Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Robert Priest, Dr. Poetry, and the Viral Verbal Vortex

 So, here's something else that I'd like to call you attention to.  A while back, I was asked if I'd write something about the Canadian poet, songwriter, musician, and writer, Robert Priest, for the online poetry and creative writing journal/magazine, Big Bridge.   And I was very happy to do so, because I like his work a great deal, and I also consider Robert to be a friend.

So, my essay was included as part of a feature on Robert Priest, and that link will take you to the main page, with links to his books, and to my own and three other essays and reviews of Robert's work.  I recommend reading them all, and especially "Robert Priest: Poet/Minstrel in Utter Space" by Sheree Fitch. her piece is great, especially for those of us with an academic orientation!  

There are also links to his viral video, One Crumb,

and to a 2007 public reading of some of his lyrics in the Ontario legislature,

And there's also a link to his bio entry on Big Bridge, where it states

Son of a navy officer and a member of the Wrens, Robert Priest was born in Walton-on-Thames England on July 10 1951 and emigrated to Toronto Canada at the age of 4. Growing up in Scarborough, Priest developed his love of literature from the fanciful stories his mother often told him before bedtime. By the age of 8, Priest had already begun to dream of becoming a writer. In 1970, he entered the University of Waterloo to study mathematics but soon dropped out so that he could put all his energies towards poetry. He released his first book of poetry in 1979 entitled The Visible Man. He has since published 9 more books of poetry, four plays, a children's novel, and a hit song. He is also a rock singer of note, having released several albums and videos which came to prominence in the l980's and 90's. He has also performed his children's songs for Sesame Street. Currently he is preparing his second young-adult fantasy novel The Paper Sword for publication in 2014 by Dundurn Press. A new book of children's poems: Rosa Rose is scheduled for a 2013 publication date with Wolsak & Wynn. He has just released his fourth CD of songs: Feeling the Pinch. He lives in Toronto with Marsha Kirzner and is a regular contributor to Toronto's weekly magazine Now.

The author of ten books of poetry, he won the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award for The Mad Hand (1988). In his alias as Dr. Poetry he wrote and performed thirteen segments for CBC radio's spoken-word show Wordbeat. As a songwriter, he co-wrote the SOCAN airplay award-winning number one hit, "Song Instead of a Kiss" for Alannah Myles. His aphorisms have already appeared in The Farmer's Almanac and Colombo's Canadian Quotations. He is the author of four plays, including The Coming, which was co-written with Leon Rooke. Priest's musical play Minibugs and Microchips received a Chalmer's Award. His novel, Knights of the Endless Day (1993) received an Our Choice Award from the Canadian Children's Book Centre. And as for his children's poetry, Daysongs Nightsongs and The Secret Invasion of Bananas and Other Poems (2002) are on the CBC's recommended reading list.

And in case you were wondering, there's a bio entry for me as well, which I won't reproduced here because, well, after all, you know me.  But I will note that it contains a link to Blog Time Passing, of course, of course.  And you can see my essay in all of its natural born glory over on Big Bridge via the following link:  "Robert Priest, Dr. Poetry, and the Viral Verbal Vortex" by Lance Strate.  But I might as well share it with you here—you knew I would, didn't you?

So, here we go:

