Hamilton home to gritLIT

Hamilton home to gritLIT

Much has been made of Hamilton’s recent resurgence: the real estate market is booming, businesses are eyeing the once dilapidated downtown core, and the general outlook among Hamiltonians is one of contagious optimism. Even more sure-footed on this Sunday in April is Hamilton’s cultural renaissance, which for the past four days has been cresting on account of gritLIT, the city’s annual literary festival. While likely unnoticed by the average pedestrian, writers from near and far couldn’t help running into one another as they bustled in and out of events at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Mulberry Coffeehouse, and eventually Homegrown Hamilton, where gritLIT and the Lit Live Reading Series joined forces for a closing night gala.

Just as Hamilton is tightrope-walking an industry transition from manufacturing to health sciences—not to mention a cosmetic shift from Gotham City to Hipster Paradise—its community of writers has expressed hopes for a similar passing of the torch. “We do have to manage the transition from older hands to younger hands,” author Chris Pannell said in a recent Hamilton Spectator article marking Lit Live’s 20th anniversary. Assuming the duties of both host and reader, Pannell fit well into a program that seemed intent on mixing the city’s seasoned and emerging writers.

As proof of the fortuitous run-ins enabled by gritLIT, I’d already had the pleasure of meeting The Puritan’s Phoebe Wang, plus local writers Liz Harmer and Brent van Staalduinen that afternoon. Our comfort in numbers was crucial as we pushed into Homegrown Hamilton’s capacity crowd. I shouldn’t have been surprised by my standing-room-only, obstructed view, since the turnout represented two long-running initiatives sharing the same bill.

“It’s no secret that Hamilton is changing,” Pannell said, addressing the electricity in the air. His latest collection, A Nervous City (Wolsak and Wynn, 2013), wrestles with those changes. “Product Launch” and “Memory Work” look at the means of survival necessary for the perseverance of both individuals and families, the latter poem finding obliviousness at the heart of youthful exuberance. Noting “the fresh air of loss”, “Burlington Street” toured the wreckage of an abandoned industry, a new wilderness. “In the Pockets of the Wind” alternately focused on the blackbirds of Hamilton’s natural backwoods, a treasure unseen by commuters on the skyway. Paced with cadences of compassion and humour, Pannell’s reading nurtured a flow that felt more like prose than the pauses often identified in poetry.

McMaster’s own Jeffery Donaldson read selections from Slack Action (Porcupine’s Quill, 2013), digging into an unsettling metaphor with “Jack in the Box”—a “buried clown, its revelation a joke.” Subsequent poems “November 5th” and “Tourettes” indulge Donaldson’s playful side, the former addressing our arbitrary reliance on time with a sly back-and-forth banter, the latter sharing some phonetic tongue twisters he practices before teaching class. However unassuming, these performances added a vital ingredient to his poetry, leaving me curious as to how well something like “Tourettes”, which is akin to gibberish, might stand on the page alone.

Donaldson’s reading didn’t cater to Hamilton explicitly—“The Word On Cootes Paradise,” for example, was not included—although he was interrupted by one of the city’s common downtown stereotypes: a drunk but harmless onlooker. Generally speaking, a lone man shouting “1847!” in the midst of a poetry reading sounds like the makings of an awkward situation. But Donaldson’s good-natured puzzlement won out, insisting on reading one last poem after the unknown reveler made his exit, “just so I can get the last word”. For this crowd, surly antics added to the atmosphere and the baffling reference to “1847” was riffed upon a few times throughout the night.

With A Bee Garden (Cormorant Books, 2013) in hand, Marilyn Gear Pilling promised to steer clear of wintery death poems and began with “What She’d Sold”—a poem that blossoms as much on the page (in fragrant and white-sewn imagery) as it did on stage, with her voice steadily strengthening until a quiet, tantalizing finale. Those spring-like beginnings quickly gave way to poems that surveyed one of the same themes Pannell had expounded upon—the wisdom that comes with age. “High Summer” reflects on engagement photos of an impending fourth marriage, the couple “looking less ravaged than they are,” while “That Father” laments a paternal invincibility that nevertheless falters, the “hairs on his head, numbered and remembered.”

