Harbourfront Part 2: Battle of the Bards


By Shane Neilson

Once upon a time, in the United States, a television producer named Mark Burnett put a bunch of people on a remote island where they competed against each other for food and for privileges like being able to talk to loved ones back at home. The resultant series, Survivor, became an immense hit and is still televised today. What followed was a flood of similar “reality TV” programming that brought us whoring shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which are also still being broadcast. But along the way were a few really rank ones—Temptation Island and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire come to mind—were released and duly consumed. They had their cultural moment, which was a notorious one-eyeball-covered horror. And they died.

This brings me to the Harbourfront Battle of the Bards. Three years ago, the poetry lovers at Harbourfront decided to cash in on the esteemed tradition of reality television. They copied the format of another American megahit, the Idol franchise, and conceived of a night of poetry in which twenty poets would take the stage for a very brief period—akin to the audition snippets you see on the edited Idol shows themselves—and compete against one another for the chance to prove that the people at Harbourfront did indeed love poetry. The winner would get to read at Harbourfront in a significant way.

They used to call the winner of the competition the “Poetry Idol.” I hope to show you, in the course of this piece, just why they stopped naming the winner the “Idol.” And I believe that, if you asked this year’s current winners, they’d refuse the designation anyway. Because if Harbourfront is calling you a Poetry Idol, well, that’s like calling Ron Jeremy—say, of the Surreal Life—an actor. Harbourfront has turned poetry into a reality freak show.

Shane's Battle of the Bards Ticket

I’ve written a piece already about the random selection of the Bards. You can read it here. But it was written without actually experiencing the Harbourfront extravaganza. I went to Harbourfront on March 30 hoping to look, as I have been proven to be in the past, like a fool.

I truly hoped that Harbourfront would prove me wrong. That the Battle of the Bards would be better than I thought it would be. That there would be actual poetry in the room. That I would look like I had damned something that venerated poetry. I wanted Harbourfront to be what it could be, a place where poetry could thrive. Instead, it was worse than I thought it would be.

I arrived at Harbourfront from Guelph. I got to the waterfront early, choosing the parking lot that sent profits to Harbourfront itself. I tried to get in to the Brigantine Room before the event started. I approached the grizzled matrons who blocked the door. They asked, “Are you here for The Poetry?” I nodded, a little dazed. They told me that the event would only open for seating fifteen minutes before it was to begin.

I walked away. Out in the lobby was the first surprise of the night: something was clearly about to happen. A correspondent for Poetry (Chicago) was covering the event. He recognized me, and asked me if he could get a quote sometime after the show. I said I could probably write something about The Poetry for him.

I texted a friend of mine who was reading in the event. He was eating the vaunted Harbourfront dinner, and told me so in his text response. He said he’d come down to the lobby in the next half hour. I quickly texted him back, telling him to save a bun for me from the dinner, because I’d need it when the event started. I’d need it so I could throw it onstage and see a bun fight break out.

I jest, but the rather shameful story about the Harbourfront dinner for these poets, and probably only the poets, is that when the poets initially heard they were selected by the Harbourfront Magic 8 Ball, they were told that they could bring a significant other to the dinner with them. They were also told they could have three complimentary tickets to distribute for the event. The next day, the offer was rescinded by email: the poets couldn’t bring a guest, and they had only one comp ticket to give out, probably to their Moms. I imagine some of these poets asked their wives, their husbands, if they wanted to come. And then had to approach them the next day and said, “The Poetry has done it again!”

Zachariah Wells arrived after a few minutes. We shook hands, and he asked me if I had “a whore to back in this here pageant.” I told him, “Why, the one with the most lipstick, of course!”

I walked in to the Brigantine Room a little late. I had hoped to be at the front, but I had to take a seat near the middle. Manning the entrance to the Brigantine Room were harpies; they had copies of The Walrus to foist upon the crowd coming in. Just ahead of my seat inside the room was a bent old gargoyle, a guy clasped like a folding knife. He never, ever moved, not for the next four hours. Except to smile, and smile Cheshire, whenever a poet got pornographic.

Jacob Mooney took the stage. He looked subdued and unsure. He thanked Harbourfront, which was reasonable. He personally owes them a lot. He then mentioned the format of the show. He said that there would be three judges: Dionne Brand, a fine poet and the Poet Laureate of Toronto. The other two judges were non-poets, which is fine with me. What we actually would hear wasn’t really poetry. But these two non-poets were Harbourfront functionaries, which is making the Brigantine Room stage into a Kangaroo court.

