Tag Archives: Governor-General’s Award

The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth

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Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

David Zieroth is a pretty typical Canadian career poet. He regularly puts out collections, he taught English at the post secondary level, and he adheres to a fairly traditional lyrical style. As a side note, a former English professor and thesis advisor of mine, Richard Lemm ­ another typical Canadian career poet, is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book. In 2009, this career poet published his masterpiece and was awarded the top prize in Canadian Poetry, the Governor General’s Award. The Fly in Autumn is a good example of a satisfying poetry collection ­ accessible, tight in terms of metaphor and symbol, not afraid of humour, and the author doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the wheel in regards to style.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t going to be the most insightful review ever written. I read this book one night in bed when I was very tired, not feeling well and half tripping out on cold and sinus medication.

The strength of this book is the absurdest twist Zieroth takes with a lot of his poems, particularly the closing, and title, sequence, “The Fly in Autumn.” Like in “Insurance”:

Insurance offices are full of fat men
(cramped behind small desks stacked
with forms and notes) willing to act
as agents while chewing on a time when
they were blessed with a full head of hair.
This one’s thinking of lunch, the eclair

As you can see from this stanza as well, Zieroth isn’t afraid to throw a rhyme into the mix here and there. The pattern above, ABBACC, or close enough, is the one which the author continually returns. Zieroth uses this scheme in about a third of the poems but manages to avoid the sing-song feeling that sometimes roars its head with rhyming in contemporary poetry.

I’ve ranted on this blog about how much I am annoyed by collections of poetry that try to find something sublime or transcendent in the minutiae of everyday existence. This book had the potential to go in that direction, but fortunately for all involved, Zieroth took simple subjects and treated them to a quirky re-imagining.

Ru by Kim Thúy

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Translated by Sheila Fischman

Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction

Winner of Canada Reads 2015

Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award

I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.

The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.

So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.

Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

when everything feels like the movies

Winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – Text

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Time for my first thoughts on the Canada Reads 2015 picks – When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid. This book already has quite the history considering it was published just a year ago. There’s a huge, gigantic really, market of adult readers who are immersed in the world of young-adult fiction, many almost obsessively so. I am not one of those. Frankly, unless a book warrants special attention for whatever reason, I feel no compulsion to read “kids” books; that is simply my own bias. Prior to being the first young-adult novel chosen for Canada Reads, the first time author won the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature (Text) and subsequently caused a huge stir (for some reason the Children’s Lit text award seems to be a magnet for controversy, I can think of at least 3 others off the top of my head). The hoopla surrounding this particular book is the graphic nature of the main character Jude’s sexuality, the explicit language, and the violence. The faux-outrage by the literary busybodies culminated in a petition to revoke the award. I feel the need to pontificate on this prior to getting into my review. While the title of the GG category is “Children’s Literature (Text)”, the criteria are as broad as any of the other categories. Essentially, to qualify for this award, the book needs to be written for someone under the age of 18 and can be any genre – pre-school books, poetry, graphic novels, and young-adult novels aimed at teens. Yes, this book is graphic and at times shocking, but the subject matter is important, relevant and perfectly appropriate for readers in junior high and above. Thankfully, the GG jury and Canada Council dismissed this petition for what it was – pure nonsense. This is an attempt at censorship which is a fundamental affront to Canadian values that are best espoused in our culture and literature. As with any book that one may find offensive, the choice exists to simply not read it.

So now to the book. Reid has certainly weaved an interesting tale in When Everything Feels Like the Movies. This is the story of Jude, a junior high aged boy who is flamboyantly gay and very comfortable with his sexuality even though very few of his peers are. He is unapologetic for who he is. He comes from a messy family situation – a stripper mom, an abusive stand-in step-father, and an absent father whom he rarely sees. His best friend Angela is a proud self-proclaimed “slut” and Jude’s only real friend. His only other source of comfort is his little brother Keef, for whom Jude plays the role of surrogate parent. The whole motif that sets up this novel is the fantasy world in which Jude has built up; he sees himself as the star in a movie and his world is an elaborate Hollywood wonderland where drug overdoses and cat-fights are seen as part of the lifestyle.

