Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leonard Cohen World Tour 2010

When it was first announced that Leonard Cohen was coming to Charlottetown to play one night - May 18, 2008 - I didn’t even consider going as I knew I was going to be off-Island. But if I had, I would have been terribly disappointed: the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, which holds 1,102 people, sold out at $72 a pop in a record 52 minutes. To add insult to injury, so many people tried to buy tickets online that they crashed the Confed Centre’s website. It was unheard-of.

I consoled myself with the fact that maybe he’d be playing in Vancouver while I was there, but alas he was not… and I only got to hear the reviews from friends: “a phenomenal concert,” “the best I’ve ever been to,” “the old guy still has it,” “he sang for over three hours without a break,” “his back-up singers and band were fantastic,” “what a professional,” “he’s still got what it takes.” Hmm… Jealous? Yup.

And then there was the Leonard Cohen tribute concert in April in Victoria, organized by my friend Henry Dunsmore because he was one of the many disappointeds who couldn’t get a ticket. It was a memorable night, where so many of Leonard’s songs came alive for me, sung by friends of all ages, with the fabulous house band of Jon Rehder, Remi Arsenault, Reg Ballagh, Michael Mooney, and Peter Bevan-Baker. It was especially wonderful because it was the first time Mike and I sang together in public – me with “Suzanne” and him with “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye,” backing each other up with harmonies. Sigh…

