Archive for August, 2008

Sing along with the mortician

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Lots of us have taken part in that strange ritual, the corporate team-building night out. I’ve never been able to turn the following experience into a poem, but some day…

We start at Yuk-Yuk’s, West Edmonton Mall.

Caricatures of comedians, all American, painted on the wall. A young, good-looking, half-Arabic man from Vancouver as emcee. He asks how many in the crowd are having birthdays and makes life miserable for those who are mad enough to admit it. Could be brought up on charges of harassment and aggravated innuendo.

He brings on the warm-up act – a clean-cut man called Jack Smith (surely an alias). His shtick is sort of “Mormon-on-acid.’ Olive-green suit and shiny ochre tie, hair cut short but tinted an electric gold at the tips. More sexual innuendo, but he doesn’t say ‘fuck’ quite as often as the emcee.

Finally the main act – a black American comic who starred on a now forgotten sit-com. Shaved head. Pacing the stage like a tom-cat on speed. He doesn’t say ‘fuck’ at all, but has a lot of stories about male sexual insecurity. He’s genuinely funny, but the main impression of the whole thing is that male comedians worry a lot about sex. So do the rest of the population, I guess. But most of us could get through the day without worrying about it that much.

The show ends. We’re herded out down a cavernous service corridor with cinder-block walls and institutional fluourescent lighting high overhead. We straggle in a V behind our leader, not quite sure what we’re supposed to be bonding to.

Next stop is the Sherlock Holmes pub next door, where a sing-along is in progress. The musician leading it is a slight young man with a couple of guitars and a synthesizer. He has a perky, boyish smile and tilts his head ingratiatingly to mark the end of each verse. Someone in our group happens to know the bouncer at the door, who tells us that the performer is actually a mortician by day.

Instead of Irish folksongs or war-time ballads, the songs are a mix of country tunes and rock music. Belting out the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction as a pub song is truly bizarre, when you remember how outrageous and hard-edged it was back in 1965. Now it’s so much part of our shared experience that we can stand around high tables lined with beer glasses and shout, “I can’t get no…”

We’ll have arrangements for upright pianos next.

It keeps getting stranger. I start to notice a disproportionate number of short people in the crowd – one whole table near the loudspeakers. At first I thought they were all sitting down, now realize that they are all standing up. Several other tables also have shorter-than-average patrons.

“There must be some sort of conference for short people at the hotel,” I think, while the mortician directs us to number 14 on the song sheet and starts up Brown sugar on the synthesizer. Browanhn shugah, we honk, like a disaggregated line of geese.

Who organizes conventions for short people? I find myself looking at other bar patrons going by. “Are you one? Are you?” And realize how difficult the line is to draw. A trio of oriental kids has taken the other next table to us – they are normal Vietnamese height, but could dance with the people at the short table and look their partners in the eye. Shades of Owen Meanie.

But the people at the table nearest the speakers are definitely shorter-than-normal, shorter-than-they-should-be. One youngish man with a big rock-musician’s face and blonde, Rod-Stewart haircut looks as though his real height should be five-ten or so, but he’s a foot shorter than that.  Another man beside him, middle-aged with graying hair, is a little taller – maybe five feet one – but he still seems subtly disproportionate. One of the women has a slim, been-round-the-track kind of face, elaborately good posture and a country singer’s leonine shag. She’s the same height as the middle-aged man, but would seem quite an ordinary height if you passed her in the mall.

And nearby, there’s me, barely an inch taller.

I look from the group at the next table to our own (where Pat is calling out for “Number 32” and six-foot-tall Chris knows all the words without looking at the song sheet) then over at the mortician.

Who on earth put this all together? What team am I playing on? And for god’s sake, what’s the game?

April 22, 1996

Alice has a parliamentary poem

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Alice Major’s glosa, Parting, can be found on the “Poem of the Week” site maintained by Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, John Steffler.

The Poem of the Week website features a new poem by a Canadian poet each week.

John Steffler comments: “There are many fine poets writing in Canada today. My aims are the same as those of [my predecessors] George Bowering and Pauline Michel: to try to offer an inclusive representation of contemporary Canadian poetry in both English and French from all the country’s regions.



Office Tower Tales gets Fringe coverage

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

The production of “Office Tower Tales” at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival is happening at the Strathcona Public Library, at 12:15 daily for the rest of the festival.