This novel was inspired by a true story; a few years ago in the US, a 15-year-old boy asked another boy at school if he would be his valentine and was subsequently shot and killed for this show of affection. Reid has said that this was the spark for this story, but I feel this book is worth reading for reasons beyond the shocking act of violence that concludes it or the story of a gay teen finding his way in a hostile environment. In my reading, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the story of how a child’s world collapses when there is absolutely zero support system. A useless mother, an abusive step-father figure, a biological father who is essentially non-existent, and, importantly, a seeming lack of support for gay youth in the community are all catalysts for Jude’s behavior – associating with people of less than stellar repute, drug abuse, poor academic performance, hyper-sexuality, and admiration of general vice. How does Jude cope? He builds this fantasy Hollywood world into which he can escape. It didn’t matter if he was gay, straight, a Martian, whatever – Jude did not have a chance from the moment he was conceived. This is the strength of the book and what I hope the Canada Reads panelists focus on. There is also an interesting thematic thread on the nature of victimization and what exactly constitutes the victim in a bullying situation, but in the interest of brevity, I will omit this and hope the panelists pick it up.

This book has some serious weaknesses though that knocked a few stars off. There was some of the awkward dialogue that is common in first novels, the plot dragged at points, the fantasy-world motif was sometimes beaten a little too hard, and, most bothersome, the characters often seemed older than they were at points creating inconsistencies in how you perceive them. Angela is very promiscuous and it is insinuated that she has had multiple abortions, every kid seems to be sleeping with every other kid, they skip school regularly, and they drink like fishes and take drugs like candy. These are junior high kids. My own experience in the education field with this age group make me wonder if Reid perhaps didn’t push the envelope a little bit for shock value – literary license perhaps. Or the author, who is about a decade younger than me, went to school with some of the most hardcore junior high kids in the history of rebellious teens.

I did enjoy this book. It does fit the theme of this year’s Canada Reads competition and there are lots of points, both pro and con, to discuss. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts of the show this year, I really hope the conversation looks deeper than the superficial. Raziel Reid is a talented young writer who has generated controversy but also raked in accolades, the mark of an important writer. I’m hoping he is not simply a flash in the pan and continues to develop as a noteworthy author.

North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette

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Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.

The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.

The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.

One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).

Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement  proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

The December Man

Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama

The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.

This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.

The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.

The Island Means Minago by Milton Acorn

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Winner of the 1975 Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama

When someone thinks of PEI literature, the first image to pop into their mind would be that of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her little redhead Anne. I’ve written on this blog many times before about the development and current state of PEI literature and how the last 25 years has really been a high point for writing in the province. There was very little early (pre-1950s) PEI literature worth discussing. Lucy Maud really was the grandmother of PEI writing and her contemporary Sir Andrew Macphail was the grandfather with his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. But, PEI lit as we know it now was really founded in earnest with Milton Acorn’s 1956 self-published mimeographed chapbook In Love and Anger. Acorn was a very different voice from his contemporaries; he was a working man’s poet. A World War II veteran with little formal education, The People’s Poet spent most of his life living off a Veteran’s Affairs pension due to war injuries. Some of his titles were best-sellers in Canada and he was a superstar in the world of poetry – even marrying Gwendolyn MacEwen for a short time. The 1975 collection The Island Means Minago, his only collection to win the Governor General’s Award, is Acorn’s most ambitions treatise on his home province and contains many of his signature poems.

The Island Means Minago is a very cohesive volume, both in terms of narrative and themes. It mixes narrative poems, lyrics, prose pieces, dramatic scenes, and photos to tell the story of his people.  Right in the opening poem, Acorn’s love of his island is evident:

In the fanged jaws of the Gulf,
a red tongue.
Indians say a musical God
took up his brush and painted it,
named it in His own language
“The Island”.

In terms of narrative, Acorn takes on a number of issues prominent in Island history (honestly, if you’re familiar with these items it makes this a much more enjoyable book): the absentee landlord problem from the 19th century and Island Development Plan that began in the 1960s that would be top of mind in 1975. Acorn uses these narratives to tie together the thematic concept of this book. It is no secret that he was a far-left socialist, and that is the lens through which the author writes. He lambastes capitalism, roasts the ineffective administration of the government for not representing the people, and takes up the cause of the proletariat.