Little did I know then that I’d get my chance to see the real Leonard Cohen only months later. Not in Charlottetown, Halifax, or Vancouver, but in Hobart, Tasmania. It was The Leonard Cohen World Tour 2010.
 I can’t remember where I first heard that he was coming – but it was pretty soon after I had arrived. I went online to see if I could get tickets, but the cheap ones ($139!) were gone. And as much as I wanted to see this Canadian poetry icon, I couldn’t justify a $194 “good seat” – not on a student’s budget. Pete’s wife Anna suggested I might be able to find a cheaper ticket by checking out the classifieds in the Mercury (the local paper) – but in the end, it was word-of-mouth, the most powerful purveyor of information, that got me there. I happened to mention all this to Ralph Wessman (publisher of Famous Reporter and Walleah Press) and Jane Williams (poet extraordinaire) on the drive to Launceston for the Poetry Festival in early October. From the driver’s seat Ralph piped up that an e-mail had just come around his office that day – apparently someone from Canberra had bought two of the expensive tickets for himself and his partner. When he went home and said, honey, guess where we’re going November 15, she said, honey, I don’t like Leonard Cohen. (I’m thinkin’ that might be grounds for divorce in my house!) So he was trying to sell hers for $150. I said to Ralph: please send me his e-mail address! So on Monday, he did; I fired off an e-mail; and Andrew in Canberra said sure, you can have it… see you on the 15th. He put the ticket in the mail; I transferred money into his account; the ticket arrived; I showed it off to my fellow students at Tuesday tea and cake time. Then he decided to sell his ticket, too. Turns out he could get to the concert at Hanging Rock (yes, an outdoor concert on Nov. 20 under the stars at the iconic Hanging Rock!) more easily than coming to Tasmania (after all, we ARE an island here!). I sent around an e-mail to the Geography Department saying there was another ticket available, and it went, too.
I knew that Pete and Anna, along with their friends Derek and Jan, had bought their tickets six months ago… so I boldly asked if I could hitch a ride with them. They said sure – so we left Monday after work to drive to the Derwent Entertainment Centre (an arena-type venue that seats 5,000) a short distance outside the city. Anna suggested that we go early to beat the traffic, and have a picnic supper. Of course it was raining, so we sat in lawn chairs underneath an overhang by the utility entrance and had Anna’s marvelous salmon quiche, Jan’s salad made with greens from their garden, Laurie’s chocolate cupcakes (surprise, surprise), and some wine from Stewart’s wine cellar (he told me I could help myself, really!).
When the doors finally opened, the rest of my happy party went in one direction and I went off on my own to find my seat. I felt just like I did boarding the Icelandair flight in New York City to discover that I was in Business Class: my seat was fantastic! I was down on the main floor, seven rows from the front, and right in the middle. I waved to my friends in the nosebleeds…  After a while the woman who bought Andrew’s other ticket came along: Anne Hughes. Of course she knew Pete and Anna (after all, this IS an island!). Her musician partner and Pete had collaborated on some music and poetry events in the past. We marveled at our good fortune, and she said she quite enjoyed getting to know our ticket seller. He told her to watch out for the homesick Canadian who would be sitting next to her…
Before settling in to my seat, I wandered around a little, checking out the stage and the merchandise... 
When one of the ushers noticed I had purchased some of the merchandise, we struck up a conversation. She told me that a group of 22 teenagers were sitting just behind where we were standing. So, curious as to why such young kids would be there, I went over to talk to them. Apparently they had written a fan letter to Leonard Cohen, telling him that they play some of his songs in their band at school. So Cohen’s manager wrote back from Beverly Hills – and offered them 22 free tickets. Talk about class! The kids, from Eastside Lutheran College (along with a couple of dad chaperones), could hardly sit still – they were THAT excited. They said that “Hallelujah” was their favourite.
So... what can I say? The concert was amazing. Leonard came out in his signature fedora and black suit, and from the moment he opened his mouth to sing “Dance Me to the End of Love,” he had us in his the palm of his hand. His voice is just as deep and gravelly as it ever was, his lyrics as poignant. He plays guitar on several of his songs, and a tiny preprogrammed electric piano on one. (He joked that he doubted that anyone else had that kind of technology…) At the age of 75, he can get down on his knees to sing – and back up again without missing a beat – which he did regularly. It was especially touching when he knelt in front of his guitar/bandurria/laud/archilaud-player, Javier Mas from Spain, or sang with and to his musical collaborator and back-up singer Sharon Robinson (who co-wrote and produced his 2001 album, Ten New Songs), and to Charley and Hattie Webb, his other two singers. (I want to be a back-up singer when I grow up. Although I’ll never be able to do cartwheels in tandem like they do!) He interacted with everyone on stage, and twice introduced – or, rather, paid homage to - each of them with descriptors that only Leonard the Poet could pull out of his black fedora: sublime, impeccable, high priest of precision, shepherd of strings, signature of steady, architect of the arpeggio... 
Even though they’ve been doing the show for three years, and this is their second time through Australia, the act was fresh and exciting. He even mentioned "Hobart" in one of the songs, so the audience knew that he knew where he was... You could tell that everyone in the band loved being on stage with him, and Leonard’s appreciation for them was obvious. Indeed, an article in one of the papers talked about the family atmosphere he creates, and the mutual respect they each have for the other – Leonard treats them like equals. And it shows.
The first half of the show was great, but it wasn’t until after the intermission that I found myself engaging emotionally. Sure I was excited to be in the presence of a Canadian poetry icon... and to be with other like-minded people so far away from Canada was amazing... But I didn't feel that real connection with the music until after the break. The second half was simply fantastic. Maybe the songs were more upbeat, or maybe they were all really getting into the groove. There wasn’t much banter – and what there was was poetry. Real Leonard Cohen poetry. Spoken by Leonard Cohen. Like the way he did “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” It made me remember kisses. How good they can be.
Sharon Robinson did Boogie Street, with Leonard and the rest of the band doing back-up. Dino Soldo, “the master of breath,” who plays all the wind instruments – and on this song a soulful saxophone that brought much applause - was totally in awe of her performance, pushing back all the accolades to her. And the Webb Sisters did a gorgeous duet in one of the THREE encores. Leonard bounded on the stage at 8:15 p.m., and bounded off at 11:40 (with “Closing Time”), with a 20-minute break in the middle. Stamina or what…
I can’t say that it’s the absolute best concert I ever went to – but then I'm hard-pressed to name the best concert I ever went to. (Maybe Billy Joel when I was 18 and my ex-boyfriend bought me a ticket – one ticket – so I had to go on my own to the Vancouver Coliseum… memories of that experience no doubt mixed up in memories of cruel teenage love gone wrong…) But Leonard Cohen would be a close second for me. I just wish my sweetie, who bought me the ticket for my birthday, had been able to share the magic, too! (I bought him a T-shirt… I know, I know, such a cliché…)

Here’s the set list, courtesy of Maarten Massa...

Dance Me To The End Of Love
The Future
Ain’t No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
The Darkness
Chelsea Hotel #2
Waiting For The Miracle

Tower Of Song
A Singer Must Die
Sisters Of Mercy
The Gypsy’s Wife
The Partisan
Boogie Street
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (poem)
Take This Waltz

So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan

Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
Closing Time

Photo from the souvenir program (Dominique Issermann)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Manifold Gifts of Place”

John Cameron is a lovely man. You know it to look at him, you know it when you read his work, you know it to hear him, and you know it to talk to him.

