A buzzing crowd entered the Robert Gill Theatre on October 8, prepared for three hours of music, song, and poetry at the “Four Laureates” fundraiser for United Way of Toronto, sponsored by the Drama Centre.
The focus on Canadian art culture was very well done, the quaint little stage stocked with a wooden piano, a double bass, and a jazz trumpet, and zero indication of which members of the crowd were the poets. Indeed, the audience seemed very cultured, with a pleasant mix of venerable seniors and fresh-faced students. The lights dimmed, and the MC introduced himself as Greg Gatenby, the author of Toronto: A Literary Guide, and gave a fascinating background of poetry in Toronto.
“The fact that we even have a poet laureate is a miracle,” he said, recalling a time when raunchy plays and poetry recitation near public statues meant arrests for the artists. He promised the audience “a night of poetry, music, and a few surprises”, and the show began.
Now, when the MC said “a few surprises”, I thought that meant signed book giveaways. But the surprises, at least for me, were the poets themselves.
It started with Terry Burns, the fourth poet laureate of Owen Sound. She began as many poets do: ethereal, deliberate, and articulate. With “Road Hockey”, she presented herself as a sophisticated lyricist and with “Waylaid”, a Gatsby-like romanticist. The accompaniment by the jazz band Aurochs was occasionally overpowering but pleasant even so. But the most musically striking of her poems was “An Atheist’s Song of Faith”, in which she punctuated every verse with a few soprano lines of a hymn, substantiating the juxtaposition of attachment to religious experience despite unbelief.
Then enter Dennis Lee, Toronto’s first poet laureate (2001–4), who amped up the energy with air guitar, dancing, and audience participation. The laughter as the crowd shouted back the refrain “Strumming on my air guitar!”—purportedly a translation of a Franz Schubert piece—was electrifying. After the startling poem “Coming Becomes You”, he performed the lengthy “Testament”, about climate change, accompanied by intentional discordance by the band to create an uncomfortable atmosphere.
After Lee, the rose-patterned man I had spotted earlier in the crowd stumbled on stage. Pier Giorgio di Cicco was an endearingly casual performer, muttering, “Did I write this?” as he shuffled through his papers. He also stated firmly that he abhorred technology (he called me out on my Snapchatting before the show), evening tossing his own phone away when it suddenly rang mid-performance. But his poetry was nothing to be messed with. “No wonder they believed in two or three gods,” the Toronto poet laureate of 2004-2009 recited in the beat-like and insightful “Married to God”, before going into a Leonard Cohenesque semi-musical performance with the jazz band.
Capping off the night were the antics of present poet laureate George Elliot Clarke. And I say antics in the most admiring and affectionate way, because there’s no other way to describe his playful poems that exalted good times, black pride, and the importance of truth. With poems like “4.3”, where the refrain was “BLACK! is the best chocolate, best sex / BLACK! is glass splinters up your sphincter / BLACK! your ass, your morals”, and other song-poems based around repeated keywords, Clarke proved that you can be clever and bawdy at the same time. The crowd, so filled with those venerable seniors, seemed to have little objection. Towards the end he performed “IX/XI”, which if you can read Roman numerals is “9/11”, a solemn poem that jibed surprisingly with the upbeat excitement of the band.
The surprise was the last performance of the night, an impromptu rendition of Clarke’s “Everything Is Free” that included all four laureates at once with the band, having had no rehearsal. Lee danced and threw in a piano riff or two, Burns contributed some wonderful vocal harmonies, and di Cicco grooved on his trumpet while the audience clapped along. It really felt like we were contributing something to the art.
Nestled for three hours in a little upstairs theatre (at the downtown U of T Bookstore), I certainly wasn’t expecting such a mischievous, rebellious, and revolutionary attitude to poetry recitation. I talked about it with Clarke during the casual refreshment period, and we agreed that the event fit in well with the trending slam scene, or as he put it, the “rediscovery” of the genre. It is through breaking barriers, breaking expectations, and honouring our human emotions that we can connect with the current Canadian cultural movement.