Stumbling upon a reading: “Up the Ottawa Without Despair” – December 21st, 2009 by Maxim Cossette
It’s Thursday, December 17th and I find myself at the Raw Sugar Cafe, it’s on Somerset, half a block West of Bronson. Mary Clayton’s soul infused version of “Southern Man” pumps through the room at an agreeable volume as crips dressed women and men settle and chat in this cozy, eclectic room.
Tonight launches the fifth chapter of local writer Brendan McNally’s novel, “Up the Ottawa Without Despair”. Scavenging the internet for fun things to do tonight, I stumbled upon this event listing on Ottawatonite.com and know precious little about the show. However, I had the honor of being a member of the first musical act to grace this cherished venue, so I’m always game frequenting this cool establishment.
Familiar faces start to pop out of the crowd and I recognize one of the names on the poster. I’ve seen Amanda Abdelhadi perform comedy before and she was quite funny. Dave O’Meara, it turns out, is the same lanky, lovable Dave who serves at the Manx. A few years ago I worked at the Manx and while slicing a bucket of potatoes I happened upon a news clipping about the Gord Downie using some of Dave’s poetry as lyrics. We had a good chat about it and my esteem grew for this warm and humble man.
I see a distinctive gentleman standing in the middle of the room, he must be Brendan. He has one of those faces like Vince Halfhide, not esthetically speaking, but in the way that it’s so recognizable, it’s a pillar of the Ottawa arts community, like a living totem pole.
The peppermint tea soothes my smoke and coffee ravaged throat while approving glances fall from this community of writers as I scribble away in my black leather bound notebook. Right on time, the show starts and Sandra Ridley goes up first. Images of lush vegetation swirl with feminine body parts, all being grounded by the thick roots and good love of an old tree. Her words conjure instances of spontaneous growth intertwined with brittle death, sprouting from ragged decay. I wish I had the written version of the work in front of me, so I could pick it apart with a dictionary, meticulously cherishing each delicate beat. Soon her smooth delivery carries me away, I learn to sit back and allow her jagged yet soothing atmospheres to be formed in my mind. Ephemeral environments and mythic characters sway to bouncing rhythms, creating gritty and fantastic moments, then they slip away as she starts her next poem. The crowd gobbles up every morsel and I wish she was on for longer.
Dave is up next, apparently he has a hearty list of laurels and as soon as he goes into his first selection, the deservedness of his recognitions is made apparent. Dave echos the simple mastery of Denis Leary, if Denis were taking on all forms of perturbing and sometimes volatile subject matter. “Power Boat” is about a real life English boat racer who had a horrible boating accident, went into a coma, legally died twice, got upset when paramedics had to cut open her brazier and then went on to do more racing. His work is inspired by things he reads and the result is a varied examination of individual struggles and triumphs from all over the world. His work offers moments of dissonant thought patterns framed by the tempestuous anxieties of teenage reality. Every thursday between 6:30 and 7pm, you can hear Dave on CKCU, he hosts a show called Literary Landscape. Chatting with Dave, I find a man sustaining a high level of creative output. The result is ever improving work and increasing visibility. He tells me that being a poet doesn’t always pay very well, but it has it’s perks. He was invited to read at a writers festival in Orkin, found in the Yorkie Islands of Northern Scotland. A recent highlight was an on-stage interview with Nick Cave at the local St. Brigid’s writer’s festival.
Seeing Brendan’s face around the city for so long, it’s a pleasant shock to hear a soft but striking Irish accent escape from his lips. The reading series was created to expose his new novel, Up the Ottawa Without Despair and to raise money for a much needed dental operation. His demeanor is of measured exuberance, cracking one cornball joke after another as his stories expose us to the beautiful aspects of all things low and dirty. The first selection hits a nerve with my personal history; it’s a first person narrative about a young, poor but intelligent and sensitive man hitchhiking up from Ottawa to Wakefield and back, before that quaint little town was the tourist destination it is today. A reference to “The Outsiders”, is paired with the brutal reality of the entrenched violence in poor Lowertown. Flowery writing this is not, gritty displays of raw, bright life are juxtaposed with bleak hopelessness and sorrow. His dismantling of the Santa Clause myth is a piece of disgruntled holiday magic. The debunking of St Nick’s soft power culminates as a hung over, self-described hater of children takes on the roll of mall Santa. Amanda Abdelhadi contributes back-up voice acting, creating much appreciated layers of comedy. I liked it when the stoned elf was giggling.
DJ Eric Komosol playes tasty tracks as a musical bed to Brendan’s dynamic performance; smooth jazz and deep soul are the grooves of the evening. Enlisting DJ Eric for the party was a wise decision, he made excellent song choices, had smooth transitions and helped created that quintessential book-party atmosphere. If you ever need a good DJ for a party, look him up.
All and all it was an enthralling and thought provoking evening with plenty of humor and good tidings.
There’s something special about accomplished and talented authors presenting a vocalized rendition of their written work. Hearing distinctive emphasis, interjection and pauses, creates an über-intimate, utterly unique experience. Nadia has created an inviting environment of the Raw Sugar which nourishes and encourages all varieties of artistic expression. So go to the Raw Sugar whenever it’s open, especially next month, when Brendan presents chapter six of the house band series.
I look forward to seeing you there.
Maxim also blogs: http://maximk7.blogspot.com/