For those who have never visited the Manx Pub, it is the perfect setting for the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s Plan 99 Poetry Cabaret; with its underground entrance and its quaint, smoky interior that seems to fit the mood of the audience and poet-readers alike. Its walls are embedded with bookshelves and resonate with the sound of excited chatter as its audience mingled, anticipating the readings to come. Nonetheless, when either David Groulx or Chris Jennings took the microphone, there was complete silence. Anita Lahey who was originally slotted, unfortunately, was unable to attend.
David Groulx was the first speaker; a veteran author of proud Ojibwe descent. His book, A Difficult Beauty , is described by the evening’s host, David O’Meara, as dealing with “hard truths”, “tentative hope”, and the “injustice dealt with by First Nations communities”. His opening poem, “I Am Only One Percent”, is no different. He declares, “I protest my brokenness and your brokenness”, and one is quick to realise that although his voice is frank and witty, his poems are also deeply personal and intensely reflective.
Throughout his reading, his aversion to John Wayne and dislike for Mr. Stephen Harper is apparent and it is in his openness that he is able to relate to the audience. He manages to relate the issues of First Nations communities on a personal level and, although his message is serious, he was not without humour as he discussed his topsy-turvy relation with “red wine or vin rouge” the morning after a night of indulgence. It is within the honesty of his words that he connects the audience to the injustices that First Nations communities often face, yet it is in his frankness that he can relate to the everyman.
Chris Jennings was next to read. Described as a brilliant essayist and currently writing in Arc Poetry Magazine, he wittily remarked that he is proud to be introduced as having written his “first” book, suggesting that it gives hope to the idea that this will not be his “only” book. His verse is no less noteworthy than Groulx and shows the skill of a mature artist. Reading from his book Occupations , his poems are vigorous contemplations of the relationships that bind and form us in relation to objects, and seem to stem, like Groulx, from his own personal experience.
His poem, “Vacant Suite” is a reflective piece on the dynamics of relationships that cause rented space to become available. In it, we see parts of the breaking down of a relationship, and his short and snappy word choices, such as the line “words were things again”, shows his genius at work. His follow-up poem, “Keys”, shows the complete breakdown of the relationship. His poems are sincere, realistically portraying the subject of their observation.
Both poets seem to be on different spectrums of the poetic scene: Groulx has numerous books under his belt and deals with the collective, while Jennings has but begun and deals with individual experiences. However, while Groulx deals with issues of heritage and injustice, placing himself as a spokesperson for the First Nations community, he still relates to his audience on an individual level. On the other hand, Jennings deals with the mechanics of personal relationships in terms with which the whole can identify too.
When the microphone was left standing alone, one cannot help but feel that because of the frank honesty of each poet, this evening of poetry reading has left each individual present connected to a larger collective. For both the connoisseur of poetry readings and to the curious new enthusiast, it was an experience to be savoured.