I’d first heard of John when I went to Bruny Island with Pete and Anna, just after I arrived in Tasmania. Pete told the story about their neighbours, John, a retired academic and his artist partner Vicki, who had bought a shack on Bruny just down the road from theirs after visiting them for a few days. It was a story about serendipity – which involved a canoe, a photograph, and a heron that kept moving – which I stored somewhere deep in my memory bank. Later when Pete gave me a copy of a book John edited, called changing places: re-imagining australia, I sort of made the connection with John and Bruny, but not quite. Even after I met John, at Linn Millar’s Friday Forum on “Telling Places in Country,” and we’d had a wonderful conversation about islands and place, it didn’t click. But it was during our conversation that he told me about the essays he’s writing for an American academic journal devoted to phenomenology. His Letters from Far South are imaginative pieces that chronicle his explorations into Goethean science but which are firmly grounded in his and Vicki’s experience of living on Bruny Island. It was in his first letter that I read the story of the canoe and the photograph and the heron that kept moving. And the penny, as they say, dropped.
So when I heard that John was slated to speak at Friday Forum on October 29, I knew I had to spend some time with his letters, to get to know more about this man and his story. It was the most enjoyable reading about place and attachment to place that I’ve done to date. If all my background theoretical reading could be like that, this PhD business will be a breeze. (But I already know it’s not!) 

John is a storyteller and a scientist, a poet and a philosopher… a keen observer of his surroundings using all his senses, including the sixth one which science doesn’t usually allow a place for. Formerly a senior lecturer in Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney, he taught place theory grounded in experiential learning and field trips, and founded a series of five national "Sense of Place” colloquia (which, unfortunately, are no longer running). I urge you to check out his letters - elegant in style and generous in spirit.

Letter from Far South: the story of how a canoe and a photograph and a heron allowed him and Vicki to make Bruny Island their permanent residence;
The house on Bruny Island (photo by Jenny Scott)
 Second Letter from Far South: “seeing with the heart” the geomorphology of Bruny’s Blackstone Bay;
Third Letter from Far South: Inhabiting Intercultural History: how, in a manner bordering on the surreal, they acquired "Blackstone," a beautiful and historically significant piece of prime waterfront land adjacent to theirs when it was meant to be sold for big bucks at auction; on it they had discovered a sod hut dating back to 1829 when George Augustus Robinson was beginning his “Friendly Mission” on Bruny Island;

Fourth Letter from Far South: how they’ve learned to reduce their ecological footprint without falling victim to what environmental critics call the “mentality of lack” – eloquently described through the learning curve they undertook when they decided to generate their own electricity; and
Fifth Letter from Far South: A Question of Action: The Grasstree Story: what they’ve learned about the fragilities of life and the complexities of ecological systems through applying Goethean science to the grasstrees on their land, some of which are dying.
John’s talk on Friday, then, was entitled “The Manifold Gifts of Place: Stories from Blackstone, Bruny Island.” With Vicki’s photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures playing out on the screen over his shoulder, he talked about the abundant gifts he’s received since moving to Bruny – starting with what the heron gave them: life on Bruny itself, as well as the gift of attentiveness. (But he admitted, like most of us, he often needs to remind himself to put down his pen and pay attention.)

“The gift of Bruny is a daily reminder of a way of being,” he said. “We are learning to live within our ecological means. The more I accept these gifts and the limitations that come with them, the more I accept the sense of abundance in life.”
Basing his talk on gift theory as presented in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Vintage Books, 1999), John said that to receive these gifts is not a passive act; it must be reciprocated, or passed on, because the gift that does not move loses its property. Each time a gift is passed on, it increases in value: physical, social (creating community and connectivity), and spiritual. It becomes, then, a “labour of gratitude.” He said that the sense of indebtedness is part of the labour of gratitude, as is the need to communicate what they have experienced through their creative work: John’s writing, which helps him to make sense of their life on Bruny, and has become an integral part of his life there; Vicki’s sculptures, paintings, photography and illustrated poetry which are a direct response to Blackstone's natural environment and the traumatic post-colonial history of Bruny; their petition to the Tasmanian Heritage Council to protect the remains of Robinson’s sod hut; and their involvement in the Bruny Island community. Indeed, one of their acts has been to regenerate their 55 acres of degraded paddocks by replanting it with thousands of trees with the aim of creating sanctuary for wildlife. He said, “When we first came, there was a feeling of melancholy that permeated the land, through the story of Robinson and Truganini, and the loss of habitat for the animals [through land clearance and sheep grazing]. Aboriginal friends have told us that the land here is quieter now.”
 He ended with the thought that "gift exchange with place is a wonderful way to bring practical expression to philosophical ideas such as the need to develop reciprocity with the more-than-human world.”