Performers Alice Major, Amy Berger and Michelle Brown will be at the Beer Tent to perform an excerpt for CBC Radio One’s drive home show, RadioActive, on Tuesday August 19th. The show has already been reviewed by the Edmonton Sun’s Graham Hicks and the Edmonton Journal’s Todd Babiak.

Two tales from the book are being performed:


1. Bertha’s Tale (On odd-numbered  days)

It’s spring in Edmonton, and the food-court gossip by Pandora, Aphrodite and Sheherazad circles around the beauty myth and how others see us. Sherry tells the story of a young woman who must struggle because she is not beautiful.


2. The Office Romeo’s Tale (On even-numbered days)

It’s a summer-time lunch hour in one of the downtown parks, a flirtatious zone of relations between men and women. Sherry tells the tale of an office Christmas party and the guy who flirts with quite the wrong secretary.


Why do I write?

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

From my journal of 1990 …

Spring beat me back here from Calgary this afternoon. When I walked back to the house from the municipal airport, the wind was warm and turbulent and the bushes in the light-industrial subdivision north of 111th Avenue were surprised with themselves. It’s as though the season has been squirted out of can, like foam hair mousse.

Why do I write?

Why I write in general is one thing. Why I write at a particular moment is another.

The first is out of curious fever for permanence, a hope of existing beyond myself in space and time. It’s a little like sending snatches of Bach and Jerry Lee Lewis out into the universe – signals that may, by some wildly improbable coincidence, be intercepted and decoded. As long as these signals are out there, we still exist – even if we’ve blown up the home planet in the meantime.

Why I write now is the very opposite of permanence. It’s because the sun is going behind a cloud, because a tracasserie of sparrows flew round the corner of the house, because of the cat-tickles of thought and the pond-ripples of memory, the intersection of past and future, the moving target. There is a constant glory in this sense of consciousness bobbing like a cork on the waves. You want to put your hand out and capture it. You get out a pen…

May 2, 1990

Neurotic poet fashions

Friday, August 8th, 2008

In 1996, I joined the League of Canadian Poets, and went to the annual meeting for the first time.  How do you dress to meet a hundred poets? Expensively….

I’ve just put $400 (!) on my credit card, trying to spend my way out of terror.

I’m in Ottawa for the League conference. I registered a couple of months ago and then more or less put it out of my mind. In retrospect, I was probably reluctant to bring it IN to my mind. The day before yesterday it came home that I really had to get on a plane to Ottawa in forty-eight hours. Yesterday, I finally put together a list of things to pack, based on the fact that Ottawa has had a heat wave for the past week.

I arrived to find the weather has done a back flip, cooled down and clouded over. I unpacked to find that – in a suitcase large enough to take me to Mars and back – I had virtually nothing that matched, nothing that suited the weather, and nothing to suit the conference agenda either. The most serious gaps were something to wear under the only jacket I’ve brought with me and something to wear for the evening events that would hit the right note of poetic-talent-at-the-cash-bar.

I’m nervous about being here. I’d like to stamp myself on the memories of at least a few other poets. But this is the kind of gathering where I’m worse than useless – not even a wallflower. More like flower wallpaper. I’m also conscious of being forty-seven – hardly a hot young star in the literary sky.

So I want to look good, as good as possible. Only I can’t get away with skimpy little tops and tight skirts any more. I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard, even though I’m trying as hard as I can.

And of course this is one of those weeks when I feel homely. There are times I look in the mirror and see all the lumpishness that flesh is heir to. Heiress to. Other times, I can live with my reflection. (I don’t know what to make of these alternating realities. I mean, it’s the same mirror, the same body the same eyes. It’s a bit like Schroedinger’s cat, existing in a nervous superposition of states.)

When the going gets tough, as the saying goes, the tough go shopping. I can flex a credit card with the best of them. But when the going is this tough, so is the shopping.

I went tramping round the Bywater Market, looking for trendy little shops where I could get something ‘interesting.’ Finally gave up and went to the shopping mall on Rideau. Bought wildly anything that looked like it might work.

Now I have a closet that looks as though I intend to stay here through at least three seasons and a weird black vest that I will probably never wear. (Who wants to stand out that much?)

I still look dumpy in this godforsaken mirror.

And tomorrow I still have to go down and attach myself to a wall with suction cups.

– From a journal entry, May 23, 1996

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