Pierre Coupey / The Big Bad World of Public Readings

Pierre Coupey

Most people think poetry readings are sedate tea-sipping affairs, nowhere near as much fun as a good NHL brawl, and mostly they’re right. Sometimes they degenerate from the merely genteel to the total snooze fest, evenings of deep ennui, you curse yourself for leaving the cozy TV room with re-runs of The Simpsons. So normally I sit at the back, ready to make a break if it gets unbearable, as it sometimes does.

Then there are those times when the reading ––both poet and poems –– makes your heart sing, you lean forward, into the words, soak it up, and by the end you’re dazzled, whirled. But not all the writing out there raises the hair on your neck, as when we first heard Ondaatje read from Coming Through Slaughter at The Western Front in 1976, or George Stanley reading “After Desire” last year. Wowza.

It takes guts to get up and read in public. I’ve always been terrified of it, and I’m pretty sure most writers are, no matter how experienced. John Newlove famously gave in to nerves before many of his readings, getting someone else at the last minute to sub, as Jamie Reid did at the old Advance Mattress on 10th & Alma. And once Newlove and I polished off a fifth in the 4th floor Fir Building bathroom at Cap before I could get him into the Lounge to read. Almost drunk, he wanted out, have me read for him, but, almost drunk, I couldn’t. Sometimes you need to hear that person’s voice, that voicing of the poem no one else can give. Newlove went on, he was mordant, brilliant. We all leaned forward.

And sometimes a reading can give the NHL a run –– ok, a short dash –– for the money, when a nervous but pugnacious poet takes on the hecklers and kibitzers, or the hecklers and kibitzers take on the poet. At another Advance Mattress reading, or was it at Sam Perry’s the Sound Gallery? Milton Acorn was in the middle of his epic poem, “In the Elephant’s Five-Pound Brain,” when he decided he’d had enough of the heckler who was, alas, sitting next to me. Milton delicately danced his way through the crowd sitting on the floor, grabbed the kid by the neck and threatened his nose with a blunt fist. He said nothing, just held him in the air for a few seconds, eyeball to eyeball, then dropped him. The kid became very quiet.

Sometimes, however, the hecklers and kibitzers are your friends, as when David Phillips, Hope Anderson and I did a reading tour of the North for Barry McKinnon and George Stanley. The tour started off in Prince George, no hassles at CNC, and then went on to Hazelton, where, Barry had warned us, they kick the shit out of you if they don’t like the poems.

Great. Barry claims he once spent a night hiding in the back of a pick-up truck after disappointing the poetry-starved of Hazelton. I was already sweating when it came my turn after Hope and David, and for whatever reason –– maybe they were happy no one had whacked them with a 2 x 4 –– for them the reading was clearly over and they yucked and giggled happily over my “pomes.”

They weren’t heckling per se, but kibitzing loudly enough I couldn’t hear myself, and I was pretty sure no else could either. In those days I cared. What to do? These guys were my buddies, and they were doing a beautiful job undermining my star turn. Finally, desperate, I barked at them to shut the fuck up, and they did, sort of. Fortunately the reading ended shortly after that and the Hazeltonians had liked it. Instead of beating us up they took us on a series of bashes across the Hazelton countryside. Sweet. We’d live to see Prince Rupert. Wowza again.

The most ruthless heckler I know is Brian Fawcett, if he doesn’t like what he hears he’ll mock the poor poet relentlessly, and so amiably they can’t figure any graceful or forceful way to retaliate. That was Susan Musgrave’s fate at one very long group reading at Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, and shortly after Pat Lane fell prey to David Phillips’ brilliant satire written under the nom-de-plume Jack Daw, the satire’s tally of pointless deaths ending with “Then we ate the last dog….”

For me the most comic and memorable dust-up at a reading took place years ago at The Western Front, with Barry McKinnon serenading a packed house. I forget now what book, what group of poems, but whatever it was it was good, we were leaning forward.

Unfortunately there was a piano in the room, not far from Barry at the podium. There was also an Al Neil in the room. Now Barry’s rumored to be a great jazz drummer, he travels to the Big Apple for the jazz scene, and Al, as we know, is a brilliant jazz pianist. In fact, one of Al’s main claims to fame is the jazz and poetry recording he did with Kenneth Patchen in the 50s –– I’ll never forget Al’s quartet noodling softly under Patchen’s dark love poem, “The Sea is Awash with Roses.” Gorgeous. And Barry’s poetry is deeply infected by jazz rhythms syncopations pauses.

Maybe Al felt the spirit of Patchen, maybe the spirit of McKinnon, but he certainly felt the spirit. He gets up and heads for the piano, sits down, and discretely tinkles a few notes to swim under Barry’s lines. Nice, so far so good, we’re grooving with Al grooving with Barry. This could be good, we think, Patchen redux. But Al being Al, he suddenly goes wild, puts his back into it, he’s hitting the piano with abandon, bebop drowning out and taking over, no more harmony, pure Al crescendo after crescendo.

At that point some of us, including Carole Itter, timidly try to coax Al away from the piano, no luck, he’s inspired. He really wants to jam. For a few minutes he softens his touch, a few tender notes punctuating words here and there, as Barry, after shaking his head, starts reading again. Barry of course wants to focus on the poem, after all it’s his reading, but Al, again in the grip, is soon pounding away. Mother. None of us move. Barry stops, looks over at Al, whispers Jesus Al…, and gives up.

But none of us counted on the power of Joy. Joy McKinnon is this fierce spit of a woman, a dynamite stick of loyalty to her man, fearless, and jammed with the spirit herself. Joy had it. She jumps up, marches over to Al, yanks him from the piano, and snaps, Al! You sit down and be still! all in a flash, perhaps the best piece of performance art the Front has ever seen. And Al, utterly cowed, obeys. Joy orders Barry to start reading. He does. He jams. He riffs. He bops. The room breathes again. And that was –– easily, terrifyingly –– the reading of the year. Wowza we sighed.

Album cover designed by Ronald Clyne for Smithsonian Folkways recording Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada with the Alan Neil Quartet (1959).


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