Writing, Speaking, Reading, Listening: In Tandem with Lisa Robertson and Laura Broadbent

What is the shape of a sound? Is a sound the essence of a word, the word being an accident of a sound, or is a word the essence of a sound, the wellspring of meaning to which everything returns? And what is the word’s colour? The sound's weight? What metrics do we use, consciously and not, when engaging with the page or the speaker? Where do we locate them--the text and the author, the sound and the speaker--in time and space? What can we learn if we commit our closest attention to our poets?  


When I arrived at Concordia’s York Amphitheatre, which was housing a reading by Lisa Robertson and Laura Broadbent, the room was already almost full. I was five minutes early; there would be no punk-time tonight. The air was charged with a kind of excitement that is not always present at poetry readings. I found a seat at the very back and watched people find space on the floor, stairwells, and along the walls—pretty much anywhere they could fit.

I went into this event knowing virtually nothing about either poet. Earlier in the day I participated in a marathon reading and performance of Robertson's 1998 Governor General's Award finalist Debbie: An Epic, which I absolutely loved. The event was organized by Writers Read and it gathered nearly twenty writers to grapple with, interpret, and reify Robertson’s dense poem as a group, through choral speech and movement throughout the English department. For an hour and a half the group occupied hallways and stairwells, filling the otherwise silent spaces with the incantations and lamentations of Debbie, making the text into sound--and that sound into something physical, embodied, visible. The Writers Read organizers are focusing their energies this fall on hauntings--how literature, its texts and readers, oscillate between visibility and invisibility, permanence and impermanence. This weekend they start their Off The Page series, which includes readings by authors like Evie Shockley and Trish Salah, as well as collaborations with The Void and Soliloquies. Last weekend, however, I went in blind--gleaning only what Tatum Howey and Tessa Liem chose to reveal and celebrate in their introductions.

When Broadbent began speaking, even before she read any actual poetry, the focus in the room tightened; when she read from her suites of poems, the crowd became an admixture of casual observance and palpable catharsis. Her poem, "Things Said In a Domestic Setting", in which two lovers try to describe what the other means when they say “mean things that mean mean things”, generated waves of laughter that rose and fell with the grace of the poem itself. From her most recently published book, In on the Great Joke, Broadbent read Lao Tzu’s hypothetical application for a professorial position at Concordia, in which he describes with cosmic candour, his syllabi and teaching methods. The poem was light by nature but heavy by way of profundity; I could feel each chest lighten with every laugh, each mind sink into tranquility with every insight--the size of the universe doubling” as each person became more comfortable in it. Broadbent’s measured use of sound, the masterful delivery of her circular poetry, the sensitive and innovative appropriation of timeless wisdom: life made harmonious.

Robertson approached the stage differently: she leaned into the microphone and just started reading. Almost instantly my sense of time dissolved. I was struck by how unusually slow she was speaking, how she seemed to be nailing every word to a different focal point in the room as if weaving a psychic web among the audience—breathing her will into the ecosystem of every syllable. As she continued I became dislocated from the actual poetry, uncertain where and even if poems were ending and beginning. I found myself hypnotized by her cadence—which was relentless—and the seriousness with which she was constructing these worlds in speech. I felt I was listening to someone who occupies some region on the margin of space-time, as she recounted scenes and experiences with extreme, almost omniscient precision. This individual, with her ultimate purview, has the power to reveal to us things that we may never apprehend about ourselves, or the world, with her words--with their shape, weight, colour, and sound: life made extra-sensible.

Listening to Broadbent and Robertson read was an incredible privilege. It was an experience of the power of sound to communicate what is fundamentally human—not just linguistically, but intuitively—by the sheer force of being spoken. But above all it was a showcase of generosity. Having spent eight years at Concordia, Broadbent's sincerity was unaffected—in her performance and responses. And when Robertson was asked who she would consider her literary precursors, she responded that she would like to consider herself writing in tandem with everyone engaged in the art—with Virgil, just over 2000 years removed, with Broadbent, standing right next to her. On this evening these two poets contributed masterfully to the tradition of tirelessly distilling life lived into sound for the benefit of those willing to listen.


Books by both Robertson and Broadbent can be found at the Concordia Co-op Bookstore. Information on upcoming Writers Read events can be found here.

-- C.G