JM Francheteau co-authored the Worst Case Ontario chapbook with the WCO collective
We’re sitting on a soft bed, a girl and I, cross-legged with our knees touching, late at night, after drinks and Casablanca and I, of course, am nervous. “Comber,” I am saying. “And Ruthven. Chatham.” We’ve been talking about the small towns of Essex County as we paddle the moat of my shyness, inch by inch. I’m saying “Blenheim” as she scoots into my lap, and since “Blenheim” shouldn’t be the last thing on your lips before you kiss someone beautiful, I say, “Wheatley.”
“I don’t really care about this stuff,” she says, her eyes grey by this light, soft-focused. “I know,” I say, and do.
“Say the Names,” suggested Al Purdy, although he recommended skirting “the flat borrowed names of the settlers.” Nonetheless: Leamington, Anderdon, Amherstburg, Oxley, Tilbury, Malden, McGregor. The place names Purdy loved, serpentine, many-ribbed things like Spillimacheen and Illecillewaet, he associated with nature and solitary contemplation: “listen to yourself / an echo in the mountains.” It’s the classic narrative about the Native peoples who “lent” their words to these settlements: the legend of a communion with nature so deep it lingers in their very language, and the reality that they were driven en masse from their lands or exterminated. For Purdy, the names, permanent yet fading from meaning, are an emptiness so profound that the undisturbed mind can recollect its true self. Written near the end of his days, his incantation binds him to numberless ghosts and trees. But that isn’t the nature of towns.
“Say them like you […] dreamed and dreamed you were a river.” I don’t know what I’d dream with “Harrow” in my mouth: myself as an implement, maybe, teeth dragged through the dirt by a farmer preparing for sowing; or, as a fingertip sliced off a north London borough, wrapped in a kerchief and mailed to a forest across the sea, where they hoped new Englishmen would spring miraculously from the stump. Borrowed names helped those borrowing people, squinting into the tiger-striped glare of burning woods, to convince themselves they were home. For better or worse, saying Essex County names fixes you in the memory of specific men and deeds; even Tecumseh, which originates in the Shawnee tongue, is named after a person. (It has also, naturally, been absorbed by the city of Windsor.) The culture is communal and homogeneous, inward-facing. So what draws a person to write poetry here? It is the loneliest art to practice and the means of communication least likely to form a connection with one’s neighbours. And why is it that in the earliest poems I wrote about the County after moving to Ottawa at age 19, they came out in a put-on faux-hick diction that I knew failed to capture the reality of these peoples’ voices?
David McGimpsey has said that young people who pursue an education in the arts do so because all their lives they have had the sense there is some unspoken truth about the world that most of their peers do not perceive, and that this truth is not necessarily a pleasant one. Not knowing what this truth is is depressing. Thinking no one else feels its presence is haunting. For people from the country in particular, the ambition to learn impractical things is threaded with guilt, as though at any moment you might be pulled aside, asked just who you think you are to be putting on such airs and have no answer. My bric-a-brac ruralese poems purported to document country life when what they were really communicating was my estrangement from that culture; they failed, because their total insight could be summarized as “I am not they” and to do so I rendered they as caricatures.
One thing that has always nagged me is that poetry, for all its supposed value as a means of offering emotional solace or insight into the human condition, is almost never an appropriate response to the direct needs of another person. Volunteer on a crisis hotline and offer in exchange for each caller’s pain a few quatrains relevant to their situation. Next time your significant other is talking to you about an intimate personal problem, try writing a poem about it and having it published in a national journal. Let me know how it goes.
JM Francheteau writes the zine Nightshift.
Much as the eyes of some portraits seem to follow you, the eyes of poetry often seem to be looking over its glasses into a brilliant light somewhere behind you. A poem doesn’t really speak to anyone; it is a dramatization of how a writer speaks to themselves. Even in big city writing scenes, my sense is that while people enjoy the work they hear at recitals (and may purchase books to read “for real” later), their engagement with the work is often limited in the moment. The appeal of these events is primarily social or professional (or both). In other words, these are ad hoc communities of poets but rarely are they communities of poetry. I can think of only two firsthand experiences of poetry itself stimulating a communal experience, and both happened this past summer during a tour with four other rural writers.
The first was after an early show in Welland, Ontario. In a semi-enclosed back room of a townie bar called The Rex Hotel, nearly vacant, we talked our poems and listened to two local musicians, while a baseball game unfolded on a big screen beside the mic. (To be clear, we asked them not to turn it off because we liked the look of it.) Elsewhere, septuagenarians shuffled up to a counter that handled off-track pony betting, and regulars bellied up to the bar for a pint. We’d just missed the headline fight in the parking lot. Shorn of its particulars, the Rex could’ve been Shooter’s in Harrow, or whatever beaver dam they sell beer out of in Elliott Lake. Us here, them there: a comically literal depiction of our estrangement from the places that birthed our writing.
Afterward, we went to Julie Mannell’s house in nearby Fonthill, a green place, where we built a great bonfire and by its light said other names: Gwendolyn MacEwan and Milton Acorn, Matthew Dickman, John Darnielle, James Joyce, and (a lot of) Steve Roggenbuck. If it needs saying, white country kids have no exclusive claim to feeling left out, let alone to having had magical experiences hearing poetry by firelight. But it was a rare time in my life when I have not felt alone in the moment of needing, intensely, to hear poem after poem, to hear mysteries, “the saying of many serious and many ridiculous things.” I heard poems that walked you out into the darkness to rid yourself of a laughter that’s been throttling you and poems that poured such love onto the world, its surface seemed to burn.
The second instance was in Ottawa, my adopted home, and the last stop of the tour. It was one of our most well-attended gigs, full of friends and loved ones, but as a collective we were garbled, drink-fatigued and ragged from the idea that the next day we would all be going to homes that felt curiously foreign. I hope we made the crowd happy, and I think we did, but our emotion led to a pretty self-indulgent show. As much as the performer in me knows we could’ve done better at that particular stop, I think the sentiment was necessary for us. Certain poems reached out in different ways, to say the things I needed to say and hear said: every word of JC Bouchard’s “I Have a Fist,” which had become our unofficial anthem; the tail end of one of my poems about a relationship between people, and between people and their hometowns, spoke instead, on this night, to my friends: “I’ll stay / if you’ll stay // If you can’t go / I won’t go.”
Think back to the fire, the one in Fonthill or the first: was the beginning of poetry the thought that appeared in one person’s head or its release into another’s? While I believe in writing scenes and in touring, these are not a priori communal experiences of poetry any more than the thought of one’s hometown is one with a sense of belonging, though each can provide a kindling. What I’m talking about is more intimate, and often more ephemeral; a community that flashes into existence any time that ignition between a person and a poem extends to include someone else. It can disappear just as quickly, and that absence can be painful, especially when it is associated with specific people. But I think it’s worth pursuing these moments, because they are a socializing, even a humanizing of verse. To be in a poem together brings its heightened sensitivities somehow into the world: I’m here, you’re here, and this feeling I’ve had, all my life, is here with us. We can almost hear its name.
JM Francheteau is a rural transplant based in Ottawa, Ontario. His most recent chapbook is kids (Hurtin’ Crüe Press). As one-fifth of the 2015 Worst Case Ontario poetry tour, he read and bled in eight cities over ten days.