The New York-Montreal Express
“I can’t keep going back to Montreal”—Lenny Bruce
The Montreal poetry scene was absolutely hopping in 2002. That sounds a little ridiculous now, a little Brucian, and I wish there was a New York-Montreal Express to bring me back tonight. It’s 3:16 a.m. in California, 2002 was a lifetime ago, and Kaie Kellough was a touch younger. Mia Rose Brooks was handing out author copies of throw the captain overboard! like sweets. And the musician and radio activist Stefan Christoff was getting harassed by the cops. Plus ça change.
A week after Greg Ford’s and my apartment burned down, a strand of the UDP/Loudmouth continuum took a roadtrip from New York to Montreal to perform at the Casa del Popolo—something we called an Anti-Reading. I’d never been, but I knew Montreal was an iced coffee shadow of New Orleans and that I had a vast extended family there—Poirier being Canadian for Bacon, especially among truck drivers and squirrely anarchists covered in pins. How could have I known, though, that Montreal had my name on it?
The fire, keyed by a cigarette in a red velvet couch, had been high enough to blow out the windows of our second-floor flat. Nearly the entire run of UDP’s latest issue of 6x6 went up in flames beside skiffs of Presse ephemera, halfbuilt books and hoarded paper. All of Greg’s notebooks going back ten years took the smokth amendment and hundreds of LPs sang as they burned—strains of melted funk horns still cling to my nose hair. I spent a week drifting the East Village in a fire-damaged suit jacket, noodling on a red-and-white plastic flute with a bunko circular breathing technique. By the time we hit the road for Montreal I was a veritable free-jazz Fu Manchu on the flutophone, but I still couldn’t play Popeye the Sailor Man.
As I was going out the landlord was coming in. The sun was full and it was a glorious spring morning all over New York City, from the L.-Ron-blue sky down to the landlord’s shoes whose high shine was evident even through the plastic bags he’d rubberbanded to his ankles. He was wearing dust-gray pinstripes with a brocade tie and he was short enough to sockhop with Prince. He didn’t say a word, just stood there in a foot of water between brick walls excavated by torches of exploding mimeo fluid, staring at a huge pile of paper mush in the middle of the room. If The Thing had been a movie about an ungodly morphing pile of poetry magazines, the landlord would have been the director of the biggest flop Hollywood had ever known.
Watching from the sidewalk on Duke Ellington Drive as the flames poured from the windows, I hoped they would destroy everything I owned. Eight hours earlier in the basement of CBGB’s, Peter Brotzman had given me a new hairdo with his sax and watching the fire I could see Brotzman leaning into the impact his horn was making on the floor. I wanted the fire to do that to my books and my bed and all of the pictures and maps covering my walls. But when I walked out of the apartment that morning, I stopped at my desk and my notebook was open, the poem right where I'd left off—and the short Lorca poem taped to the wall above my desk was still legible through the soot.
It was called “Alba.” I’d never noticed this before. It was in Spanish. If I’d ever understood it, I didn’t now. What did that even mean, Alba? I needed to get some sleep. Rocking my neighbor’s yoga pants, bussing flapjacks of triplicate from Red Cross, I made my way up Columbus to my friend Pete’s place. And right at the corner of Morningside Park, hauling ass past the cathedral on the hill came a jolly red and green truck emblazoned on its tankard with spiky gold letters: ALBA HOME HEATING.
Montreal completely knocked me out. It’s always amazing to come to a place in total ignorance of its poetry traditions and history—and in the case of Montreal, those things are so deep and radical there’s really no excuse for ignorance—but it’s especially great to be invited to traipse into a city with a group of likeminded roustabouts, all of whom are fully in the dark about the cultural jewel heist they’re about to botch through sheer self-satisfied myopia. Not that anyone actually showed up to the Anti-Reading at Casa del Popolo to see us pull it off with a twist. We would have had a much bigger audience if we’d just shown up at the bar out of nowhere. I mean to say, the organizers probably repelled any potential audience by advertising our show...
However, the organizers themselves happened to be incredible artists and poets—and they did stay for the Anti-Reading and participate in that self-styled poetry carnival that we’d been slaughtering (Halal) in New York since a month after 9/11—at a string of long-lost institutions.
What’s the latest from the Montreal poets? I get turned around every time I try to go there online. The internet has no serendipity. But if you want to tickle some roots, the book to look for is Impure: Reinventing the Word, subtitled The theory, practice and oral history of ‘spoken word’ in Montreal. Cumulus Press brought it out in 2002 and it’s a big but compact book (262 pages, 7.5x9 trim) full of snapshots, reproduced ephemera, essays and interviews. It was edited by Victoria Stanton and by Vince Tinguely, whose show “Kitchen Kitchen Bang Bang” now airs on CKUT Radio. The book charts Montreal poet history going back to the 60s (John Giorno in a cameo role—and who is Endre Farkas?) with a definite emphasis on performance and group dynamic poetry, not excluding core samples of street rag and zine culture from the French/English DMZ of artistic ferment in Quebec: recently the hub of the biggest student strikes in the world. For a quick hit on that nexus, visit http//howlarts.net/words.
Poet Julien Poirier grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and was educated at Columbia University. He has described his poems as a system or a conversation already in progress, aligning observed and spoken ephemera with sound echoes, tracing the movement of a restless mind across themes of politics,...