By Kevin Ritchie
Last year, one of Karen Mulhallen’s third-year English students came to class and said she’d read a poem by Wordsworth and it made her cry. That led to a class discussion about the lack of poetry in Ryerson’s English curriculum.
Inspired by students in her Roots of Modernity class (which is no longer available due to budget cuts) who felt they were missing out, Mulhallen decided to start a poetry night at Ryerson and invite some well-known literary names to read.
“Canada is at the top of the world in both fiction and poetry,” Mulhallen says. “The idea really came out of the hunger for poetry. We teach virtually no poetry. We have no creative writing courses.”
Gabi Buczek, a fourth-year RTA student who was in Mulhallen’s English class last year, says it’s rare for her to find a course where she can pause to appreciate language.
“I have never joined anything in university because there’s nothing out there for me,” she says. “We’re not learning enough about language. At Ryerson, we’re taught to have skills to get a job. I work with my hands but never my mind or my words.”
To get the ball rolling, Mulhallen starting a mailing list for interested students and went to Leatrice Spevack, administrator of the Oakham House Literary Society and campus groups, to get something started.
Last Wednesday at Oakham House marked the first meeting of the Live Poets Society.
Writer and comedian John Wing was the first guest. Win, a Sarnia, Ont. Native and Tonight Show regular, was in town from Los Angeles for a taping of the Mile Bullard Show.
“It generally becomes a poem if it’s a lousy joke and it generally becomes a joke if it’s a lousy poem,” Wing told the group of about 30 people, who filled nearly all the chairs at Oakham. While he’s done thousands of stand-up gigs, he’s only performed a handful of poetry readings. He reads his poetry with a comic delivery.
Wing read selections from his three books of poetry and an excerpt from his upcoming autobiography.
Many of his poems have vivid imagery, especially the unpublished “Describing her in terms of sea life”, which is about his wife. Other poems are about the comedy industry, book-signings, Sarnia, Toronto, talk shows, his family and growing up.
After the reading, Wing fielded questions from the audience and advised the aspiring poets in the group to find their own voices. “Read every piece of poetry you can find. Your voice will come out of those you imitate. Eventually, you’ll find your own voice.”
First-year architecture student and aspiring poet Ahmad Ghafour is in Mulhallen’s English class. He came to Canada from the northern part of Afghanistan about four years ago, so most of the poetry he reads is in Persian.
“Reading English poetry is a different experience,” he says. “There’s a different tone.”
Ghafour is still finding his voice. What he writes is more an imitation of an Afghani poet named Rumi. He didn’t catch all of Wing’s metaphors and humour but hopes his poetry will reflect a hybrid of Persian and Canadian sensibilities and experiences.
He compares writing poetry to architecture.
“Poetry and architecture have rhythm and create imagery. Poetry is more dreamlike but architecture is when you apply it in the real world. It’s another form of art.”
Last week was the first and only session of Live Poet’s Society this semester, but when it starts up again during the winter term, it will be combined with Open Mic Night, which starts Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
Mulhallen put together a wish list of poets and was pleasantly surprised to find her first four calls were successful.
Guests in the winter term include Griffin Prize winner Christian Bok, novelist and poet Margaret Christakos, and performance artist Bill Bissett.
“I’m a poet and I teach poetry well because I love it and I believe in it. I thought I could set up a situation where people don’t get graded,” Mulhallen says. “Poetry is a quiet thing, so there’s that extra problem of teaching it in the classroom.”