Robert Priest, Dr. Poetry, and the Viral Verbal Vortex

Robert Priest is also known as Dr. Poetry, which begs the question, if a medical doctor cures diseases of the body, what does a poetical doctor cure? The answer comes readily to mind: He heals the maladies of the word. The symptoms of such sickness include dull and lifeless language, eminently forgettable phraseology, swollen tongues and feverishly belabored sentences that no human ear was ever meant to hear. In response, the good doctor provides medication to counteract the sclerotic hardening of the categories, loosening linguistic arteries so that the verbal flow may bring much needed oxygen to the brain. His poetry is credited with halting an epidemic of influency, and it serves as vaccination against the spread of many orally communicated ailments afflicting creativity. Indeed, it is rumored that Dr. Poetry has discovered nothing less than the cure for the common prose.
I will return to the topic of contagion in due course, but in the interests of full disclosure let me note that I first encountered Robert Priest online, on MySpace back when it was the social network and Facebook was still a gated campus community. My first impression of Robert was that he captured a unique mix of Elvis and the Beatles, with a touch of Monty Python, and a bit of the shaman thrown in for good measure. I should add that his MySpace profile and blog pages were modest, and his interactions with others congenial, in contrast to the heavy self-promotion, competitiveness, and conflicts that characterized many others in this online writing community, amateur and accomplished poet alike. His approach was consistent with Canadian culture, as distinct from that of us noisy, nosy, nervy Americans. But I don't want to discount the individual, personal qualities of a poet who is confident in his ability, content with his success, and convivial in his outlook. Simply put, Robert is a mensch. I would also add that I consider him a friend, by which I mean much more than someone who accepted an online friend request. And we did eventually get to meet offline, when he came down to New York City to participate in a conference I had organized, and his poetry reading met with an extremely enthusiastic response from a gathering of media ecologists.
My first impression, upon encountering Robert's work online, is that he was engaged in the kind of wordplay that would have delighted Marshall McLuhan. In addition to being a media guru and Canada's intellectual comet, McLuhan was a master of the aphorism, with sayings such as, invention is the mother of necessities, the future of the book is the blurb, art is anything you can get away with, and of course, his famous maxim, the medium is the message. McLuhan no doubt would have appreciated Robert Priest's pithy and poetic aphorisms, some of which are collected in Time Release Poems (Ekstasis Editions, 1997), including
Sometimes it is the book that opens you.
Too much time is wasted in the making of clocks.
The teacher is the lesson.
These sayings are excellent examples of formal causality, as discussed in the recently published McLuhan collection, Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis Press, 2011). Robert's ability to reverse figure and ground serves to create new perspectives and understandings for the reader, illustrating McLuhan's argument that poesis can function as an organ of perception. Moreover, one of McLuhan's laws of media is that of reversal, that anything pushed to its extreme will flip into its opposite. Robert's experiments with reversal, published as Reading the Bible Backwards (ECW Press, 2008) were very much in keeping with this principle. In general, his work exhibits a sensitivity to the fact that time and space are relative, human beings can only exist in relationship to one another, and everything exists in the context of interdependent systems or ecologies. Consider, for example, several more of his aphorisms:
Good lovers come in pairs.
If you would see a parent, look in the eyes of a child.
If you change either, you change the other.
Robert's method is entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually stimulating, but it also provides keen insights into the human condition. One aphorism that I find especially moving is: People begin as dreams and end as memories. These profound metaphors for infancy and old age can be taken to mean that we begin as inspiration, and end as poetry. Before Freud introduced the notion of the unconscious mind, dreams were believed to come from outside of us, i.e., a supernatural source, and inspiration is very much about breathing life into inert material. And in ancient Greece, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses, and the source of all eloquence. Poetry was understood to be the art of memorable speech, of thinking memorable thoughts to use Walter Ong's happy phrase, and I would suggest that it remains a viable way to define (and evaluate) poetry to this day. From this point of view, Robert Priest is truly favored by Mnemosyne and her daughters.
In the ancient world, aphorisms were part of a continuum that, on the far end, included epic poetry, the classic example being the Iliad and the Odyssey, otherwise known as the songs of Homer because they were, in fact, folk songs; by the same token, poets like Homer were known as singers of tales. It is not surprising, then, that in ancient Greece, the term they used to describe someone as educated and cultured was not literate or urbane, but musical. And in this sense, Robert Priest is truly musical, as a singer of tales, a writer of lyrics, a musician and recording artist. His poetry resonates, it strikes a responsive chord, it echoes throughout the inner landscape of the mind, while tickling the tongue and dancing across the page.
Glimpses of the old, oral tradition can be found in the culture of children, who have yet to have their senses and sensibilities altered by literacy, and the musical quality of language is most readily apparent in children's poems. The mark of a complete poet, I would suggest, is the ability to compose poems and songs for children, and here too Robert Priest distinguishes himself. For example, the poetry published in The Secret Invasion of Bananas (Ekstasis Editions, 2002) invites the reader to sing along. Consider the first stanza and chorus of "Space Spaghetti":
From Aldabran came noodle man
In a saucer on a trip
He went to boiling water
And there he took a dip.
He married noodle lady
In parmesan confetti—
They had a hundred noodle kids
And called them space spaghetti.

Space spaghetti space spaghetti
Look up in the sky
Space spaghetti, space spaghetti,
You'll see some fly by.
There is the requisite fun with food, nature, and science fiction and fantasy themes in this volume, as well as some play with popular culture, such as the poem, "Darth Orange", as you can see from the second stanza:
Darth orange, darth orange
He was such a bad fruit
He came here to conquer
In his orange space suit
But when he saw luke banana
He knew it was no use
Now there's no more darth orange
Just darth orange juice
There is more to Robert's poems for kids then just silliness, however, as he also summons images of beauty and mystery, for example in this last stanza of "Stargirl":
There was no beginning
There will be no end
To other lands
This message send
There is nothing
That can bring delight
Like a silvery ship
That can ride on light
And there is also a conscience in evidence in this collection, in poems like, "In the Next War" which begins
In the next war don't drop the bomb
drop the excess wheat
Drop the sacks of grain and powdered milk
we have too much of
Send our best men over in daring flights
their bombers full
of fish eggs huge cheeses
and birthday cake icings
In medieval Europe, theologians argued that God communicated to humanity through two different books, the book of scripture and the book of nature. This view is wonderfully expressed by the author of Reading the Bible Backwards in a poem entitled "Wild Books":
A dove book it came down
and landed in my hand
and there it sang its song to me
at last upon the sand