Partway through the talk, I wrote the word “grace” in the margin of my notebook. This fits John to a “t.” His writing made me think of some of my friends who try to live lightly on the earth; indeed, on Friday afternoon, before the talk, I’d sent links to John’s letters to some of them, hoping that their gift might provide some kind of affirmation that what they’re doing is a good thing – just in case they ever need it. And it makes me aware – before “mental turbulence” takes over – of the gift I’ve been given: to be here on this beautiful island, to be learning new things and to be making new friends. I realize that I am privileged at this stage of my life, just as John and Vicki are, to be in a position that many can never be, for whatever reason (quite often financial!). And that is to do what you love, and follow where your heart takes you.
John Cameron (left) with Peter McQuillan (Geography professor whose office is just down the hall from mine)

A few words about Goethean science, based on an article of John’s called "Place, Goethe and Phenomenology: A Theoretic Journey." He wrote this in response to a conversation he had with phenomenology guru David Seamon (who created and maintains the American academic journal where John’s essays can be found). In encouraging John to recognize the enormous value of the experiential teaching practices he had developed and to go even deeper into phenomenological enquiries with his students, he suggested looking at Goethe’s precepts, which followed “an intuitive approach” to wholeness rather than an intellectual approach “in which natural phenomena are explained through generalization and abstraction by underlying mathematical laws” (181).

Goethe suggested different stages, beginning with active looking at an object, then visualizing “what has been observed in as much detail as possible entirely in the imagination”; and, in so doing, developing an “exact sensorial imagination.”

John then explored the concepts with two people who were theorists and practitioners of Goethean science: Henri Bortoft (his book is The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Towards a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996)) and Isis Brook (her 1998 paper is entitled “Goethean science as a way to read landscape” in Landscape Research, 23(1)).

Henri Bortoft described the first two of Goethe’s stages as visualizing a phenomenon using the “space behind the eye,” then moving down the body to the chest to visualize it from “the heart space.” Between his work, and that of Isis Brooks, the four stages are as follows: 1) to observe an object carefully and draw it in detail by looking at it directly and then from memory; 2) to experience “exact sensorial imagination,” where you perceive “the time-life of the phenomenon, seeing it as a being with a past and a future and imagining, visualizing what these are” (185). 3) to “draw out the gesture” or “impulse” of the object, by drawing or describing it over and over again (you can also use a creative medium such as clay or sculpture or poetry, which certainly caught my attention); which will then allow the object to “reveal its essential nature” (this part takes lots of practice!); and 4) “intuiting the responsibility that accompanies coming to know another being from the inside” (188) and passing it on to others in the best way you know how.

In the paper John describes clearly his own first attempts at getting to know a place, in this instance, a granite tor on the Cornish coast of England. And he says that his letters are further attempts at developing what Goethe called bildung, “the schooling of intuitive faculties in the practitioner, which enables greater sensitivity and more holistic awareness of the natural world” (Fifth Letter).

The practice reminds me of a writing exercise I did once with Nova Scotia nature poet Harry Thurston at the Tatamagouche Centre years ago. He asked us to sit with an object in nature, to observe it and to draw it, then to describe it in words using freefall writing or a list – whatever we were comfortable with. Then he asked us to become it, to write its life force, again using freefall. Then finally we were to infuse meaning into it and to shape it into a poem. I’ve included it below.

All this is making me wonder about islands: is it possible to understand that “intangible” of islands - what makes islands special and so attractive to so many people – islandness, if you will - through this process? I’ll let you know...



Your roots go deep, but not deep enough to reach the river 
where I see you splayed slippery on the bank’s muddy edge, 
branches a crazy quilt weave of limbs, leaf tips trailing like 
a child’s fingers over the side of a boat or a woman washing 
her hair.

Instead you’re here in this barren field, yellowy leaves with 
spotted underbellies tired in sun that etches fissures into your 
bark, skin a crusty scab.

Blink, I look again. Your knots wink as finger-thin branches 
beckon me in.

Drawn to your shade, I nestle in the whale’s-eye hollow at 
your base, welcome your cool canopy, live branches like 
the ribs of an umbrella overhead, dead ones stiff as Medusa’s 
snakes turned to stone.

My skin wakens to the crunch of your fallen leaves, urged to
life with air currents that play me along. Veined leaves tributaried 
as the insides of my eyelids, I fill my hands with them and 
slide them down, down, between my fingers, my tongue, leave 
traces of my oils, close my eyes and see me growing into you 
on your riverbank, your leaf whisper later the only sound I hear.