As I mentioned, Acorn was the working man’s poet. He was a big personality and it is easy to envision him reciting these poems in a pub throwing back beers and shots of whiskey. His language is accessible and free of those 20-dollar-words too often used by MFA graduates. But, that is not to say that these poems are “simple,” quite the opposite. Acorn manipulates genre and form in fascinating ways, he often uses an isolated rhyme as a narrative turning point, he creates intriguing imagery while using down-home dialect, and he is very cognizant of the sound, the music so to speak, of his poetry by doing interesting things with repetition, dialogue, and syllable structure.

An element of this book that was interesting was the collection of prose pieces. Each of the three sections has one prose piece, with each being about 10 pages in length. It is hard to classify these parts – as I said, he does interesting things with genre. These three pieces are not prose poems, but they’re not exactly stories either. They’re something of a blend of history, storytelling, social commentary, and political treatise. These prose pieces were excellent additions to the poems because they provide some historical and socio-economic context and further entrench Acorn’s socialist themes.

Finally, the actual physical volume itself is an interesting specimen. It was published by NC Press, who according to the ads in the back of the book, published the paper New Canada, that reported “on the struggles being waged across the country for independence and socialism” and was also the leading publisher of books and documents from the People’s Republic of China. So, the strong leftist overtones shouldn’t be surprising.

I’ve said before that PEI has the most nationalistic literature and sense of identity in general in English Canada. This collection was one the flashpoints for this Island literary tradition. The Island Means Minago is a great example of Maritime and PEI poetry, an excellent collection of historical poetry, an interesting political exposition, and just an overall engaging read.

Fault Lines by Nicolas Billon

Fault Lines

Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama

Plays are often times collected together in a similar way to short stories and published as a multi-work volume. The works can sometimes be related – by setting, characters, themes, etc – but often times are not. Some of these collections have been mainstays in drama libraries and curriculum across the country (The East End Plays by George F Walker for example). Occasionally as well, these books have won the Governor General’s Award for Drama because they are better able to show off a writer’s skill and depth; in fact three of the last eight winners have been collections, including 2013 and 2014. Fault Lines: Three Plays is the first such volume that I have read. Nicolas Billon’s collection, his second published book, contains three plays, 2009’s Greenland, 2012’s Iceland and 2013’s Faroe Islands. This book absolutely blew me away; Fault Lines was one of the best books I have read all year. Full stop. End of statement.

Looking at the titles of the three individual plays, there is an obvious relation – all are northern island nations (and Scandinavian states as Greenland, for now, is still under Danish rule) with small populations and insular cultures. But, the relation of the three plays for the most part ends there. There is no character crossover, no related plot lines, and even thematically, other than some very broad ideas which I’ll get into later, there is only minimal crossover. Each of these plays has its own set of circumstances and fascinating characters. Greenland uses the discovery of a small new island by a glaciologist as a reflector of his disintegrating family situation. Iceland, set in Toronto, uses an Estonian prostitute, a bible thumper, and a greasy real estate agent as an allegory for capitalism and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And Faroe Islands deals with the whale hunt in that country and looks at the hypocrisy often present in the most vocal of activists. Each of these plays has its own writing and staging style, themes, structure, and its own charm.

The delivery of these works is very different from any play I’ve ever read. All three unfold using monologues. Greenland and Iceland are told through intertwined monologues by three different characters, and Faroe Islands is told by a single character. In a way, Fault Lines closely resembles a series of short stories being relayed to you directly by the characters (not simply a first person POV). There is no back-and-forth dialogue and very few stage directions. Even set design would be very minimalistic; I get the impression that any of these three plays could be staged with nothing but a stool on a stage with maybe a small blank screen to project a few pictures for context. This method allowed Billon to have much more three-dimensional characters than I typically find while reading plays and, oddly enough, the author creates some of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever come across in CanLit.

Iceland was my favorite of the three. Billon uses this monologue structure to bring together three unrelated characters into a very sad and brutal story. These three characters are also the highlight of this collection. Kassandra, the Estonian prostitute, is a very heartrending and sympathetic character – pulled into the world of sex work to help her family in Europe; Halim, the real estate agent, is an absolutely horrible excuse of human and deserves the fate that ultimately befalls him; and Anna, the young lady who is the glue of the play, is a fascinating and tragically ludicrous character. Iceland takes on a lot in only 40 pages, but most interestingly is how it deals with dreams of freedom and the nature of capitalism and capitalists.

