Frontenac House Quartet

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”

Poetry, to me, is absurd. It takes the ordered, well-behaved language I know and love and breaks it down, bracketing it into an equation, something unruly and unfamiliar that must be unpacked, rearranged, and solved. I know this is meant to be the joy of poetry, but the task often seems like a trap. And so whenever I see verse, anxiety strikes. My metrophobia, of course, is the unseemly result of ignorance and the many panic-stricken hours I spent scanning sonnets during my undergrad. Thus, in an attempt to make myself a better reader, I’m using my post as one of The Puritan’s Publicity Agents to explore this intimidating genre.

Earlier this month, for example, I attended the launch of Frontenac House’s annual Quartet. Now in its fourteenth run, each Quartet consists of four books written by emerging and established poets. This year’s four-pack included work by Sharanpal Ruprai’s Seva, Laurie MacFayden’s kissing keeps us afloat, Joan Shillington’s Folding the Wilderness Within, and David Bateman’s designation youth.

The Toronto launch was held at Freetimes Café on September 13th, 2014. That afternoon the city played host to the type of hard, bright sun that often preludes sudden clarity, and as I stepped off College Street and into the diner, I was soon introduced to a group of poets from Toronto’s growing literary tradition who didn’t just take the stage, but lit it up.

Sharanpal Ruprai was first up, reading from Seva, her debut collection from Frontenac House . She began her set with a series of poems entitled “Gurdwara in Five Acts.” In “Act 1—Fortune (Teller),” she details the life of a young Sikh girl: “we chant Vaheguru I close the book wrap it in Sesame/ Street sheets place it on my chuni turbaned head walk around/ the corner of the house throw it on the picnic table.” These strong, tangible images are characteristic of her most striking lines. In “Bollywood Basement Porn Party,” (a title which made both me and Puritan alumnus Daniel Tysdal giggle scandalously), the speaker imagines a “Sikh porn movie” where the couple rip away each other’s “kachera.” Later, that same speaker screams after being groped at a party and is labelled “a nun” by her Canadian girlfriends. Such sharp moments of contrast work to agitate traditional notions of multiculturalism and appear repeatedly throughout Ruprai’s poems.

Notably, Ruprai would often pause to define certain Punjabi words. For example: Gurdwara is a Sikh place of worship, kachera means homemade underwear, and seva represents selfless service. In this way, her poems simultaneously construct and deconstruct Sikh culture as experienced in the peripherals of a Westernized Canada.

Frontenac House Quartet

On Display at the Frontenac House Quartet

David Bateman was my other favourite reader that afternoon. His set featured two long poems that each contain linear narratives, lyrical breaks, and unapologetic sentimentality. In “My Mother’s Purse,” Bateman explores the thematic trialogue between himself, his mother, and his art. He writes, “in life, and on the stage, I have always found improvised, meta-theatrical gestures very comforting.” He explains that his work often functions as an extension of his mother; his poems are “vessels” through which the force of her character explodes.

“Tampax Tale” is a hilarious incident involving a secret Tampax order, a little town named Ajax, and god-like barbers which introduces a young Bateman to the fluidity of gender. The penultimate stanza reads:

It all just made me want to have sex with men named Ajax
and women with secret folded notes in barber shops who laughed at
childish mythological stories about Tampax and how my mother
bathed me with her when I was small enough to fit in the same
bathtub and her perfect breasts were like those shaved necks to me it
all just meshed together with thoughts of beautiful barbers laughing
at me and growing out of child seats but never growing into
manhood until I was almost middle-aged.

Out of necessity, Bateman read from both designation youth and kissing keeps us afloat, as Laurie MacFayden couldn’t make the Toronto launch (when Bateman took the stage, he asked we imagine “a strong, powerful dyke” instead). Editor Micheline Maylor was also unable to attend, so Bateman stepped into her place as host, as well, filling in roles where required. The decision was incredibly smart; one moment Bateman would be complementing Shillington on her subtle critique of gender and the next he would be chastising the waiter for describing his martini as “slightly horny.” In this way, the veteran actor, poet, and performance artist maintained a tone that was at the same time reverent and casual.

Later, after I left the venue, I realized I had forgotten to be anxious. This may have happened for any number of reasons, but I will identify two. First, because Frontenac House is based in Calgary, the launch was not a veritable who’s-who like some Toronto-centric affairs. This means the break between sets did not lapse into a quick-and-dirty networking opportunity but rather a simple recess of friends, family (Shillington had her grandchildren in tow), and writers. Secondly, much of the poetry involved autobiographical elements, and because the poets were indeed part of a Quartet and had read together several times, they were able to present the collection as a whole. This meant I could forgo having to navigate the industry’s highly nuanced social scene, and only very seldom did I have to process a stream of unstructured lyrical sentiment.

Thus for a newcomer who leans on a crutch of traditional fiction, these two factors weighed heavily in my newfound appreciation of the form. I was, to put it simply, unburdened. My advice to those new to verse: let your first real encounter with poetry happen on the level of feeling. Don’t think; listen. Allow your response to complete the poem. Thankfully, the Toronto Frontenac Quartet Launch provided just that kind of first encounter.

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