You are your own city hall


16/04/2014 by funnomad

They hadn’t set things up completely when I arrived at the Supermarket tonight, so I didn’t recognize the situation. It seemed like a private party when a pert middle-aged woman jumped in front of me to block my way. “Poetry,” I said and pointed to the back room. She sort of sighed the way the mother of a poet would and let me pass.

Tonight was the BookThug Spring launch and, as per usual with BookThug launches, the place was packed. I remember back to the first BookThug launch when If Language came out. It was a coffee shop bar in Rosedale, on Yonge St., and poets sat on the floor while dogwalkers shopped along, and the cappuccino machine grinded away sections of Danish poetry. BookThug’s become an institution of sorts, though Jay and Hazel still maintain the personable warmth of a family-run small press experimental literature business. I’ve always loved how their kids are always involved — and increasingly in their own way (tonight they performed music).

As we prepared for the first set, I did note the suited and over-coiffed people from the front who drifted into the backroom of the bar, estimate the scenario, and retreat. My bit tonight was moderating a panel on bpNichol with two of his old friends, Lola Lemire Tostevin and Brian Dedora, and one editor, Stephen Cain, of a new Nichol selection that BookThug was publishing. We spoke at some length about his relationship to D.A. Levy, the avant-garde publisher from Cleveland, Ohio, who published the very first chapbook by Nichol. The entire work is reprinted in facsimile in the book to help bring out some of its mimeo marvellousness. We spoke about another Nichol chapbook also included in Cain’s new edition, “Lament” — a poem written on the occasion of Levy’s suicide in 1968. It is not a eulogy, but a lament in that Canadian tradition of George Grant where the weight of a political failure is born by the people who allowed their own misfortune to manifest.

Nichol’s poem chants, “You are your city hall my people, and look what you’ve become.”

I can’t find a link to him reading it, but you can see it on jwcurry’s flickr archive here:

Brian and Lola told a few anecdotes, Stephen talked about the various Nichols he encountered in producing the book, and it was done. As I walked back to my seat, I could hear the rumbly din of the front room. Apparently it was a something happening there now and the two events were in competition for noise space. I walked up with Adam Seelig to get a drink, and he laughed, “Socialists up front and Communists out back, or is it the other way around?” I said, “Fools to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.” When he pointed out Thomas Mulcair standing right beside us I suddenly understood his joke.

The NDP brass were assembled to support Olivia Chow in her bid to replace the incumbent Mayor Rob Ford. A blue sign taped to the wall had the text “Fired Up!” in large Helvetica. I felt like protecting the book designers in the back from seeing such work, until I remembered Levy self publishing some pretty ugly dirty things in support of his various causes (as in the Marijuana Review). And then I remembered the line from Nichol’s poem.

“Lament” reveals a different bp then others, angrier, political, deeply frustrated, and accusatory. It responds to the cause of Levy’s suicide: he had been heavily harassed by the Cleveland police for years, charged with distributing obscene materials to minors for letting teenagers have free copies of his various small press zines. The charges were eventually reduced, but the harassment continued. Similar in a way to the government’s obscene harassment of Aaron Schwartz, Levy eventually broke and killed himself. The machine is enormous and very resistant to change. Sometimes we stand by and watch it destroy amazing, inspired people. Sometimes we don’t walk away from Omelas. You can read more about Levy here and here at Deep Cleveland.

The irony about this evening is that the Mayor of Toronto is the marijuana-smoking obscenity and that it is the fiscally responsible socialist NDP trying to remove him from public life. Another irony is that poetry finally had something to say to politics, that we ARE our government and we must bear that burden with full consciousness of our choices, except that it was 40 years too early, and the politicos who walked back into our space couldn’t hear the message through all the art. In case anybody is wondering, in the context of Stephen Harper’s Canada, this is the tragic irony: we know the outcome of art’s optimism. There was a chance for a meeting of art and politics tonight, that’s all.

The book, by the way, is excellent, and an important addition to the Nichol library. It might just inspire you to drive down to Cleveland, and try and find one of the very rare Levy publications in an increasingly rare used bookstore. It might inspire you to go from the front room of the bar to the back, or vice-versa. Here is Nichol from “Beach Head”:

what visions i have come
not with the night
not with the chaos but
the memory of chaos
as now
at journeys end
i have emerged from chaos
into the infinite order
of light, my eyes
open to the suns light
the moon reflected
as cold surfaces will
when i walked into chaos
the chaos was in me
and ruled me


3 thoughts on “You are your own city hall

  1. Tanis MacDonald says:

    What a pleasure to read this, Gregory and it makes make sorry that I wasn’t in attendance at the event, both for its literary history and its apropos moment of political reversal. I don’t know Nichol’s “Lament” but from what you’ve written here, I definitely should. Looking forward to acquiring a copy of Cain’s new edition soon.

    • funnomad says:

      Thanks Tanis — the book is lovely, especially JOURNEYING & the returns which finds a proper context here. Also a correction: the NDP event was in support of local hopeful MP Joe Cressy:

  2. Stephen Cain says:

    Hi Greg; Thanks for your great write up of the night. I agree that Nichol’s reading of “Lament” is fantastic and I’ve been trying to track down info on the recording. It’s never been available that I know of as a discrete recording, and hasn’t appeared on PennSound or the I can’t seem to find any info of when it was recorded but suspect it was only done for the Michael Ondaatje film Sons of Captain Poetry. It was also used in Brian Nash’s bp:pushing the boundaries, but it appears to be the same recording. The Nash film is a bit tricky to find, but Ondaatje’s is on the web if you dig around. “Lament” appears at about the 22 minute mark. I’d say it should be a priority to put up on the new bpNichol site. It really is great. Oh, and levy’s magazine was actually the Marrahwanna Quarterly (that crazy counter-culture orthography!)

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