Susan Sontag explains the appeal of instagram “poetry” in On Photography way back in 1973 – “The only prose that seems credible to more and more readers is… the raw record – edited or unedited talk; fragments or the integral texts of sub-literary documents…; self-deprecatingly sloppy, often paranoid first-person reportage. There is a rancorous suspicion in America of whatever seems literary…, which partly accounts for the new appetite for… few words and many photographs.”
Fenylalanine Publishing has just released CanCon, a chapbook of poetry I wrote by mixing and mashing lyrics from some of Canada’s most overplayed musicians to see if collectively they can say more interesting things than they generally say alone. It is dedicated (with sincere apologies) to Bryan Adams, Barenaked Ladies, Michael Bublé, Celine Dion, Nickleback, and Shania Twain.
You can read it for free on Fenylalanine’s website.
My poem was a winner for Guelph Spoken Word’s Grounded: Relationships With Our Land competition. I’ll be reading it at the Grounded event on Saturday, April, 7:00 PM, at The Guelph Black Heritage Society.
The event is an evening of readings, performed works, and community spotlights focused on the many forms that a relationship with our land base – and the earth as a whole – can take. The cover is $10/PWYC.
Here’s a copy of the piece below.
I wrote this poem as an exercise in a workshop where we were given lines from other poems at random to be places to begin our own. I combined all of mine together, adding or changing almost nothing. I have no other use for it, but it amuses me, so I’ll leave it here. I apologize to the five poets who have been anonymously wronged by it.
Outside the tub
He found himself outside the tub again,
as if to amend an error,
his white suit a peerless lily
above the fingers of his left hand.
He said I should lie still and wait
until I felt the ocean.
It happens to people from any
of the main religions.
This is the fourth poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.
My wife and I laid in bed late this morning, made love while the kids binged on Saturday morning television, had a lazy shower.
Then she baked bread with browned butter for the party at our friend’s place this evening, and my eldest son made chocolate chip cookie’s for his friend’s birthday party this afternoon, and I sauteed batches of mushrooms and sweet onions for another friend’s fiftieth birthday tomorrow.
I’m reducing the extra onions into soup as I write this. The house is full of astringent sweetness, and of C.D. Wright’s reflections on the nature of poetry, and of “Paloma” by MESTIS.
Jerry Prager’s Echoes in the Timbers is a prose poem that relates the death and inquest of Margaret Buckingham, a former slave who settled in Puslinch County in the mid-nineteenth century. The narrative is broken into several parts, each with a different speaker – including Margaret herself; her suitor, Jerry Collins; and a member of her inquest jury, Nicholas Beaver, whose house has since been moved to the grounds of the Elora Poetry Centre. Margaret actually visited Beaver House in her day, so it’s fitting that it was where Jerry first read Echoes in the Timbers in 2014 and where the published version was recently launched.
The subject of Echoes in the Timbers comes out of Jerry’s historical work on the underground railroad in southwestern Ontario, which has resulted in three non-fiction volumes, Laying the Bed, Exodus and Arrival, and the forthcoming Blood in the Mortar. Despite this historical source, however, the personalized narratives and the distinct characterizations of the narrators allow Echoes in the Timbers to personalize the unique struggles facing former slaves in Upper Canada.
Margaret’s husband Buckingham, for example, ends up losing his life in an attempt to rescue his family left behind in slavery. Jerry Collins suffers nightmares from the work that he was made to do as a child, dangling from a rope to dig wells. Margaret herself suffers from fits that first came on when she thought she would be sent away from her family, fits that might eventually have killed her.
In each of these cases, the past cannot simply be put aside by crossing the border into a new country. Past traumas constantly reappear, calling Buckingham back across the border, filling Jerry Collins’ dreams, throwing Margaret into literal fits. Though each of the characters celebrate their freedom, their stories never forget that the legacy of slavery does not suddenly end with physical freedom. It is carried with them into their new lives and their new country.
The writing is for the most part clear and direct, leaning more toward prose than poetry. Often it is only the line lengths that remind the reader that the account is intended formally as poetry. This directness adds to the sense of inquest and investigation, of historicity, but there are times, especially in Margaret’s own sections, where a more poetic sensibility appears. In her second section, for example, she says,
It was too many sheets, too many shrouds, too many ghosts, too
much snow and the earth and the woods white
with the billowings of winter; it was me
lost in the tobacco smoke
around the wood stove
in the general store…
the slow burn of whiskey heating up inside me…
swirling the memories of all the generations
of the same two families inside me
Here, and in other places, the writing moves from history to poetry, affirming the humanity as well as the historicity of the characters.
Published by the Elora Poetry Centre under its Interludes imprint, Echoes in the Timbers is a physically beautiful book, handbound on heavy laid papers in two volumes, one for the poem itself, the other for historical notes that Jerry includes for those interested in that element of the story. It is quite a limited run at only fifty copies, all numbered and signed by the author.