in the A-Frame. Some may have once belonged to Al’s son Jim, some may have been Al’s wife Eurithe’s favourites. I don’t know. If you know, I’d love to hear your stories. For example, I have doubts (perhaps wrongly) about how the Elton John and Simon & Garfunkel made it into the stacks, and I’m not even going to think about what might be one of the first Canadian pressings of Neil Young’s Harvest, which has been spun to shit—“A Man Needs a Maid” is virtually unplayable. But I heard tell that “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray” was one of Purdy’s favourite songs, and there it is on a ten-inch sitting in a cabinet.

It’s overwhelming, all these records scattered in piles through the house. It’s overwhelming to be here in general. To have this house, these things, still around, still present, not bulldozed or sold off, but here for me to live in and write in for a bit, means that support/mentorship/generosity can continue past the span of one’s life. I wasn’t expecting the depth of that. I find it kind of deliciously unCanadian. I’m living in the past here. There is a past here, an acknowledged past that I can touch and hear. It’s better than any museum. I’m allowed to be involved in it.

And it’s also just fun to root through these old albums and play them all day. So here are some of my favourite A-Frame albums. Consider this my first and only episode of Al’s Records.

1. Ellie Mannette and the Invaders – 1962 Carnival Calypso Hits

My current favourite. The steel drums as you know them today were invented by Ellie Mannette. He came up with switching from paint cans to oil drums cut to various sizes, he invented the concave shape (and physically made it; he has a background in metalwork as well), and he conceived of and expanded the range of scales that should be available to musicians. This is equivalent to Kraftwerk making all their vocoders and sound generators from scratch, leading not only to the creation of a song or an album but the development of a genre. What’s weird about this particular album is that the yellow parts on the front of the cover, as well as the song list on the back, are stickers. They are covering over what might be the album cover shown in the YouTube video below. The songs are all different. If you’re a music sleuth with no case to crack, you can have this one.

 

2. The Soviet Army Chorus & Band – By Request!

Oh yes that’s right: The Soviet Army Chorus & Band sing and play their most-requested folk songs about love from around the world. Included are songs from Mexico, the Czech Republic, Italy, Ukraine (especially chilling for this cowpoke), the U.S., England, and Slovakia. There’s what amounts to a brief essay about folk music written on the back of this album cover, and I just love its first sentence: “The dogged persistence of folk songs through the centuries is a historical mystery, but perhaps in that mystery lies the very reason that folk songs exist at all.” How great is that! What a circular conundrum! And it’s equally great to hear Russians sing in Spanish and English also. When all those male voices sing in unison the hair on my arms stands on end. It’s better than any haunted house, this one. Here’s a frightening version of “Kalinka” for you, a version of which exists in vinyl in this house too, and which I made the mistake of playing late at night a few days ago:

 

3. Mahalia Jackson – The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer

I’m afraid I might be ruining this album. It has received some heavy play this month. She’s just so good. One unintended, unplanned July project has been looking up and learning about artists born in the 1910s. Purdy was born in 1918, and his birth-decade cohorts are perhaps inevitably all over this house. Mahalia Jackson had seven years on Purdy, and both New Orleans and Chicago claim her as their own. She was massive, as an artist and as an activist, and so totally talented. Every note is the right note on this album. I get goosebumps of a kind way better than Soviet bands provide. Listen to how she builds the song below, for instance.

 

4. The Sound of Folk Music

I love me a good compilation. The song has always been the more significant ‘unit’ than the album, to my mind. The other thing that has been super interesting about being here is how all the music is of an age that’s earlier than I know well. If I say “folk music” you probably have a different idea in your head than what’s here. Most of the people playing folk songs on the albums in this house are wearing suits, for instance. This album might be the hippest of them all, and, once again, the range of songs and styles here is large. Here are a few of the songs on this album:

 

5. Songs & Laughter with Hal Lone Pine and Jeanie Ward

Finally, we have Hal Lone Pine, aka Harold Breau, who was guitarist Lenny Breau’s dad. Jeanie Ward I know nothing about and can’t find anything online, but she does some good interpretations of Nancy Sinatra songs. This is an album of old country standards performed live and sung as duets, mostly. At the end of each side are little comedy routines full of dated old groaners. (“If you were to have fifty dollars in one pocket and twenty-five dollars in the other pocket, what would you have?” “Someone else’s pants.”) There’s no record of this album anywhere online either, so here’s an unrelated Hal Lone Pine song, for your listening enjoyment.

 

This is but a tiny selection of all that’s here. I haven’t even touched on the numerous old books of records, multi-disc collections of Gilbert & Sullivan or Nelson Eddy, the show tunes, the recordings of poetry, the R. Strauss and Bizet and Liszt, the early Canadian folk collections, the Paul Robeson. In a single month I couldn’t put a meaningful dent in all that’s here. This is a trove worthy of a music historian or a DJ looking for a good, lengthy gig. If you are one of those two things, allow me to introduce you to Purdy’s A-Frame.