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Red Primer review: Pain Not Bread, and Oni

part 3 of Fortner Anderson's review of
the Red Primer Poetry Festival

On the last night of the festival, Pain Not Bread, a 3-person writing team, presented a poly-vocal reading of poems from their new book, "Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei". The book was a 10 year collaborative effort by poets on the team, Roo Boorson, Andy Patton and Kim Maltman.

Pain Not Bread
Pain Not Bread
(photo courtesy of artists)

The text is an imagination of the work of several Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) poets primarily Du Fu, Wang Wei and Li Bai. The poems in the collection are not translations, but speculations or re-imaginings of the work of these Chinese poets. "Ancient" poems are interspersed with poems in the voice of a contemporary Canadian poet visiting the locales where these ancient Chinese poets once lived and worked.

Unfortunately, the reading of this work by the "Pain Not Bread" was lacklustre and long. Not quite a drone and reading from the page, the three made only a minimal effort to engage the texts and heighten the publicís experience of the reading. Occasionally, in a weak attempt to emphasise a passage, one or another of the three readers would echo a word or phrase. A pity because the texts warrant more. With a little effort it might have been possible to communicate with the three voices some of the density, the tone and the complexity of the Chinese originals. "Beauty is concentrated wildness", sprang from the blur; just so, and these performers ought to know better.

Oni the Haitian Sensation is a young mother from Ottawa who steps out into performance poetry. As sedentary as "Pain Not Bread" was , Oni is concentrated wildness. Berating us up and down in both official languages, she is an unabashed activist and uses the stage to present didactic work to young audiences.

Her issues are HIV awareness, racism, arts funding, self-empowerment, and sex. The work on HIV is targeted to young people.

Canadian performance poet and activist Oni
Canadian performance poet and activist Oni
(photo courtesy of artist) 

Itís full of the necessary and urgent facts: infection rates, mortality stats, unsafe practices, at-risk populations. The work is loud, brash, and in-your-face. Thereís an urgency to relate the message by any means necessary. Young people, Oniís contemporaries are dying, and she means to provide them with a few tools to protect themselves.

Several local poets presented work over the course of the festival, and one reading particularly struck me. Elizabeth Greene, "une femme díun certain age" as they say in Quebec, and a teacher at Queenís university read a poem that described a celebration amongst women friends one summer evening in a small Canadian town. At the end of the night a friend suggests that they all go down to the lake for skinny-dipping. The text describes her inner turmoil as she confronts her fear of disrobing before her friends. She is ashamed of her body grown old. She fears consequences of this forbidden act. When, at last, she slips naked into the warm summer waters, a small human victory was shared by all of us in that small wooden schoolhouse.

Performance poetry lives through the efforts of its impresarios, those who devote much and who provide the few opportunities to present the work to a public. The Red Primer festival didnít receive Federal or Provincial funding this year. Itís future is in doubt; these events canít live on passion alone.

One can only hope that the funding agencies that decided, based on the tyrannies of cost-benefit, to refuse money to the Red Primer festival will throw off their shackles and next year allow this small and human event another incarnation.

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