Mooney, the first and really the true incarnation of the Poetry Idol, left the stage. There was no moment when he, as is done on some reality shows, looks at the competitors and describes to them what they have to do to become the winner.

The first poet then took the stage. Think of the aircraft industry: the most dangerous times in any flight are in the take off and in the landing. Like Mooney’s new book of poems, Folk, this was an aircrash: the poet read solemnly about nothing, about nature, about how things are, somewhat, kind of achingly bad. She kept looking up from the podium, spooked by some timekeeper. It was the only instance where a poet was kept to length. For the rules were made to be broken at Harbourfront.

Gary Barwin took the stage next. I like Gary’s poetry. I think he’s a good poet. But I think his stage presence undermines the actual radiance of the poetry. Gary reads as a sound poet. WOOMAWOOMAWOOMA kind of stuff. And Gary proceeded to read a few beautiful poems as if he were possessed by the devil and burning with hellfire. The audience loved it, and the plane, like Swissair 111, was magically reassembled in the hangar. It got up in the air, but was unfortunately headed in the wrong direction. Gary cheated and read from a book that was outside the rules: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for A Prorogued Parliament. The rules clearly state that he had to stick to a book I’d heartily recommend, The Porcupinity of the Stars. Nevertheless, Harper-bashing for an Arts crowd goes down like soothing warm milk. It’s election time, right? Why not capitalize!

But I am chanting the Ides of March here: Gary read a poem that, if this were a real competition (like the Olympics, a valid comparison because it’s competition at a high level, and poetry is the province of amateurs) he would have been disqualified.

A procession of poets followed. What was remarkable about them was the sheer amount of sexuality they professed; a common strategy was the erotically transgressive poem, squirm-inducing stuff devoted to poetic subjects like hiding internet pornography from one’s wife. Rocco di Giocamo read a poem dedicated to Jacob Scheier, which was remarkable because Scheier was the correspondent for the cosponsor of the event, Toronto’s NOW Magazine.

But back to actual fucking. Kildare Dobbs wrote a whole book about satyriasis, in fact, called Casanova in Venice. His scansion was the exact same as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The sad truth about Kildare’s performance was that rhyme, which is a glorious device, was made to appear as geriatric and stiff. But, even at advanced age, erect! I felt bad for Kildare. He was dignified, and looked like he should have known better. But I suspect he, too, came to Harbourfront hoping for more.

Ed Carson went way over-time because he began his set with an introduction to the why of his book. He mentioned some event in his life, something that affected him so greatly that he would talk about it obsessively with friends. Day after day. One of his friends finally said, “You should write a book about it.” Carson unwittingly said he did the “next best thing” and he “wrote a book of poems about it.” He read those poems to us.

Jill Battson read a poem about Martha Stewart. This poem made rather uproarious fun of Stewart. It mocked Stewart’s homemaking ethic, ridiculing Stewart’s magazine’s images of scrubbed families and perfect decors, even at one time speculating about Stewart’s own perfect family. If I remember correctly, she referred to Martha Stewart Living as “décor porn”, which was a rich comment coming on this randy night. Not mentioned once was the fact that Stewart has had a disastrous home life. So Battson was perfect for Harbourfront: her poem requires a long preface, was read for entertainment value and not for the inducement of wonder. And it was oblivious to the truth.

David Groulx read. He, like Gary Barwin, got the biggest response from the audience. David read protest poetry. He is a native Indian. His poems were gritty, but again, they were political. Like Gary Barwin’s Harper poem. And in my experience, the masses at poetry readings respond most heartily to funny material, or to political material. Anything other than poetry, that’s what the audiences want from poets.

The break came. Mooney encouraged the audience to buy books. A bunch of college kids flooded past the books table at the break and got in line at the drinks table. They appeared already drunk.

I purposely haven’t mentioned the other poets in the set because I can’t really fault them. It’s not fair to club baby seals. One of the poets mentioned that she was reading from her first book of poetry, and that she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and that she was a lesbian mother. This is a rather fatal way to begin a reading, in my experience. Then again, the judge was Dionne Brand. Maybe such admissions would work in her favour. Poetry didn’t though. Alas.


But the break. I sat, looking at the gargoyle. He wasn’t smiling, because there were no poems currently being recited that mentioned wet vaginas or erect penises. “Express Yourself” was playing on the speaker system, and I started to shimmy. I saw Mooney waving his arms near the stage, and then his arms fell to his sides. I looked back at the gargoyle.

