On View: Fall Poetry Edition

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On November 3rd, 2015, Ottawa Arts Council's On View series welcomed a poetry exhibition to its milieu. Since 2008, On View has hosted exhibitions of visual artists; this year marks the first time the literary scene has been given a spotlight. The night featured Ottawa poets Brecken Hancock, rob mclennan and David O'Meara.

We are ushered in amongst tables of fruit and cheese, greeted by Ottawa Arts Council staff Sharon Diamond and Stéphane Lauzon. Sharon urges us to take a coloured slip of paper, but refuses to divulge what for. There is wine, casual conversation. Eventually, the stage is taken: Executive Director Peter Honeywell is first to sit, keying in the tone for the evening. He outlines the mission statement of the Council, and the resounding success it has had entering its 33rd year.

The room is high-ceilinged, resonant; converted from the Arts Council's boardroom, it scarcely resembles a place of business. On View exhibitions have been displaying the work of visual artists for several years, but a poetry reading is new territory for them. The goal, Peter tells us, is to leave an imprint of the night in the room. Accordingly, framed excerpts of Brecken, rob and David's work hang on the back wall.

Sharon asks us to hold up our paper slips: to determine who goes first, we have drawn random ballots. Five for David, six for rob — and seven for Brecken. By sheer chance, the poets are to read in billing order.

Brecken HancockBrecken, a 2015 RBC Emerging Artist Award finalist, reads “The Art of Plumbing” from Broom Broom. By her own admittance, she has lived in Ottawa only a few years, yet it's difficult to imagine the poetry scene here without her in it. Broom Broom won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry last year. It is a bubbling, scalding force of poetry in the middle of which “The Art of Plumbing”, a longform piece, obliquely sits.

rob mclennanrob mclennan, one of Ottawa's most prominent literary fixtures, is next to the stage. rob's poetry speaks in laconic missives of sentences, more suggestive than descriptive, latticing together in a quiet narrative. rob was the recipient of the 2014 Mid-Career Artist Award, in recognition of not only his work, but his institutions in the community. rob runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, Touch the Donkey, Ottawater and The Factory Reading Series; it's a wonder he has time at all to read his own work.

David O'MearaDavid, a three-time Archibald Lampman Prize winner and past Ottawa Arts Council awards juror, is the quietest and most deliberate of the readers. His work, prosaic and playful, is brought to life in the room by his warm voice, content to downplay the internal rhyme and cadence in the pieces for a matter-of-fact pace, more like a storyteller than a soloist. Himself a cornerstone of Ottawa poetry, David was the founding Artistic Director for VERSeFEST, the international poetry festival that convenes in Ottawa every year.

The value of awards from the Ottawa Arts Council and its counterparts is not to be understated to professional artists, especially in the literary scene. The poetry community is small and its mainstream appeal limited. Despite the hard work poets put into their craft and back into the scene — despite running 'zines, publishing houses, and reading series — the monetary compensation involved is seldom anything but minimal. Federal awards and grants are thus crucial in alleviating the financial burden and allowing artists to focus more time and energy on their community. 

Still, such awards are judged on recognition, and not all voices can be heard. Often, it can be difficult for aspiring writers, lacking clout and a long body of work, to make a case for themselves. Ottawa Arts Council's RBC Emerging Artist Award was created to bridge this sort of gap. Its deadline this year is December 11th.

The small, intimate setting of the Arts Council boardroom required no microphone, so our readers' voices filled the space of their own accord. This, too, left an imprint in the room; a quiet but fierce energy that lingered even after we packed up and went.

Text: Liam Burke
Photos: Stéphane Lauzon