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Reading Out Loud Together, with Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Renee Sarojini Saklikar

I’m sincerely grateful to Erin Fields, Melanie Cassidy and Trish Rosseel of the UBC Library for inviting me, Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Renee Sarojini Saklikar to read beside the fireplace in the commons on the main floor of the Koerner Library yesterday afternoon. It’s a great venue: students are coming and going, and there was a tangible energy coming from the big room that made for a really wonderful event. I didn’t manage any photos, and my audio recorder jammed out, so I don’t have any archive-worthy material to offer here, but I can at least give a few impressions to make up for my lack of documentation.
         Renee started things by reading a reminiscence about her time in the former Sedgwick and Main libraries at the university, framing some of her experiences of cultural marginalization and of the negotiation of language and accent, and historicizing her account around a year – 1985 – that she said she regards as a kind of talisman. She held up a page filled with a repeatedly-typed date, “June 23, 1985,” which she described as a mantra emerging from the bombing of Air India Flight 182; her book, children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood, 2103), from which she read a set of elegies and fragments “from the archive,” focuses on the complex tensions between bearing witness to lost lives and the fraught absences left in the wake of atrocity. One line describing a seven-year-old girl killed in the bombing powerfully enacts this tension and, despite its brevity, stays with me whenever I have heard Renee read: “Her name was [redacted]”— a life remembered and withheld simultaneously, a collision (as I think I heard her put it in another piece) between tears and terror.
         Elee read poems from her manuscript Serpentine Loop, a collection that employs figure skating as its key trope, reading the skating body, as Elee put it, as “a primary site of language.” She could skate, Elee told us, before she could speak. The blades of her skates inscribe and describe, as she remembers tracing out loose figures on the ice, “a string of unclasped pearls” that also form in four unclosed cursive loops the letters of her given name. She read “School Figures,” a poem that locates delicate resonances in the interstitial spaces between figure and figuration, scribing and script:
Voices are low yet perforate the liminal

zone between silence and song. Each one of us is alone

with something to do: trace a shape of infinity,

perfect the line we know dissolves under water and steam.
(There is audio of her reading this poem on the Radar site, linked above.) Her poem “Who You Are By What You Recognize,” comprised of an alphabetical list mixing figure-skating and military terminology, was for me both lyrically evocative and brilliantly disturbing.
         My own set list for the reading went like this:
                  “Hot Lips” from Embouchure
                  “Blue and Boogie 1: Blue” from Ammons
“Small Time Georgic IV (Meat Bees)” – a little local Nova Scotian transplanting of some Virgil
I meant to read a piece for Ted Hughes, called “Slug F**k,” but it got dropped by accident.
         Since the recorder didn’t work, here is an audio version of the piece from Ammons, with my colleague – the superbly excellent Geoff Mitchell – doing his modernistic improvised boogie woogie piano thing along with me. Thanks to everyone who managed to come out, and again to the library folks for putting it all together: I had a great time myself.

Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano

I have put up on Sound Cloud a copy of a collaborative audio piece called Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano, which as my notes below will tell you was recorded a couple of years ago with Montreal-area pianist Geoff Mitchell. I intend to publish the suite of poems as a chapbook, but for now the audio is out there; individual tracks will also soon be available for download via my website, http://www.kevinmcneilly.ca. Track listings and credits are temporarily available as a pdf here.
The poems in Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano are linked idiomatically, for me, to the work I did for Embouchure. That is, they take for their subject matter stories of the life and music of an African-American jazz icon, in this instance the great boogie-woogie pianist, Albert Ammons. My friend Geoff Mitchell, as well as being an excellent sound recordist and artist (he did the cover drawing for Embouchure), is a brilliant pianist and improviser. He had told me when I was visiting with him in 2010 that he had been working on boogie woogie piano techniques and thinking about the historicisms of present-day jazz, and he mentioned Albert Ammons and his colleagues as influences; I wanted to collaborate with Geoff on a piece, so I started writing poems based on Albert Ammons’s music, taking cues from track titles, from events in his life, and from viewing the short film Boogie Woogie Dream, a peculiar mix of documentary and fiction shot on location in Café Society and featuring him, Pete Johnson, Lena Horne and Teddy Wilson, acting and playing.
I brought a suite of ten poems with me when I was next in Montreal, and we recorded together. (The eleventh poem, the Mondrian piece, is a typographical-visual text and is next to impossible to read. In any case, it was composed a bit later.)  Geoff’s music was all freely improvised, but references the historical idiom in all kinds of interesting ways. The piano wasn’t meant to act as accompaniment, but more as commentary, and even critique of the words – at least, that’s what I think it was meant to do. The multi-tracked pieces are intended as homages to the two- and three-piano music of Ammons, Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. All of the pieces, for me, are intended to be respectful homage. (The coda on Lena Horne was coincidentally composed around the time of her death, which I didn’t know about until after I had finished a full draft of the poem.) Race, gender and nationality are put at issue here, but because they form a crucial part of this music’s history. I necessarily come at this material as an epigone outsider, but I’m also drawn to the music viscerally, as a listener. That sometimes recalcitrant, sometimes negotiable tension between inside and outside, between deference and expression, between self and public domain, is what this suite intends to take on, at the level of voice and instrument: a conversation, a debate, a dialogue.
I’d like to thank Geoff Mitchell for his incredible music here.