The Poetry (Chicago) correspondent came over. He wanted to move up from the back, where the college kids were getting rather immune to poetry. I bade him sit down. We compared notes. He told me that the word “tongue” was repeated a statistically impossible number of times for it to be truly random. I looked at the gargoyle. His tongue was in his mouth.

Hope began to set in again. Was it because the stage was empty? I hoped that the second set would be better; after all, it could be better. Statistically speaking, there was a fifty percent chance it could be better. If you’ve read the original piece on this reading, then you know what my major objection to this night is all about: that the selection of the poets is a random process. No one actually stands up and takes responsibility for the inclusion and exclusion of poets. Harbourfront just puts in the maximum effort required and makes a lottery of it.

But flip a coin. The next time it can come up heads! I’m thankful to say that the second half was better. David Hickey read. The plane got off the ground, and though it experienced turbulence over the next nine readers, at points threatening to plummet into the ocean, yet it stayed aloft. This is not a lot to ask of a reading that could offer the most compelling poetry published in Canada. But we got the luckiest poetry in Canada. Lucky us.

I’ve mentioned The Funny in Harbourfront’s The Poetry before. But I feel entitled to mention it again, because I was repetitively exposed to it. The dominant strategy of the poets that night was to keep ‘em laughing. Be it in the banter, or be it in the poem, the poets often exchanged their role as poets for the role of the stand up comedian. There were so many yuks, I wondered if the poets selected their poems for the evening on what I call the yuk bias: the poets read poems that got the greatest response from an audience at readings past. The yuks they got then were a faulty indicator to them of some kind of quality.

As for quality control, Souvankham Thammavongsa read her rather good (albeit delivered in an almost-mental-breakdown voice) poems in the spirit of the evening: her poems should have been disqualified too, because she read only one from Found, the book that she was unsentiently selected for by Harbourfront’s God Don’t Play Dice Plinko Machine. Souvankham writes remarkably short poems, and so she had the most in her set.

Zachariah Wells closed the night. His first comment was, “It’ll be over before you know it.” He read very well.

When the readers were done, Mooney took the stage again, and again thanked the institution of Harbourfront as well as the readers. He called poets, in the comedic spirit of the evening, “ a species of sub-troll.” Shortly after, as if on cue, a Harbourfront personality took the stage, and declared that there would be no consummation to the evening. Over three hours long, we’d leave not knowing who won. He then, as if the Brigantine Room stage were some kind of kindergarten, said that “All our readers here tonight are winners.” He said this, in fact, three times. As if he were Peter denying Jesus. I am sure of this number because I was in a counting mood, as the Poetry (Chicago) correspondent and I were already playing a Pee Wee Herman Scream Real Loud game: every time we heard the word “tongue” we looked at each other and smiled. By that time, I was beginning to look like the gargoyle.

I think the evening was filmed. I am glad there is evidence. I suspect it was filmed because, later, Dionne Brand and the Harbourfront panel pored over the tapes, agonizing over who should “win.” Slo-mo replays and all that.

I went to work the next day and fell hopelessly behind. In the midst of some disaster, I learned who won the contest. Gary Barwin, who read a poem that shouldn’t have been read, a political poem, and David Groulx, who also read poems of refusal. Souvankham got an honourable mention, and will also be invited back to Harbourfront again. Again, she read a number of poems that shouldn’t have been read. How legitimate is a contest that doesn’t follow its own rules?

Zachariah Wells also got an honourable mention. I can’t help but think that Gary and David had the most lipstick, but Zachariah had the most smears. The other honourable mention? Well, she was perhaps the true spirit of Harbourfront: I can’t remember a single word she said. Not even, regrettably, if she used the word “tongue.” NOW Magazine duly covered the event. Sheier shouted out his buddy Rocco. And in his story Scheier said that Mooney was a little “tongue in cheek” when Scheier asked him for a quote.

With this event, Harbourfront has actually used the spirit of poetry against itself. Poets are brought to a place where literature truly does matter, and they begin to think that this kind of attention is good attention. For themselves, of course, but also for poetry. And then they read at Harbourfront, and the travesty of the selection process does poetry in again: there is little poetry actually read. So poets are brought in, but not, speaking on the whole, the best kind of representatives. And most of them try their honest, inept best. And Harbourfront picks some that were honest and some that weren’t.

One Comment

  1. Rocco de Giacomo
    Posted April 11, 2011 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    Damn you, Jacob.

    We had a deal!

    A DEAL!!

    And it’s DE Giacomo, my dear boy. Mind your spelling.

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Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.