A fish book it swam by
I saw upon its scales
memories of treasures
from long forgotten tales

The water book its waves they roared
and carried vessels high
It lifted oars from shore to shore
and fell down from the sky

The sand book it came to me
I turned its many pages
The wind blew and the desert moved
my mind across the ages

I opened up the book of souls
it sang in my hand like thunder
I looked at last in the book of stars
and I stared all night in wonder
Dr. Poetry is quite the pediatrician, but he is also on the cutting edge when it comes to working with viral infections. The metaphor of going viral on the internet is a popularization of a neologism introduced by the biologist Richard Dawkins, and widely adopted within cyberculture, the meme. Dawkins had argued that genes, as self-replicating bits of DNA, are the true units of evolution, and that organisms are just devices genes use to reproduce themselves—talk about reversals! Dawkins also speculated that ideas, phrases, and the like are also self-replicators, using human brains to propagate, and he called these basic units memes. This notion did not get much attention until the popularization of the internet in the 90s, when people could actually see the spread and reproduction of messages through email, bulletin boards, and social media such as MySpace. Doug Rushkoff gave the term meme a more familiar nickname in his popular book, Media Virus! (Ballantine, 1994), and our Dr. Poetry has been working on a series of innoculations that he calls meme switches, and that will be made available in published form in the near future with the title of Splice Mix. This includes, under the heading of "The Spice/Splice Meme Splice" sequences such as
The splice of life
The splice garden
The splice trade
Herbs and splices
Sugar and splice
A splice box of earth
Splice girls
Old splice
Splice it up a little
Some recombinations are quite incisive, as can be seen in this excerpt from his critique of organized religion via the "God/Gold Meme Splice":
There is no gold but gold
Gold is perfect
Jews Muslims and Christians
All worship the same gold
The church is the house of gold
Other memetic edits are delightfully ribald, for example these first few lines from the "Arts/Arse meme splice":
Of late we have seen a decline of the arse
If we as a society cannot support our arse then we are in grave danger
People need arse
A thriving arse scene is a measure of a country's soul

I am a master of the dark arse
I got a fine arse award
I love the arse
I dedicated my life to the arse
These manipulations have an uncanny way of uncovering hidden truths, as when Robert reveals, in "Big Bother is Watching You" that, "all men are bothers, in the eyes of god" or, in his "Iron/Irony Meme Splice" that, "the hull of the titanic was made of solid irony."
I have not emphasized the fact that his switches are reciprocal, so that he gives us "The Poetry/Poverty Meme Splice" that includes "epic poverty," "slam poverty," and the observation that "performance poverty is very popular these days," and also a reversal in the form of "The Poverty/Poetry Meme Splice" that includes remarks like, "as long as there is poetry in the world, I will not rest," and references to "the rising poetry rate amongst people of colour." Clearly if a new goddess has joined the pantheon in recent years, one called Memesyne, then she too favors Robert like no other.
It has been a great pleasure to get to know Robert Priest over the past several years, to interact with him, trade quips, and provide feedback. As a doctor of the poetic, he has cured me of the blues and the doldrums on many occasions, and for that I am grateful. But I must be honest here, and warn you that his medications are quite habit-forming, resulting in an addiction that is almost impossible to shake. And as for his recombinant wordplay, reversals of sequence and meme splicing, they are downright contagious. Robert Priest's poetry represents the kind of epidemic the world could really use. Catch it, if you can.

 And there you have it.  I'm looking forward to listening to his latest feeling the pinch CD, which I'm told is somewhere in transit between Toronto and New York City.  In the meantime, one of his new songs can be heard online, it's got a great, Beatlesish sound to it, but I do have to warn you that it makes liberal use of a four-letter word, in case you are offended by such language.  If not, check it out.


adele daney said...

Poems for kids

Picnics poetry offers a large assortment of children poems, including evergreen children classics and original poems for kids on a variety of themes in fun and interesting ways.

Mamun said...

Nice post

exuberant poems