Throughout the whole collection, there is a desire to be part of something larger than what exists now. Jonathan in Greenland yearns to be a leader in field of climate change; Kassandra in Iceland wants to live up to her mother’s expectations and take advantage of the promise offered by the revolution at home; and Dara in Faroe Islands literally wants to save the whales. This theme is the glue that holds these plays together. Additionally, as a student of English Literature and a graduate student in Island Studies, I see a lot going in all of these plays that uses the tropes of small island life and literature. Greenland uses notions of isolation and environmental vulnerability as an important part of the story. In Iceland, while no action whatsoever takes place in that country, the island is used as a microcosm of the wider world. And in Faroe Islands the idea of insularity and traditional customs being misunderstood by the outsider is central. I can easily see Fault Lines being added to small island literature courses (I would add it).

This is essential reading accessible to everyone. Even if you don’t want to delve deeply into the highly complex themes, the characters and plot are engrossing to even the most casual reader. Also, since the three plays are done with monologues, it is much more accessible than a lot of drama in that there isn’t that initial shock of confusion with who’s who in the opening scenes. Fault Lines is without question the best book I’ve read from 2013.

Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr

Unity

Winner of the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama

Winner of the 2001 Jessie Richardson Award for Large Theatre: Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Original Script

The Spanish Flu literally ravaged the planet from early 1918 to late 1920. Infections were documented from the remote South Pacific Islands to the northern Arctic of Canada. With a mortality rate of up to 20%, some estimates place the number of infected at 500 million and the death toll to be as high as 100 million people – roughly 5% of the world’s population at the time. The global pandemic was exacerbated by the end of World War I. Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning home around the globe and spreading the illness. The difference between this flu and other strains was the fact that healthy young adults were the ones dying from the virus. According to Wikipedia, “Modern research, using virus taken from the bodies of frozen victims, has concluded that the virus kills through a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system). The strong immune reactions of young adults ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic). Unity (1918) is Kevin Kerr’s Governor General Award winning dramatic retelling of the effects of the pandemic on a generic Canadian small-town – in this case, Unity, Saskatchewan.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working on collecting winners of GG for Drama; this book intrigued me much more than most of the other titles I’ve acquired lately from this list. It seemed like an interesting story idea and I had no prejudices or expectations coming in because I had never even heard of the author, other than GG lists. I was very satisfied with Unity (1918) and how it approached the topic.

The play is told in two acts with a total of thirty-five scenes, most of which are under three pages, with the longest coming in at six. Essentially there are four important plot stages: rumors and fear, panic, outbreak, and aftermath. The story largely unfolds as an ensemble piece; the characters include a trio of sisters, a young undertaker, a blind soldier who just returned from the front, two telephone/telegraph operators, and a few other supporting characters from the town. One of the sisters, Beatrice, is the closest thing to a “main character” but in reality this is the story of a town and Unity, Saskatchewan is the focal point.

What is really stunning about Unity (1918) is how timeless of a story this is, particularly how Kerr deals with the panic and hysteria that goes along with serious public health threats like the Spanish Flu. Unity tries quarantines, banning and canceling public gatherings including church services, people are required to wear masks, and, when the flu finally does arrive, scapegoating and blaming. Almost a century later, all you need to do is Google SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu or Ebola and you will come across the same behaviours today.

Kerr uses an interesting method of writing dialog. He uses directional pointers – asterisks and slashes – to intentionally have characters talking over each other and interrupting. Early in the book I found this very disorienting as it is not something that you come across every day, but, as I got used to it, I felt that it really added to panicked feeling permeating the story. The scenes are very short and the vast majority of lines are only a sentence or two. Additionally, there are very minimal stage directions and the directions that the author does include are free of literary indulgences – so the dialogue tells the story.

All-in-all, Unity (1918) is a great historical drama. It is an ageless story but really shines the light on one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century. Kevin Kerr employs inventive literary techniques but leaves a lot of room for theatrical interpretation and staging. Definitely worth the 2 or 3 hours.

Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke

Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry

I have had the pleasure of seeing George Elliott Clarke read his poetry on several occasions; the first time in 2002 at a presentation he did for a Canadian poetry class I was taking at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Clarke is definitely one of the most entertaining readers I have seen. He does more than just read, he performs, he puts his heart and soul into the presentation of his work. In his 2001 collection, Execution Poems, this passion leaps off the page. In this short book, only around 30 pages of writing, Clarke tells the story of brothers George and Rufus Hamilton, who were actually Clarke’s cousins, who killed a taxi driver in Fredericton in 1949 and were hanged for their crime only a few months later. This book has been on my “to buy/read” list for a long time so when I finally ordered it a few months ago I was very excited. The street I grew up on, Hamilton Street, is actually named after the Hamilton family of which George and Rufus were a part of. Clarke in this small collection looks at racism, desperation, and examines whether things really have changed almost a half-century since the hanging.

This book has a strong narrative arc with most of the poems told from the point-of-view of either George, Rufus (or Rue), or both. The writing is done in a conversational tone which greatly enhances the desperation of the characters circumstances. The central pair seems to be fairly well-education, or at least well read, in comparison to their socio-economic contemporaries. The author sets a scene of fear for the pair: beginning with a fear of starvation and eventually ending with fear of the consequences of their actions. The poem “The Killing” is my favorite in this collection, and I think this is actually one of Clarke’s best poems in his entire library. Clarke has the power to paint a vivid picture and expose a man’s deepest feelings with only a few words. Here is a power example from this poem:

Rue: Here’s how I justify my error:

The blow that slew Silver came from two centuries back.

It took that much time and agony to turn a white man’s whip

into a black man’s hammer.

 

Geo: No, we needed money,

so you hit the So-and-So,

only much too hard.

Now what?

 

Rue: So what?

In nine lines Clarke manages to embody generations of the African-Canadian experience.

The actual book is work of art as well. Published by Gaspereau Press, publishers of this year’s Giller winner The Sentimentalists, this paperback has thick paper with a pronounced grain, a dust jacket, and the paper blocks are sewn as well as glued, you can tell that a lot of love went into making these volumes. In 2005 George Elliott Clarke released a novelization of this story entitled George & Rue; this novel was released to much popular and critical acclaim, being nominated for several prestigious awards. For anyone interested in the African Canadian experience of Atlantic Canada, or as Clarke has dubbed them, Africadians (combination of African and Acadian), then this book, along with his best known collection, Whylah Falls, should be on top of your list.

Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray

Winner of the 1982 Governor-General’s Award for Drama

Winner of the 1982 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award

Winner of the 1981 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award

One of the country’s best known and most produced plays, Billy Bishop Goes to War is something of an aberration in published Canadian drama; it is in fact a musical that is published with lyrics and descriptions of the music. After doing some research I have found that, unlike most musicals, the producers/director of the show are responsible for the music, none is provided when the rights to the play are purchased. With that being said, the lyrics and musical descriptions work very well; they are key plot elements and are often used as turning points in the plot of the play. This book tells the story of legendary Canadian World War I pilot Billy Bishop and his rise to glory from a failing R.M.C. student to the toast of an empire.

Winning a number of awards, most notably the 1983 Governor-General’s Award for Drama, this play rose to prominence because of it’s style and structure, not because of any ground breaking plot or writing. Billy Bishop Goes to War is fundamentally a one-man show with a piano player providing backing vocals. I would think this would be very daunting for an actor, you would basically be responsible for memorizing a 102 page book. The majority of the play is Bishop, or whichever role he assumes, addressing the audience. This is very effective; even while reading the play you get a real sense of intimacy with the characters. When another role is assumed, the actor simply changes his voice or stance somewhat to show that he is taking on another personae. The staging in this production is very creative too; there are no huge elaborate sets or props: there is simply Bishop, a piano, and for the scenes where he is speaking about his time in the air, a model airplane he holds in his hand. In terms of both acting and staging, this play is theatrical minimalism at its best.

A few weeks ago CBC broadcast a new TV production of the play with John Gray and his collaborator Eric Peterson reuniting for the show. Even on the small-screen this was something impressive to watch, simply because of the range that is needed by the lead actor. The music is central to this piece, as I mentioned, it is used to shift the mood and also used as a leitmotif. This play definitely has it’s place in the Canadian dramatic tradition. Billy Bishop Goes to War is among a great renaissance of our national drama that was taking place in the early 80s along with other playwrites like Sharon Pollack, Judith Thompson, and George F. Walker. This book is certainly worth the read.

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