So maybe one wintery, death poem—touching enough that we can allow it. But as this All About the Hammer showcase reached an approximate halfway point, a secondary theme of aging crept into focus. In reading from Brilliant Falls (Gaspereau Press, 2013), John Terpstra assumed a similar trajectory to Pilling’s, beginning with a spring poem (“Genesis”, about Adam and Eve gardening their new yard on Herkimer Street) before addressing the book’s weightier meditations on time and familial changes. “Geese” details a close encounter from the balcony of his mother’s new digs in a gated retirement community, watching “each bird for itself now” come to a graceful landing. “Emptying the House” is even more plainspoken, reflecting on four siblings as they box up and separate their mother’s possessions. The crosswords and trinkets discovered in places “private as prayer” speak to the omission, a mother whose absence renders the house “shabbier.”

Terpstra’s keen sensitivity gives profound magnetism to his accounts; although with “Grasshopping”, I think most under-30 listeners were meeting him more than halfway. Unlike “Hindsight,” which finds a universal truth in acknowledging “our fragile enormity on the landscape” after a bird is killed during a drive, “Grasshopping” offers a vent-session about window repairs and maintenance fees. Far be it from me to draw a line separating “that’s-how-they-getcha” lessons from other poetry subjects but, in this case, the poem’s stakes felt like something most younger listeners couldn’t (or wouldn’t) invest in.

Amanda Jernigan—whose first selection “Arbor Vitae” offered a springtime response to Philip Larkin—quickly abandoned solemn narratives with her stanza: “the past is strong,/ it lends us structure,/ but life is in/ the cambium, the now.” Better yet, Jernigan’s reading freed the audience from concrete storytelling altogether, her selection of poems communicating instead on a level of sensory intuition. The ecosystems of both “Park Harbour” and “Boardwalk” are threatened—one is said to be on the cusp of a controlled burning, the other is itemized into a list poem of visual stimuli —but the author’s strong voice, wavering with ache, intoned the urgency of place we listeners could not experience firsthand. Following choices from All the Daylight Hours (Cormorant Books, 2013), Jernigan tested some new poems, also memorized, which maintained and rounded out the intensity of her performance.

If it’s fair to say that All About the Hammer had so far swung between seasoned poets with traditional verse and the newer class’ willful experimentation, then the evening’s last two writers were about to widen that gap. In This House Is Condemned (Wolsak and Wynn, 2013) David Haskins brought us back to the early 1970s with three autobiographical accounts—one each for Athens, Amsterdam, and Montreal—that deal in situations ranging from salacious to uncomfortable. The Athens passage marks “the first freefall of my adult life,” a 40-hour train ride in which the author tearfully leaves his lover and takes consolation in his knowing wife. Haskins didn’t resolve that brewing conflict before moving on; in fact, the Amsterdam and Montreal portions manage to compound the loneliness of unattainable love. But despite his stern, factual tone, one detached by decades, the attention to detail remains, weeks later, chillingly vivid in my mind. We can partly attribute my surprise to Wolsak and Wynn’s description of the text, which geographically limits the narrative to “a life lived at the edge of Lake Ontario”, but Haskins’ tough and uncluttered prose indeed carries us across international datelines.

As surely as Haskins’ haunted memoirs offered yet another peek at the burdens of age, Amanda Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men (ECW Press, 2013) reinstated a sense of impulsiveness to the stage. Sharing the fictional throes of Sam, a young adult who wakes up with wings, Leduc introduced a number of interesting characters that supplement the story’s existential question with shades of relationship and career concerns. Having sampled that Kafkaesque moment of transformation, Leduc next introduces Lilah, a woman whose distracted decision to go on a date with her boss puts her life in unexpected jeopardy. Even without the supernatural crux, Leduc’s forward-looking characters feel isolated from the previous readings but also emblematic of a fresh and exciting new epoch in Hamilton literature.

Ending four successful days of gritLIT splendour, All About the Hammer aptly reflected on a city coming to terms with its growing pains. Judging from the mixed ages in the crowd and onstage, I suspect that finding readers and authors to take up the torch will not be among those challenges. Many of the evening’s themes came about by chance; Sunday’s mild weather and a drunken stranger played their parts well. But the seesawing contrast that developed between the readers’ varying styles was no accident—it embodied the vibrant and sometimes jarring nature of transition, something Hamiltonians have adapted to by now.

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