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September 26, 2014

Pen-in-Hand Poetry and Prose Reading Series

Featured Readers (Sept. 15): John Barton, with Chris Gudgeon, Lukas Bhandar, and Yusuf Saadi

Next reading: Oct. 20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

The Pen-in-Hand Poetry/Prose Reading Series takes place on the third Monday of every month at the Serious Coffee in Cook Street Village. September’s lineup featured celebrated local poet John Barton, whose most recent collection, Polari, was released by Goose Lane Editions this spring. Reading with Barton (pictured) were Chris Gudgeon, multi-faceted author of the novel Song of Kosovo and nonfiction book The Naked Truth: The Untold Story of Sex in Canada, among many other works; Lukas Bhandar, whose essay “I Love My Hair, I Hate My Hair” is published in Issue 4 of Plenitude; and Yusuf Saadi, whose poem “Spacetime” appears in the recent “Speed” issue of Vallum.

At the playful instigation of Chris Gudgeon, the four scheduled readers performed in two short rounds – something like a literary debate, though without acrimony. As part of a series engaging historical Canadian homophobia, Gudgeon read “Fruit Machine,” about a grotesque real-life device once used in an attempt to weed out homosexuals from the Canadian civil service.

Yusuf Saadi, an MA student at UVic, told the audience that he had just arrived in town a month ago and was impressed with Victoria’s famously walkable proportions. His poems, often tightly bound by a single metaphor, spun metaphysical and astronomical images into meditations on distance and duration. His lines, in poems like “Spacetime,” were laden with rich verbal elaborations. Interested readers can also find his poem “Breaking Fast” in PRISM’s Summer 2014 issue.

To my ear, John Barton’s experiments with traditional form have brought a new playful tone to the poems of Polari. “Shirtsleeve Weather,” written in heroic couplets, showcased this recent interest. Speaking about the five-stanza glosa “Closing the Gate of Sorrow,” Barton explained that the glosa began with a quatrain from another poet’s work, then used the following stanzas to elaborate on the quatrain, each stanza finishing with a borrowed line. Barton chose a section from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Lukas Bhandar, reading fourth, gave us an excerpt from his Plenitude essay, a personal and critical reflection about body hair, ethnicity, and, as Plenitude points out, “the racism of gay beauty standards.” In a vivid and intimate anecdote, he recounted the laborious process of attempting to shave his legs – and the sensation of waking up the next day. A journalism student at UVic, Bhandar is an intern at the Malahat Review. Readers may also have caught his performance at Pride and the Word 2013.

After a short break, the writers returned for a second round. Unfortunately, the coffee shop had to close precisely at nine o’clock, so that instead of a second act, their return became a coda. Each author read only one more poem or section of prose. Gudgeon made the most of his time, reading out “Canadian Tourister”, a caustic incantation of warped Canadiana – hypnotic, profane, and provocative. Bhandar’s essay was least well served by the cutoff, and several audience members called out their disappointment when he had to stop short. Hopefully, they were all driven to finish the essay in Plenitude.

I encourage readers and poets to attend the Oct. 20 Pen-in-Hand reading. The organizers, particularly host Amy Ainbinder, create an informal and welcoming environment.

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